4 years ago today, I was held up at gun point in an attempted robbery and was shot twice in the process. This single entry blog was written as a means for me to share my experience as well as to help me close a chapter of my life which has become such a dominating scar both emotionally and physically and ironically has become a tag associated with me. People who have heard me share my experience in person might forget my name and face, but they always remember me as "the guy who was shot", well to that I say, no more, I am much more than an unfortunate incident.
This will be the fourth and hopefully final time I will attempt to pen down my ordeal. Previous attempts were either too painful to put into words or got to a point whereby I gave up writing. While I have always been verbally very open when talking about my unfortunate incident, I've found it to be extremely difficult in the past to put them into writing. I supposed the ability to finally be able to do so will be proof to myself that I have moved past this.
Looking through past photos preparing to write this has been a minor roller coaster ride in my head. Being a person who speaks more with images than with words (I am a designer, former professional photographer, the latter being important to the underlying story), I shall let the images do most of the talking. While not extremely gory, this blog does contains images which might be unsuitable for people with queasy stomachs. As such please proceed at your own discretion.
Wait, what? How Could I Not Hear This in the News?
Yes I was shot by a robber, but certainly not in my home country where it would have made national headlines much more worthy than the quibbles which so often grace our papers. I was shot when travelling to a nearby country, I was shot while I was standing next to a bunch of friends, I was shot on a busy bridge, I was shot in broad daylight, I was shot when all usual precautions one would take was taken. What can I say, shit happens.
Why did they pick me? I was the biggest sized person there, certainly not easy pickings but I was also the one with the biggest camera, seeing that I was the designated photographer for the trip (being a former full-time photographer and all). Ironically I almost never bring along my DSLR abroad with one of the reasons being exactly this, it draws too much attention. In this case, attention of the worse possible kind.
Surely They Didn't Just Come Up and Shot You?
Well no of course not, come on they are not barbarians. My dear robber had the courtesy to tap me on the shoulder and ask me for my bag first while making it sure that I noticed he had a semi-concealed pistol.
You know how you always read or hear about how time slows down when the body is shot up with adrenaline? Well I can tell you for a fact that it is completely true. When I made sense of what exactly was happening (I had naively thought he was another friendly local wanting a photograph) an explosive array of thoughts went through my head purely focused on finding a way to get out alive.
The very first instinct I had was to disarm the pistol as I had been trained for weeks on end as a conscript. This was ruled out in a split second due to a series of calculated factors, the first being that it wasn't a single attacker, there was a "get away guy" on a motorcycle (important fact which will come up later) which might also be armed, secondly the attacker didn't have the pistol in a position which would make it possible for me to disarm him without likely getting shot and thirdly I remember distinctly that the pistol looked like a toy, it was small and had some red markings on it.
This option was further dismissed as I had an overpowering urge to go back alive to my wife for whom I had just married 3 months prior to this. Yes it has the makings of a Korean drama.
Next was the fastest mathematical calculation I had ever done in my life, I did a quick sum of how much the camera equipment in my bag costs. Don't ask me why, I just did, it was around $10k, quite a handsome loot for the potential robber if he was successful.
Come On, You Didn't Give Him Your Bag?
Well I was prepared to, but my passport was also in my bag and I was thinking of how I can give him the bag but hang on to my passport. You know, because going to get a replacement at the embassy is such a hassle. Maybe I can say "okay okay, take the bag, I take my passport okay?", or something to that extent. Yes silly but that was what I was considering at that point in time. That was when he took a step back, raised his pistol and fired off the first round into my leg.
So What Does it Feel Like to be Shot?
Hot. There's no pain when adrenaline kicks in, but I remember feeling heat as the first bullet went through my right thigh and somehow grazed my left ankle. Maybe the distinct lack of pain was also through the marksmanship of my assailant as he skillfully shot through only my thick layer of blubber staying clear of my femoral artery or Achilles tendon which would have surely made life a lot more miserable should I have been able to survive it.
(By the way, I drew that diagram myself. Told you I was graphical in nature.)
I Don't Believe Your Story, it's Too Humorous
I assure you it's true, I use humor as a coping mechanism and it has proven to be quite effective. And like I said, I've mostly healed after years of self/guided therapy and am now able to pen this down without feeling the urge to hurl. Here's the first nugget of proof:
Above is a photograph I didn't know I had taken until I was safely back home. When I first saw this I had my first mini panic attack. It's a photograph that my camera, still slung around my neck, had somehow managed to capture as I was running away from my attackers after having shot the first time. That's the guy on the get away bike and the shooters sexy right foot and white slipper just above my shoe. You can see my backpack obscuring what might have been the rest of his body still with me as I ran.
You Got Shot Once and You Still Didn't Hand Over Your Bag?!?!
Like I said, there wasn't much pain, the pistol looked like a toy, the sound it made didn't make a ring in my ear like I would expect it to make (having fired one before), there was hardly any blood on my thigh as I looked down to inspect my injuries. But after having been shot once, priorities did change. Suddenly the overwhelming options of "fight or flight" were somehow the only two options left in my mind. Since "fight" was already ruled out earlier, I instinctively went into "flight" mode and ran for it.
I took a few steps before I was shot a second time from behind.
So What Does it Feel Like to be Shot a Second Time?
Like I said, my shooter was a marksman. The second shot went through the back of my left thigh and never left. It hit square onto my left femur snapping it in two like a twig.
I never heard the shot nor did I feel any pain. All I remember was falling down in slow motion. I remember seeing the horizon slowly tilting as I pondered to myself if I was just having another one of my overly realistic dreams. But as I hit the ground after having no more structural support in my left leg, I knew this was no dream and I had to continue deciding my next course of action.
I looked down at my legs to figure out why I had fallen. My left leg was incredibly swollen so it must be broken, I also noticed the gash behind my left ankle and I assumed that the second shot grazed my ankle and caused me to trip and break my leg. By this time my poor unsuccessful robbers had left empty handed and my friends started to make sense of what had happened.
To me it felt like at least several minutes but speaking to my friends after the ordeal, it must have only taken seconds from start to end. That's the power of adrenaline for you!
Okay So What Now?
Now that the immediate threat of the two assholes who shot me was no longer eminent, I began to assess the next immediate threat to my life. In times like this your mind has a tremendous ability to find nuggets of information stored deep in the subconscious which might save your life. For me this materialized as some form of self first aid tips probably picked up as I watched documentaries by Bear Grylls or some episode of "I Shouldn't be Alive". I knew to check for two main things, nerve damage and excessive bleeding. The first I ruled out as I tried to wriggle my ankles, which thankfully they responded just fine. The second I asked my friends if I was bleeding out, and through some miracle from above, I was not. In fact I had bled even more when I slipped and split open by chin just a few months back. As my friends offered scarfs to stem the bleeding, they realized it wasn't required. At this point in time I knew that I was going to make it through this.
I'm Not Going to Die Today!
I cannot explain in words how this feels. Imagine the most positive thought you have ever had that made you feel better about yourself then multiply it by a hundred. The realization that death was at your doorstep but he had gotten the wrong address is such a liberating feeling that I think it was the single most powerful factor that allowed me to be able to remain positive through my eventual rehabilitation (but more about that later).
"Sir I Can Bring You to the Hospital", Tuk Tuk Driver
So I was given a choice, wait for an ambulance, which in traffic would take maybe 2 hours, or just hop into whichever vehicle who was willing to send me to the nearest hospital. I chose the latter.
Now, if it seems like everything was calm, I assure you it was not. There was a fervor of activity bordering on panic. There were friends trying to stop passing vehicles to ask for help, there were others asking the crowd around me to disperse, some were seeing how to tend to my wounds and one which was tasked with the horrible responsibility of informing my wife should I pass out before reaching the hospital.
The first vehicle that stopped was a Tuk tuk style vehicle for which I had one glance at and instantly rejected it. The second was a sedan but it would have been impossible to load me into the back seat. The third thankfully was a goods van driver who was kind enough to offer his services. I never saw his face or got his name, but whoever and where ever you are, thank you.
So there I was, lying on the road with a broken left femur and without a stretcher or any sort of splint I had to get into the back of a van. Suffice to say, it was an excruciatingly painful experience but the worse was yet to come. By then the adrenaline began to wear out and pain was very much an omnipresent sensation. Every bump in the road, every swerve the driver took as he tried to blare his way through traffic shot pain waves through my body.
I don't remember how long the ride took, I remember clinging onto some kind of railing trying not to roll over as he sped towards what we thought was the hospital but ended up being a firestation. There was more panic, my friends were trying to make sense of why we were at a firestation not a hospital. But there was a reason to this madness, someone decided to ask the firefighters for help in clearing the traffic leading to the hospital. Kudos to you!
So there I was, in the back of a van with two bullet holes in me, a broken leg and a siren-ed escort hurtling towards the nearest hospital.
You Can Buy Your Painkillers From Across the Road, Cash Only
So I'll skip all the expletive language that I must have said as they got me off the back of the van into a stretcher then again onto an emergency ward bed. Okay good, hospital, now give me some damn painkillers!
For some twisted reason, I had to purchase my painkillers, in cash, from a pharmacy across the road. Cool, if only I could walk and I had some spare cash on me after having been robbed. The second factor wasn't an issue since all my belongings were still with me. The first was a little more challenging, so my friend had to run an errand for me to get me my shots from across the road.
Okay That's Going To Hurt
As the technician scanned through the xrays he had taken of all my lower limbs, the last one he flashed on the screen revealed to me the extent at which my leg was broken. I remember muttering to myself how much of a bitch this was going to be to fix. The strange white chunks you see next to the bone are bullet fragments as the bullet shattered after hitting the bone, while the large pieces have been removed some fragments are will remain inside my leg for good.
I Was Told There Would Be Gore
As you can see, there was surprisingly little blood. There was another wound at the back of my left thigh which at this point of time I still didn't know was there because it bled so little.
Calling The Wife
Do You Have a Health Card?
I don't know what a health card is, I've never heard the term but every now and then someone kept asking me for one. I'm assuming it's some kind of insurance policy so the hospital won't just throw you out onto the streets and leave you to die. In any case I had none, so it was cash all the way, even for the ambulance that was to pick me to go to the next hospital which was better equipped to deal with my injury.
To do that I had to pay, in cash, upfront for an ambulance. Awesome.
You Don't Know Pain Till Someone Straightens Your Broken Leg
So more swear words, more shuffling from bed to stretcher to ambulance to bumpy road, more "do you have a health card", more cash paid and I'm here at hospital number two. Here was where I experienced the single most physically painful event ever in my life.
So the doctors in the ER (all super good looking for some reason, maybe because it was a private hospital) told me that they needed to straighten my leg and perform something called traction. As mentioned in the image above, my foot was already pointing towards the floor at this time and they needed to straighten it.
Even with morphine running through my veins, every single muscle in my body was clenched up and I think I could have bent the hospital bed railings with my bare hands as they twisted and fixed my leg in place with some kind of external brace.
Lie Here For Two Days Before We Can Fix Your Leg
So the travel insurance came through and I was finally able to be warded. The doctor came and I was all ready to go into surgery to put my leg back together but I was told I had to wait for a few days because they didn't have the right sized metal rod to shove into my leg.
By now things settled down, the strangely good looking nurses who tended to me were very apologetic that this would happen to me in their country, my dad had flown in to make sure I was okay, I had learnt to pee lying down (taking a crap would prove a much much more difficult challenge) and had made mental note of how many ceiling tiles there were, since that was all I could see for the next two days.
Why Is There A Tube Coming Out From My Pecker!?
So I awoke from surgery number 1 with some new upgrades to my thigh along and a whole bunch of tubes coming out from my body. Some drained blood from my swollen leg, one pumped morphine straight into my spine, one was the typical IV drip and one to my surprise was running out from my pee pee so I didn't need to bother with going for a tinkle for the next few days.
The bone fracture unfortunately did not cooperate as well. Despite taking some ridiculously expensive calcium replacement supplements, organic juicing, acupuncture, and 3 more intermittent surgeries, things only got worse.
The next surgery were to remove one of the titanium screws in my knee in hope that the bone would compress and trigger growth. While doing this I requested that the remaining large fragment be removed from my thigh, unfortunately this left part of my knee lost partial sensation and still persists till today. The removal of the screw then induced an unnatural twisting in my knee which resulted in surgery number two to repair the meniscus.
Things started to get desperate, I began to look for alternative ways to boost bone growth and alleviate the pain in my knee but to no avail. The pain got so bad that even walking around on crutches made it unbearable, I eventually resorted to putting myself in a wheelchair for a few months.
I used my sticks for a year and a half
Two more second opinions and a whole year later I decided to re-do the nail in my thigh. That meant removing the existing titanium rod which spanned the entire length of my thigh, replacing it with a thicker one, extracting bone from my good leg and using it to seed my bad leg. Essentially going back to square one. In all, it took me a total of a year and a half to finally be able to walk confidently unaided again.
I still experience the occasional pain now and then, my left thigh is significantly smaller and weaker than my right, I can never do an MRI due to the bullet fragments still in my leg, my scars still itch and I have yet to get that tattoo for my ankle but I would say I have recovered physically. I've gone back to mountain biking and have completed a few triathlons to date (although always at the back of the pack). Yet it's things like being able to go grocery shopping with the Mrs, being able to cook and do the dishes without having to hop around on one leg, not having to think about your next step before taking it and so on which I was really grateful for.
The Scars You Can't See
I don't walk around in Speedos the whole day, so it's unlikely you will ever see the scars on my legs but there are the invisible mental scars which took just as long if not longer to heal, some of which I think will never fully heal.
I've had two minor panic attacks since my incident, the first was when I first saw the photograph that I accidentally took of my assailants. The second was when I was viewing Google street view of a completely different country. In both instances my heart started to race, my mind started to twirl and I found myself having difficulty thinking straight. I've been told this might happen again in future depending on a trigger, so one of the first steps was to identify the triggering elements and slowly desensitize myself to them.
I also still have flashbacks at random times of the day, its a lot less frequently now but it still happens. It could be while I am driving or just watching TV. Sometimes these are totally random, other times I attribute it to certain visual triggers. For me images of people on a particular kind motorcycle, images of guns pointing at the camera and bridges over water were some of the biggest triggers. Once triggered my mind would replay the incident and I would suddenly go quiet and drift away as I played back the incident in my head again. Occasionally in these flashbacks I would play out different scenarios, like what if I fought back or if I could use the force to force choke him before he shot me, strange things like that. During these times I would feel increasingly agitated and aggressive but I've always managed to snap myself back to reality. I do fear if one day a trigger becomes so strong that I go all Incredible Hulk on whatever or whoever triggered it.
Then there's the hypervigilance, I'm constantly weary of my surroundings and the people around me. It used to happen even in Singapore but now it only happens when I travel (thank goodness I can still travel). Others don't notice anything but I see pick out shady looking character in the corner or the alley that looks like it's a bad idea to walk down. I'm not crippled by it but it definitely makes travelling a lot more stressful than it should be.To you it's a dream vacation, to me it's a calculated risk.
That said I've since been to Boston, Auckland, Zurich, Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Jakarta, Hong Kong and several other cities and I've carried my camera with me to all of them (albeit a much smaller one!) but I doubt I can ever revisit the city I was shot in.
Therapy Through Photography
Photography (more specifically my camera) was probably the reason I got shot, stubbornly I used photography as one of the tools to recover from it. Travel photography still is my favorite genre of photography and one way or another I was going to do it again. To be able to go to a foreign country, whip out my camera and take a few snaps was an enormous step for me. I'm still "camera shy" when I am abroad but it's gotten to a point whereby I no longer feel under constant threat.
So Do You Live Every Day Like Its Your Last?
No, not any longer. The initial euphoria of not dying on that bridge that day has long faded into the monotony of daily living, making ends meet and hitting deadlines at work. Gone is the thrill of hitting another recovery milestone, the first time you walk again, the first time you ride a bike again, the first time you run 5km again, the first time you finish a triathlon again. A whole bunch of "first times" later and it's back to the way things were and I often find myself wasting my days away with mundane endeavors taking that the things I once took for granted for granted again. I have also since found that there is pain and suffering much harder to bear than the physical pain I once knew so well, but that's another story altogether.
That said, there are some differences which I think my experience has fundamentally changed me. The first being patience, while I used to want things done as quickly as possible and had a lot of built up angst in me. I think I'm now a lot more laid back, preferring a slower pace of life and peace of mind. I decided a long time ago that I wouldn't live my second chance in life with hatred in my heart over the people who harmed me or with thoughts of whys and what ifs. Such thoughts are pointless endeavors as they do nothing to change what happened.
The Guy Who Was Shot No More
I don't want to leave this world with a legacy of being "the guy who got shot". I chose to believe that I'm much more than that and I want to be remembered not for something bad that happened to me but for something good that I did. What exactly, I don't know just yet. All I can say is that I am the guy who got shot no more.