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Spirit endures in bullet's wake

The 6-year-old girl climbs off the couch and onto the living room floor, scooting toward the stairs. She props herself up, placing her left hand against the wall, then her right, and slowly makes her way up the steps. Her brothers and sisters wait on the second floor of their Southwest Baltimore rowhouse as her mother stands at the base."There you go," Danielle Brooks tells her young daughter.Eight months after she was critically wounded by a bullet to the head, Raven Wyatt is home.

This didn't seem possible last July. While walking with a cousin to buy beads for her hair, Raven was struck by an errant bullet that police say was fired by a teen who fought another with his fists and returned with a handgun.A slug was lodged in the area of the brain primarily responsible for motor movements. She fell into a coma and wasn't progressing the way doctors had hoped. The outlook was bleak.

As Brooks, 31, kept a daily vigil over her daughter, the recurring crime-scene image of her tiny pink sandals surrounded by yellow tape served as a cold reminder that despite the city's declining crime rate, gun violence remains an all-too-common occurrence in neighborhoods that can seem beyond repair.

But if the injury to the city's youngest shooting victim of 2009 served as a call to action for those working for safer streets, her recovery might be reason for hope.

On Monday, the teen accused of pulling the trigger is set to go to trial. Lamont Davis, 17, has been charged with attempted first-degree murder. His attorney claims surveillance-camera footage will clear his client and plans to pin the crime on someone else.

The court proceedings are far from the mind of Brooks, a single mother, and Raven's four siblings, including a twin brother named Raymond. Raven, who they call "Mama," came home from Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in late January, but her recovery continues. She visits the hospital five days a week, where she eats breakfast, attends school, and participates in physical and occupational therapy. She rides bikes and swims, and plays with other children.

For a mother, the process was agonizing and protracted. But Brooks said she never lost hope and speaks matter-of-factly about a recovery others consider extraordinary.

"Everybody is so amazed," Brooks said. "But death never crossed my mind, because I ain't get that feeling. I'm strong, and my kids [are] like me."

A shot fired, a life changed

The shooting occurred just after 4 p.m. on July 3. Brooks, in the process of moving the family from their Wilkens Avenue home, was getting Raven ready for Independence Day festivities when she sent her, along with a cousin, to a nearby shopping center to buy beads for her hair.

The next thing Brooks can remember is a frantic phone call, followed by a neighbor driving her to the 300 block of S. Pulaski St., where Raven was lying in the street, unresponsive. She saw blood. As they followed the ambulance to University of Maryland Medical Center, she had no idea the bullet had entered the girl's head. But the police officer who rode with Raven in the ambulance told Brooks that the girl had been squeezing his hand. That sounded like good news, Brooks thought.

Raven was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors induced a coma. The bullet had entered her frontal lobe, the brain's emotional control center, and ended up in the cerebellum, which helps with motor control and balance.

Colleen Smith, a 29-year-old Kansas native who does missionary work in Southwest Baltimore, had been at the shooting scene moments before the gunfire broke out, dropping off neighborhood kids after a church summer camp wrapped up for the day.

Through people involved with Charm City Church, Smith reached out to Brooks and asked if she could help. All Brooks asked for was a blanket.

Smith put together a care package - including a blanket - and brought it to the hospital, sparking a relationship between the family and the church. Smith was impressed by the large number of family members who had gathered. She was equally amazed by Brooks' composure.

"Honestly, I'm surprised she [Raven] made it to the next day," Smith said. "But in the room with her family, there was hope. They accepted where they were at in that moment, and were going to work through it."

The household move that was taking place at the time of the shooting compounded the family's troubles. While Brooks' attention was divided, the old home was boarded up by the landlord, joining the dozens of the vacant properties that scar much of blighted Carrollton Ridge. Apart from a kitchen table, all of the family's remaining possessions were lost.

Journey to recovery begins

By the end of July, Raven had been transferred to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. Brooks stayed with her daughter most days, catching the No. 35 bus or the hospital shuttle early in the morning after sending her other children to school. She wouldn't leave the hospital until 10 p.m. most nights. Whether it was Brooks or her father, Wallace, someone was there almost around the clock, reading to Raven or just sitting by her side.

Unlike portrayals on television and in movies, comatose patients aren't in a deep sleep, but are simply unable to respond to their environment, said Dr. Brenda Elliott, a neuropsychologist at the pediatric hospital. Raven couldn't talk and couldn't move, unless reacting to pain.

Brooks admits she was initially unsettled that the unresponsive girl's eyes were open.

"I feel as though she was looking at me," she said. "I think she knew who I was."

Progress began. Before her transfer to Mount Washington, Raven smiled when Brook's planted a kiss on the girl's cheek. Doctors were poised to place a breathing tube in the girl's throat and a feeding tube in her stomach when Raven suddenly started breathing on her own.

Physical therapist Sonya Johnson-Branch said there were times when it seemed Raven wanted to move but couldn't muster the strength.

Little by little, she improved to the point where she was participating in physical therapy, but she still wasn't speaking.

Then one day Brooks got a voice-mail message. It was Raven's speech therapist, holding up the phone as the girl said "Hi" into the phone, over and over. Brooks hadn't shown much emotion during those tough early days, but now she was elated. She called everyone she knew.

"Mama said hi! Mama said hi!" she gushed.

Raven celebrated her 6th birthday in the hospital on Nov. 19, with staff throwing her a "princess" party, complete with a wand and crown. Around that time, Wallace Brooks said he was sitting bedside when his granddaughter called to him.

"What's on your mind?" he asked.

"Didn't I come ... from nothing ... to something?" Raven asked.

What a statement, he thought. He asked her to repeat it. She did. He asked around the hospital, wondering if someone had put the idea in her head. No one knew what he was talking about. So he looked up and asked, "Lord, did you tell her that?"

"I said it," Raven responded.

"I knew that man wasn't ready for her yet," he said.

Therapists began to take her outside, exposing her to real-world situations. A trip to Chuck E. Cheese showed she was only able to throw a skeeball overhand; they then helped her work to relearn a rolling motion.

For a time, Raven was shy or got upset when overstimulated, and she had difficulty controlling her muscles, all complications of the injuries to various parts of her brain.

Those problems have subsided, though her speech is slowed and her movements stilted. The slug remains lodged in her cerebellum.

Johnson-Branch, the physical therapist who has worked with Raven since she arrived at Mount Washington, said recovery from brain injury is not uncommon. Young people can be remarkable healers, she said. But Raven's work ethic and spirit set her apart.

"We have miracles every day, but I think what surprises me about Raven is that she so wants to be the Raven that she remembers. She has such drive to do better."

Raven came home in late January. She has a wheelchair but has no interest in being confined or slowed down.

"She hates this," Brooks said, pointing to the chair against the wall. "You can't even get her to look at this. She wants to be all over the place."

Raven's spunk and sass have returned, her mother said. Brooks recalls introducing her to someone. Raven's reply: "Mom, who is that dude?" She's not afraid to speak up when she needs something.

"I'm hungry," Raven chirps. Brooks leads her to the kitchen table and places a slice of cheese, a handful of Ritz crackers and a small glass of fruit punch in front of her.

Raven reaches slowly for the crackers, picking up two and fumbling until she's holding the one she intended to pick up. She takes a sip of juice and starts to cough. Brooks pats her back.

On Feb. 4, Raven made a surprise visit to the weekly kids night and Bible study at Colleen Smith's Charm City Church. She was wheeled no more than a few feet into the green-carpeted sanctuary when she was swarmed by the other children, most of whom didn't know her but had been praying for her and writing cards.

"Almost 100 kids standing around Raven praying is beautiful!!!!" Smith wrote on her Twitter account that night. The kid's night is now a fixture in her schedule.

Brooks has reluctantly accepted assistance and insists the family is doing fine. While a city awaited news on her daughter's condition, she asked that the hospital not release updates. She spurned requests for interviews. And she wondered why so much interest was heaped on her family.

Brooks is now scouring the Internet for jobs so she can start working again once Raven's therapy is stepped down to three days a week.

Suspect 'was a child himself'

She says she's not particularly concerned about the criminal proceedings for Davis, the shooting suspect who police and prosecutors say removed a home-monitoring bracelet before committing the crime. His trial is expected to begin with motions hearings Monday.

Because of his age - and because Raven was not the intended target - she harbors no ill feelings.

"He was a child himself," she said. "He just need to get his life together and just do the right thing."

As for Raven's prognosis, her doctors and family are proud of her success and hopeful that her condition will continue to improve. Johnson-Branch said most recovery will occur in the first year, and they're "shooting for the limit."

"A lot of it is the patient's drive to want to be better and to want to be back to where they were," the therapist said. "I can tell you: This young lady is dynamic. She knows what she wants, she knows when she wants it."

On a recent weekday afternoon, what Raven wanted to do is climb the steps - repeatedly. She later slipped into her mother's black, pink and green Reeboks, trying to clop through the living room. She keeps asking when they can go to the store.

"I knew my daughter was going to make it through all of this," Brooks said, "and now look at her."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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