Ulysses Johnson had extensive hand surgery at the Curtis National Hand Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital, after being shot in the hand during a robbery.
Ulysses Johnson had carried more than a dozen large bins full of donated clothes out of the back of a U-Haul truck in West Baltimore on Sunday afternoon when a passerby approached with a warning.
It would be naive, the man told him, to think some of the people visiting the annual Thanksgiving food-and-clothing giveaway on Pennsylvania Avenue wouldn’t just take bags of clothes around the corner to sell at a profit.
“I’m not trippin’," Johnson responded. “At least they aren’t going to rob somebody to get a couple dollars. Maybe I’ve just lowered the crime rate for the night.”
Plus, he pointed out, as people looked through the donated clothes: “People really need this stuff.”
The 36-year-old from Radnor-Winston in North Baltimore knows better than most how much of a difference a couple of dollars can make. He was shot in the hand over change in his wallet in a 2010 robbery that left him feeling depressed, disabled and, eventually, driven to help those less fortunate.
“Sometimes it takes tragic things to see things differently," Johnson said.
On Nov. 3, 2010, Johnson was sitting on his friend’s porch at the corner of Ready and Winston avenues when he was approached by a teenager on a bicycle, he recalled.
By the time Johnson heard the bike fall to the ground and looked up, he was staring at the end of a shotgun barrel.
“Kick it out,” the teenager said, demanding Johnson’s money.
In a split-second decision, Johnson said, he grabbed the gun. But before he knew it, the man pulled the trigger and fled. The blast left a large hole in Johnson’s left hand and pellets in his calf.
At first, Johnson wanted revenge. He would play out scenarios in his head. But as time passed in the hospital bed, he realized he had known a lot of people who died of gun violence ― but not many who survived.
Four of Johnson’s childhood best friends were shot and killed in the city, he said. A fifth was stabbed to death.
“Thinking about all my friends who got shot and died,” Johnson said, “I just can’t take anything for granted.”
Two years after surviving the shooting, Johnson founded Positivity Builds Generations, a small charity for Baltimore’s Penn-North community and others.
On Sunday, he brought the U-Haul full of clothes to offer to those at the Thanksgiving food line organized by Shelby Owens, who has served outdoor hot meals in the neighborhood for every holiday since 2008. Owens, former owner of the nearby Cozy Coin laundromat, also brings food and clothing donations to the homeless near St. Vincent de Paul Church each week, she said.
“The least I can do, to give them something to eat,” Owens said.
Lauretta Fooks moved through the buffet line with daughters Miracle, 6, and Trinity, 5, as volunteers filled their containers with turkey, corn, mashed potatoes and stuffing.
“This is wonderful,” Fooks said. “It’s a blessing.”
Johnson’s dedication to the community sets him apart from other shooting victims, said Dr. Ryan Katz, the surgeon who treated Johnson at MedStar Health’s Curtis National Hand Center in Baltimore.
“Most people will recover and get back to work,” Katz said. “There’s only a few people who recover and in that same community where he [was injured], he’s devoting himself to making them better.”
Last year, there were over 800 nonfatal shootings in the city, according to Open Baltimore, the city’s online records database. In 2018, the Curtis National Hand Center treated over 30 victims shot in the hand or arm area, according to Medstar Health spokeswoman Carrie Wells.
In Johnson’s case, the bullet had ripped through tissue, bone, veins and nerves. The first challenge was on Katz to put everything back together. The second was for Johnson to persevere.
“We were able to get his wounds to heal,” Katz said. “But if he’s not into using his hand, that’s a life-altering disability.”
Hand injuries can cause impairment not only in function but also in self-expression and identity, Katz said.
“Hands, like faces, are highly visible, unique to the individual and used to communicate with others,” Katz continued. “Devastating hand injuries ... can be the source of significant social and emotional distress.”
When Johnson was first admitted to Medstar for hand surgery, he described reality as “a bad dream that just kept going on."
“I felt disabled,” Johnson said, “I kept questioning, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ I just walked outside and almost lost my life.”
Over three years, Johnson completed a dozen surgeries. He lost his pinky and needed leg tissue sewed onto the side of his hand to cover the hole.
According to Katz, emotional recovery also is crucial to overall healing.