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Child hit by a stray bullet

By Jean Yaeger

Kaitlin Bates and her three young children heard a loud popping sound while walking on a nature trail one day last summer.

At first, Kaitlin thought their stroller had run over something, possibly a snake. Then her 18-month-old son Jace started screaming. Kaitlin was shocked to see blood flowing from a hole in Jace’s knee. The child, sitting in the stroller, had been shot.

The Bates family’s trip to a nature center in Wichita Falls on August 11, 2022 turned tragic because someone fired a gun. Was the shooter aiming at the boys and their mother? Or was Jace accidentally hit by a stray bullet? No one knows.

Whether or not the shooter intended to cause harm, the consequences were severe. The bullet tore through cartilage, ligaments and tendons and also severed a bone fragment from his tibia. Jace required surgery, followed by months of physical therapy to regain use of his left leg.

“Jace is so resilient,” Kaitlin said. “He slowed him down for a while and he was in a lot of pain for a while, but I think Jace has the beauty of ignorance because he’s so young. He never knew what happened. He didn’t know he was a shot.”

Jace was one of 42 children and adolescents treated at Cook Children’s Medical Center for gunshot wounds in 2022. Most of those patients were 11 years of age or older, although some were infants or preschoolers. Five died of their injuries.

Hospital data shows that guns accounted for nearly half of the gunshot wounds treated at Cook Children’s last year. Traumatic injuries have also resulted from shotguns, BB guns and airsoft guns, which use compressed gas to launch pellets.

In an effort to reduce injuries and deaths caused by firearms, the Cook Children’s Aim for Safety® program promotes awareness and accountability to help protect children from accidental shootings. The program emphasizes three basic steps:

1. Safe Storage – Keep firearms unloaded and indoors out of the reach of children. Use triggers and weapon safes. Protect ammo separately.

2. Safe Kids: Teach your child not to touch if they see a gun or someone pointing a toy gun at others. He teaches them to run and tell an adult.

3. Safe Play – When using non-powder guns, remember never to point an air gun or pellet gun at another person. Wear safety glasses when using a paintball gun, gel ball gun, water ball gun, or soft foam gun. Before a play date at a friend’s house, find out if guns are kept in the house and how they are protected.

Daniel Guzman, MD understands Texas hunting culture; he is a firearms owner himself and complies with the Second Amendment. But as Cook’s children’s ER doctor, he also knows danger. Dr. Guzman started Aim for Safety® in 2017 after the life-changing experience of treating a 4-year-old boy who was hit by a brother’s accident. The child died of his injuries.

“No one is here to talk about keeping a gun from anyone, but there are definitely things we can do to minimize injuries,” Dr. Guzman said. “The number one thing that comes with gun ownership is safe storage and accountability.”

In Jace’s case, maybe the shooter hit the boy on purpose. His parents think the most likely scenario was inattention… the shooter pulled the trigger not knowing what or who might be in the path of the bullet. Aim for Safety® wants to prevent such tragedies from happening.

Jace can once again walk, ride a tricycle and romp with his older brothers. Kaitlin and Justin Bates are grateful for their son’s recovery, but don’t know if the injury will impact his growth or cause complications when he’s older. Here’s a closer look at the events and care Jace received at Cook Children’s.

Bullet out of nowhere

The bullet entered at a downward angle, entering through the inside of his leg and protruding as a knot on the outside of his knee. Kaitlin unstrapped Jace and ran with him in her arms the short distance to the nature center. She screamed for help.

“There was blood everywhere. Jace’s leg was just bleeding,” Kaitlin recalls. “I was just looking at it and trying to gauge what happened. I saw a perfectly round hole in his leg.

Two of Kaitlin’s former schoolmates were there. They comforted the older Bates brothers, who were frightened and crying. Someone called 911. Another guest offered a first aid kit, and Kaitlin sat Jace on the bathroom counter. The two women made a tourniquet and applied pressure with paper towels. But the bleeding didn’t stop.

“Jace was starting to pass out,” his mother said. “He had lost a lot of blood and had stopped crying. He was very calm at this point.

The ambulance took Jace and Kaitlin to a local hospital, where doctors put a soft leg on him and arranged for them to be transported by helicopter to Fort Worth. Kaitlin knew it was a bad injury and she wanted to see pediatric specialists at Cook Children’s. The ER was ready and waiting to give Jace a scan and painkillers to get him through the night.

In surgery early in the morning, two incisions were made to remove the bullet and to wash the wound of debris that could cause infection. Jace was cast from groin to left toes. The next day he returned home.

The cast prevented Jace from leaning on his leg. Normally a boisterous fireball of energy, the boy couldn’t stand when the cast fell off a month later.

“He could not bend or straighten his leg. He was frozen in that position,” Kaitlin said. “It was exhausting. He was in a lot of pain. she will grab him by the leg and start crying.

Twice-weekly physical therapy sessions in Wichita Falls provided stretching and climbing exercises to help Jace improve his strength and range of motion.

Cook Children’s will continue to monitor Jace, who limps when tired. Doctors don’t know how the growth plates in the knee might respond to the injury. Arthritis could potentially be another long-term complication.

Jace’s parents aren’t against guns. In fact, they practice guards at home because Justin owns a firearm.

“As a responsible gun owner myself, I never imagined that someone’s negligence would affect my family in this way,” Justin said. “It is imperative that firearms education be taught in our communities with an understanding that a firearm is a tool that should be used, maintained and stored responsibly.”

His parents suspect that the bullet that hit Jace came from a gun fired blind from a neighborhood or city park outside the downtown wildlife park. As of January 2023, the shooting remained unsolved.

“Maybe someone was just shooting into the air and didn’t realize that what goes up must come down,” Kaitlin said. “Really, I do not know. There’s a lot of crap in this world, so maybe someone did it intentionally. But overall, my husband and I are really on the page of someone who fired a gun without knowing what was behind him, which is as stupid as doing it intentionally.

Jace getting shot was one of the scariest things his parents ever went through. They don’t want other families to go through what they went through. But they rely on faith and see blessings throughout the ordeal. Kaitlin points out that if she had pushed the stroller one step further down the path, Jace could have been shot in the head or heart instead of the knee. He may have been killed.

“We constantly pray that the Lord will use it to bear a powerful testimony in all of our lives, especially Jace’s,” she said. “We pray that one day Jace will learn how much God loves and protects him and that Jace will spread that love to everyone he meets in his life. Regardless of the circumstances, God is still good.”

Access and risk

As the medical director of Aim for Safety®, Dr. Guzman works to spread the tripoint message of Safe Storage, Safe Children, and Safe Play through school presentations and community events. He and the program have reached thousands of families, provided hundreds of locks and safes for safe storage, and distributed more than 3,000 outreach and educational resources.

In 2022, he gave presentations at eight elementary schools and six community events in the Fort Worth area. The program also includes online classes offered through Cook Children’s Center for Children’s Health.

“I wanted to go out and talk to families and remind them of the importance of storing firearms safely, unloaded and locked in a safe,” Dr. Guzman said. “I’m not here to make a political statement. I’m here to educate families and protect our children!”

Its goal is to help people understand the risk of gun ownership, similar to the risk of drowning that homeowners can proactively reduce by installing fences and locked gates around a backyard swimming pool.

Frequent conversations with your child are vital. Teach them never to touch a gun that they might find in a purse, nightstand drawer, vehicle, or other location. But even families need to put barriers in place to limit access. Dr. Guzman estimates that Aim for Safety® has given away 175 gun safes and more than 1,000 gun locks in the past two years.

The national Gun Violence Archive website lists 314 fatal shootings of U.S. children ages 0 to 11 in 2022. Unintentional shootings can be prevented, Dr. Guzman pointed out. He never wants to hear another grieving mother in the ER say she didn’t think this would happen.

“I know my kids like to explore. They are curious about things. They will play hide and seek and play with things they might come across,” she said. “Again, it’s not about intimidating anyone. It’s just about protecting our children.”

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