April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University
Nearly Killed at 15 by a Bullet That Tore Through Her Brain, Vada Turns Experience Into Art
By Margaret Ramirez
AS HER FELLOW art students set up their easels in a painting studio at LaGuardia Community College, Vada Vasquez takes out her iPhone and taps
on the screen to bring up a gallery of images that have come to define her.
There are vibrant paintings of red lotus flowers and a series of still-life sketches in charcoal. But a finger swipe past her artwork is a sequence of horrific images — photographs of Vasquez herself. One startling photo shows a close-up of the left side of her shaved head, sliced open, sewn back together, leaving a jagged, bloodied seam of 73 stitches. It was taken soon after the day in 2009 that she was struck in the head by a stray bullet and nearly killed, at age 15.
Vasquez describes the photo as both disturbing and inspiring. More than three years after the shooting, she still grapples with migraines, speech difficulties and panic attacks — daily reminders of the enduring physical and emotional impact that a single bullet can inflict on a victim of gun violence. “People say you can forget things, but you don’t,” Vasquez says. “It stays with you for the rest of your life.”
But she says she keeps the haunting portrait close to remind her of how far she’s come since that day. She survived against all odds and spent months in rehabilitation. She returned to school, graduated on time, and enrolled at LaGuardia last fall as a fine arts student. There are days when just getting to school is a challenge. But sometimes when Vasquez looks at that picture, the painful sight of the cross-stitching running across her head motivates her to keep going. In some ways, she says, the shooting has given her a resolve she never felt, and direction to her life.
“Before, I really didn’t care about much,” she says. “It was all routine for me. I didn’t find anything important. . . . Before the accident, I would have days when I felt really down. When I have those stressful days now, I look at those pictures and find a way to keep going, you know, keep the ball rolling. I know I have some purpose.”
On Nov. 16, 2009, Vasquez, dressed in her Bronx Latin School uniform, was waiting for her bus home from school when she was hit by a stray bullet in a gang-related shooting. The bullet shattered the left part of her skull but miraculously passed through her brain without killing her. Doctors performed life-saving surgery to remove the bullet fragments, but privately gave her only a 5 percent chance of surviving. A week later, Vasquez emerged from her coma and began the difficult road to recovery.
Three months after the shooting, doctors re-grafted her skull and covered the missing section with a metal plate that remains hidden under her dark brown hair. She had to learn to walk and speak again. One of the things she spoke about was gun violence. The shooting sparked widespread outrage in the city, and only weeks after she left the hospital Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited Vasquez to his annual interfaith breakfast to discuss with religious leaders ways to curb gun trafficking. She later appeared with Mayor Bloomberg at an event to call for changes in background checks.
Last year, after another innocent child, 8-year-old Armando Bigo, barely survived a random gunshot by a 15-year-old gang member in a Bronx
bodega, Vasquez wrote an article for the opinion section of the Daily News. “So many innocent people, young and old, are affected by gun violence day by day,” she wrote. “But now, it has passed its limit. Children are going through unnecessary pain. Gun violence can change the life of an individual instantly. A good example is me.” She directed her thoughts to Armando: “Don’t give up. Just keep on.”
The issue of guns in America has only grown more intense, of course. But as lawmakers and lobbyists debate tougher gun-control measures in the wake of the slaughter of children in Connecticut and other mass shootings, Vasquez is focused on her own private struggles with the consequences of that single moment more than three years ago. Aside from the migraines and panic attacks, extreme temperatures in winter or summer can make the metal plate in her head excruciatingly painful. And her lingering speech problems make her self-conscious in class.
Still, Vasquez feels a strong desire to continue speaking out, and she is determined to make her most difficult public appearance of all later this year — at the trial of the five men charged in her shooting. She says her mother doesn’t want her to go but she’s set on it. She wants people to know how the shooting has changed her, and what her life is like today. “In order to move on, I have to let stuff go,” she says. “I have to let people know exactly how I felt, the way everything worked out, and how I go through life day by day.”
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Like many young, artistic people, Vasquez has a distinct personal style. It is a mix of artsy fashion, heavy metal and touches of goth. She wears a black wool coat covered with silver zippers and studs, and black leather combat boots laced loose on her feet. She’s usually seen in one of her collection of T-shirts declaring her love for the heavy metal band Slipknot, and adorns her ears with tiny smiling skulls, the face of Jack Sk
ellington, the animated star of her favorite movie, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
On weekday mornings, Vasquez wakes early, just after 6, so she can make it to LaGuardia’s campus in Long Island City in time for her 10 o’clock class. It isn’t her attention to dressing that requires the extra time. Because of the injuries to her brain, she is afraid she will get lost on her way to school. Riding the subway from the Bronx to Queens, she takes note of where the conductor is — just in case, she says, she forgets her stop and needs to ask directions to get back.
“There are two things in life that scare me: spiders and getting lost,” she says with a laugh. “I’m finally starting to manage the ‘getting lost’ thing.”
Less easy to control are the panic attacks. They strike every time an ambulance roars by, siren blaring. “It’s a trigger,” says Vasquez. “Mentally and physically, I feel weak and sick. It makes me bring up everything.” It happened once as she stood outside the college waiting for a traffic light to change. Her throat closed up, making it hard to breathe. She started to sweat and became frozen in place. She handled it the way she has taught herself.
She convinced herself that the person inside was going to be all right, and the feeling went away.
Vasquez has always loved art and showed talent from an early age. But after the shooting, she discovered it could also be a kind of therapy. In the early months of her rehabilitation, before she recovered her ability to speak, she used her sketchbook to help release her anger and frustration. “It made me love art more than I did before,” she says. “Instead of doing something negative, I can do something positive when I get stressed out. I look at my art when I’m done and I’m like, ‘Wow, I created this because I was so stressed out.'”
In painting class, Vasquez is known for her warm smile and bold use of color. Dahlia Elsayed, an assistant professor of fine arts who taught Vasquez last fall, says that she has an artistic maturity not often seen in beginning students. “Often, when given an open assignment students say, ‘I don’t know what to paint’ but Vada has never had that issue.” In November, when students were asked to select a topic for their final project, Vasquez painted a series of masks. She said they illustrated the two sides of her personality: The tough survivor portrayed on television and in newspapers, and the young woman, hidden from public view, trying to find purpose in her life.
Vasquez finds self-expression in painting, but speech is a lingering difficulty. LaShonda Allen, her speech therapist at Lincoln Hospital for two years, says Vasquez has made remarkable progress since the shooting. She has gone from not being able to speak at all to carrying on most conversations with relative ease. But sometimes she hesitates, unable to recall a specific word to express a thought. She might use a word that sounds similar, or use many words to express the word she has forgotten. “She might say, ‘I’m going to go take the transit system that’s available underground today,'” says Allen, “as opposed to saying, ‘I’m going to take the subway today.'”
Vasquez gets upset when she makes mistakes and sometimes seems overcome by embarrassment, even shame, about how the shooting damaged her brain. Vasquez’s mother, Gemma, recalls sitting in a parking lot with her daughter recently, deciding on a place to eat. “Instead of saying ‘Panera,’ Vada said ‘pandora,'” her mother explained, referring to the chain restaurant. “When she realized the mistake, she sat in the car and started to cry and she’s like, ‘Look at me, I’m 18 years old and making mistakes with words like this.'”
Some of her difficulty with speech might be exacerbated by the challenging transition from high school to college work, says Allen. “She is at a very different level of education, so her brain is having to go from something that she has recently mastered to a new level,” says Allen. “I can see how she might be having some difficulty.”
At their home in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx, Gemma Vasquez prepares for the upcoming trial of the men charged in the shooting of her daughter. Prosecutors from the Bronx district attorney’s office call often to update mother and daughter on what to expect in court. Gemma emigrated from Trinidad in the 1980s, a single mother with four daughters. Vada was born a few years later. Asked about the day her daughter was shot, Gemma becomes quiet and tears begin to stream down her face. “For me, it hurt a lot and it still hurts up to this day,” she says.
To strangers, her daughter “looks great and she’s smart and she’s doing all these things,” says Vasquez. “But you don’t live with her. If you lived with her, you’d know what she goes through. You’d know what her days are like. Some days she gets up and she’ll have a great day. Other days, she gets up and will have an outburst.”
Vada’s bedroom is her sanctuary and art studio. It was painted red, her favorite color, by one of her sisters while she lay in a coma in the days after the shooting. One day recently, she sat in the bedroom and reflected on her first semester of college. She’s thinking about adding psychology to her major, she said, and maybe one day combine it with art to help others recover from the emotional trauma of gun violence.
She says she will continue to speak out in favor of stricter gun laws, and she wants the chance to speak about her life when the men charged in her shooting are tried. But she doesn’t want to be labeled a victim.
“Saying I’m a victim of crime,” she says, “it’s like I’m trying to get sympathy, and I don’t want sympathy…. I found a value for myself. I have a reason that I want to keep on going.”