Living through the violence, hoping for the best

The Baltimore Sun

Carlos Woods turns 10 today.

Ordinarily, that would not be a remarkable event. But the last time I saw Carlos was in April 2001, his tiny body on an adult-sized stretcher, surrounded by paramedics pushing him through a crowd of crying neighbors on a narrow East Baltimore street, a police officer screaming for people to get out of the way "so we can get this baby out of here."

Carlos had been shot in the head while retrieving his juice bottle from the doorway of his Chapel Street rowhouse, hit by a bullet fired by one man shooting at another man who tried to escape through Carlos' living room. Doctors gave the 2-year-old less than a 50 percent chance of surviving.

A prosecutor at the suspect's first court hearing told a judge, "This is as bad as it gets."

I visited Carlos last week. After writing about a string of children who had been shot and killed in the city over the years - a toddler in a barber's chair, a girl getting a cup of ice, a child throwing a football - I had to see someone who had survived.

Carlos lives with his great aunt, 37-year-old Nicole Coombs, who took custody of him when his mother, who was 14 when she gave birth, couldn't handle the complicated care. He is in a wheelchair - suffering from symptoms similar to those of cerebral palsy - unable to form consonant sounds, and with braces on his legs and arms to help his coordination.

"We just hope for the best," Coombs told me. "Whatever Carlos is able to do, we'll encourage him. Just him being able to eat is a step forward. Just to put his food to his mouth is a challenge. Right now, he doesn't put his spoon to his mouth; he puts his head down to his spoon."

Carlos has a feeding tube, but he can eat soft food - his favorite is a McDonald's burger, which has to be mashed up so he doesn't choke. He smiles constantly, to the point that his doctor once wondered how anyone could know when something's wrong with him. He knows the names of his 7-year-old sister and Coombs' own two children, wants to participate in playtime and alerts his aunt when his siblings misbehave.

He can say, "Yea" but can't say "No." For that, he shakes his head. He gave a wide, shy grin when his great grandmother, Rosetta Marks, mentions he has a girlfriend on the bus that takes him to the William S. Baer School for children with special needs.

"He can identify Beyonce by the song," Marks says. "He knows her voice, and he kicks his legs when her songs come on." Adds Coombs, "He'll let you know what he wants. Like now, he's trying to open a Christmas present. We hid it behind him so he won't see it. He gets excited when he sees somebody he hasn't seen in a while."

Carlos has had at least five surgeries, most recently by Baltimore neurosurgeon Benjamin S. Carson, who this summer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. He spent months at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and when he returns there for therapy, nurses and doctors who first treated him when he was shot rush over to visit. He's a celebrity patient.

Doctors are reluctant to predict what Carlos' future will be like. He has already exceeded their expectations and is saying new words every day.

Carlos lives with Coombs in her Washington Street rowhouse. I met them at his great-grandmother's house a few blocks away on Rutland Avenue, a day care center of sorts that Marks likened to a way station for working relatives. In between is Chapel Street, where Carlos was shot.

Marks was at work as a correctional officer that afternoon, and she rushed to the scene, still in uniform. She only remembers the crush of people that filled the alleyway and a bystander who performed CPR on her great-grandson.

Police said the shooting was retaliation for another shooting on the west side, which was in response to an even earlier shooting on the east side. Back and forth the gunmen went, leaving a trail of wounded in what authorities said was a dispute over drug turf that lasted a week.

The man who shot Carlos, Kenneth A. Kelley, pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and was sentenced to 11 years in prison, with time starting when he was first incarcerated April 27, 2001. State prison officials said he was released Aug. 27, having served a little more than seven years, and is on probation. He now lives two blocks from Marks.

Coombs said she doesn't want to think about what happened to the gunman. "I couldn't focus on that or whatever punishment that person deserved, because I had to put my energy into helping Carlos," she said. "It's unfair - life is unfair. Whatever happens is between him and God."

What makes it more difficult is that Coombs, like Marks had, works as a correctional officer at a state prison. Every day she deals with gunmen and killers and drug dealers. She said she purposely forgot the name of the man who shot Carlos; she didn't want to accidentally run into him behind bars.

Marks, too, has been hit hard by violence. Her son was shot and killed in 1985, as was her grandson in 2003. With Carlos, that makes one victim in each of three generations.

Marks and Coombs have had daily contact with the people responsible for turning Baltimore into a killing field. Both have lost loved ones and now, through Carlos, share a living reminder of what happens when drugs and bullets mix on urban streets.

Carlos has no idea what happened to him. On Thursday evening, he sat in his chair clutching a pencil with the television droning in the background. With some coaxing, he managed to shake my hand and shout "Yea" when Coombs finally succumbed and allowed him to open a Christmas gift early.

It was a Superman sketchbook.

Coombs' 7-year-old daughter, Jordan, bounded over and gave him a hug and a kiss.

Carlos smiled.

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