A survivor’s tale

He was just a boy, looking for a ride.

That’s what Physician’s Assistant Kathlyn Stein first thought on the evening of March 17 — until a second boy opened her car door, and she saw the gun.

That night, at approximately 8:15, Stein pulled up to the stop sign at Livingston Street and Victoria Road, her windshield wipers marking time against the rain. “It was probably one of the first warm nights in Asheville,” she recalls — “St. Patrick’s Day, in fact. I was in a hurry, finishing up work to deliver some lab samples to Memorial [Mission Hospital]. I didn’t think that, in one block, something like this could happen.”

Stein pauses, touches the long brown hair that sweeps down the left side of her face. It hides a small, round scar behind and below her ear.

Two months after being shot in the neck, she sits in the comfort of her home with her husband, Michael Hootstein. She looks a bit tired, perhaps, but you’d never guess that a bullet missed her spinal cord by a hair’s breadth, just a few months back. Three teenage boys — one of them only 13-years-old — have been charged as adults in the crime. A fourth boy, believed by authorities to have been present at the shooting, has not been charged.

Stein looks over her shoulder occasionally to see if Jazzie, the new family puppy, has awakened yet. On the dining-room wall behind her hangs a poster made for her by local school children: “Angels were with you. Angels still need you here. YOU must be an angel, too!” it reads.

Stein smiles and tries to explain what it feels like to be a survivor — one who is compelled to transform her experience into something positive for herself, her family and the whole community … including her young attackers. “If anybody had to take that bullet, I’m glad it was me,” Stein confides, leaning forward and touching my arm gently — a habit, she says, born of many years of practicing medicine and trying to help people. She laughs. “Not that I want to do it again! But I’m meant to be here.”

You’d expect to hear some anger — and it’s there in her husband’s voice, when he speaks about the failures in our public-school and social-service systems: about testing policies that devalue minority youth; about treatment centers and justice programs overwhelmed by the steep rise in juvenile crime; about schools ill-equipped to deal with budding problems before they erupt in violence.

About a week before Stein was shot, for example, two of the four suspects — who range in age from 13 to 18 — were overheard plotting an ambush, according to a bus monitor who testified in court. One allegedly said he had a gun; the other said he’d do the shooting. The incident was reported to school officials, but Stein and her husband can’t help but wonder why no further action was taken — intervention that might have prevented the shooting.

Despite her frustration, however, Stein prefers to consider the big picture: Her attackers, she insists, had fallen through the cracks in our educational and social-services systems long before the shooting.

Court records show that, as early as 1995, one suspect’s psychological evaluation indicated “major behaviorial difficulties,” including learning problems in school and an inability to handle his anger. To make matters worse, according to defense attorneys, his parents didn’t respond to attempts to contact them about these concerns, and failed to appear at juvenile-court hearings concerning their son.

“We, as a society, have to take responsibility. As a family-practice P.A., I recognize that the abused need treatment — and so do the perpetrators,” Stein reflects.

She and her husband believe in tough love — correcting bad behavior as it occurs and taking a determined stand with kids. But the two also believe in ensuring that troubled kids get the help they need, in seeing to it that our educational system assists them when they start struggling in school. And they feel strongly that we all have a role to play in helping to address these problems.

For their part, the couple tries to use humor to redirect their anger about the near-tragedy that befell them: They joke that Kathy’s story is “just a country song waiting to be sung.” And Hootstein muses that the only way to keep safe these days may be to attach SCUD missiles to the roofs of our cars.

But Stein is the kind of person who, when she encountered a woman in the courthouse elevator whom she took to be the alleged shooter’s grandmother, spontaneously hugged her. “We were feeling so much pain, and [his family] was, too,” Stein recalls.

All the same, she’s in no hurry to stop at that intersection any time soon — or even drive by it.

Courage under fire

On that warm evening, Stein says she saw a boy coming out of the rainy darkness toward her car. “Because I had worked in the neighborhood for the past one-and-a-half years, I wasn’t afraid,” she recounts.

As the boy approached the passenger door, Stein called out through closed windows, “I can’t give you a ride!”

Then she remembers him reaching toward the door: In that split-second, Stein realized that she hadn’t locked either front door. Then a second boy opened her driver’s-side door, raised his gun and said, “Give me your money.”

Without waiting for an answer, Stein recalls, he fired.

“I heard a pop and [felt] a light pressure on my neck,” says Stein, touching her scar. She remembers feeling surprised; then her medical training kicked in. Fearing that the bullet might have struck her carotid artery, Stein knew she might have two minutes of consciousness left — tops. She was one block from Memorial Mission.

“I laid on the horn and hauled out of there, deliberately cutting off another car [in my way] to draw attention. I blasted that horn all the way up the hill to the emergency-vehicle bay [of Memorial],” Stein recalls.

Her crazed driving proved useful: The driver of the other car corroborated her story and told police that four boys had converged on Stein’s car that evening, not just the two she’d seen.

“My only mistake was, I took the long way to [Memorial], following the one-way signs all the way, instead of cutting straight through to [the emergency room],” Stein notes with a touch of irony. “I was starting to bleed — most of it internal, down my throat.” She parked her car in the ER ambulance bay and jumped out — only to have a nurse on break tell her, “You can’t park there.”

In the nurse’s defense, Stein points out that most of her bleeding wasn’t visible: Her long hair covered what little blood there was. And the bullet hadn’t made a nasty exit wound: It was lodged in her jaw.

“I was starting to cough on my own blood, but I had to convince [the nurse] that I really ought to be able to park there … then I walked into ER, calling out orders to doctors and nurses,” says Stein.

Less than a minute had passed since the shooting, she estimates. “I knew I might not be conscious much longer, so I didn’t want to sit in [registration], filling out forms,” she continues, giving a humorous take on her assertive, unpatient-like behavior.

Instead, Stein told emergency personnel where to find her husband and daughter — and to get some surgeons down to ER, stat! Stein smiles, then deadpans, “Fortunately, the emergency-room doctor was in complete agreement [with me].”

Then the hospital’s medical staff took over, installing a breathing tube in her trachea and calling on a Vietnam-trained trauma surgeon. But by that time, Stein had lost consciousness.

Family ties

When Asheville Police officers pulled Hootstein and the couple’s 9-year-old daughter over, as they were heading home from a school event, he thought they had clocked him for speeding.

“Then both of us recognized a look in their eyes,” Hootstein recalls. Officers told him his wife had been injured. They rushed to the hospital, Hootstein telling his daughter that they would imagine Mom being healthy. “Think positive,” his daughter remembers him saying. “There are lots of reasons people go to emergency rooms.”

But when Hootstein saw his wife — unconscious, face swollen, a tube down her throat — he had to catch his breath. Doctors assured him that it was a good sign that Stein had been able to walk into the emergency room on her own. But the bullet had nicked an artery and fractured one vertebra as well as her jaw. Doctors weren’t sure how extensive the damage was: The tear in her artery, Hootstein was told, was leaking blood into the surrounding tissue and draining into her chest and lungs.

Standing beside his unconscious wife, Hootstein reached for her hand. “It was cold and shaking,” he remembers.

“That happens when you’re in shock,” Stein interjects.

The doctors tried to reassure Hootstein, saying, “People do survive.” He told his daughter what Mom’s status was and asked what she wanted to do. The hospital was going to provide him with a room where he could wait, on hand for any change.

His daughter told him to call a friend, where she would stay the night … and go to school the next day. Says Hootstein, “She told me she didn’t want anything to change in her life, that her mother was going to be OK.”

Hootstein pauses, tears welling up — but he doesn’t cry. Instead, he takes a deep breath. “I was so humbled by these powerful women in my life,” he says simply.

A week later, Stein was at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, recovering from another round of surgery — this one to place a permanent “stent” inside the damaged artery, to stabilize it and keep it open. Stein awoke in the Intensive Care Unit, head throbbing from the after-affects of medications used during surgery. She’d been given morphine for the pain, but it wasn’t working.

Stein laughs with her husband as he tells the story: Ever the medical professional, Stein instructed him — in no uncertain terms, despite having a trache-tube in her throat that made talking difficult, at best — to get her capsules of St. John’s wort, mix the powder with water, and shoot the concoction into her stomach tube, since she couldn’t swallow.

“‘I don’t know if I can do that — this is ICU! You’re the patient, not the doctor!'” Hootstein remembers telling his wife.

Nonetheless, he pleaded with the ICU nurse, who responded, “We’ll call it ‘herbal tea.'”

With the self-prescribed herbal dose, Stein’s headache subsided in less than five minutes. That was the easy part, compared to the myriad challenges she would face in the months ahead.

One of the most difficult things to deal with so far, she reports, has been the fatigue. “With any major trauma, your body requires all your energy to be diverted into healing,” Stein explains. She also has a nagging, almost continual pain in her neck and jaw — “It’s like having a bad toothache,” she notes.

And — perhaps as a test of her ability to be a patient, and not the physician’s assistant all her friends seek out for medical advice — Stein must coordinate her recovery with no less than seven specialists, including a dental expert to monitor the damage to her jaw, and a cardiologist to track how well her heart is standing up to the trauma (the nerve which controls Stein’s heart rate was damaged).

In the midst of all this, however, Stein and her husband are quick to praise the emergency-room personnel who took care of her; their friends at Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, who prayed for them from the beginning; the Criminal Investigation officers in the Asheville Police Department who handled the case; and the district attorney and his staff, for explaining every step of the legal process they’d have to go through.

“We get so caught up in the trauma of violence that we forget the people who care for us and seek justice,” Stein observes.

During those anxious first days in the hospital, Hootstein recounts, “I could feel the physical presence of prayer.”

And Stein had a dream about transforming what had happened to her: “I feel I was directed by this dream to look death in the eye and reweave it.”

One way to do that is by helping increase public awareness of the problems facing our schools and juvenile courts. Another is to try to see the humor in her struggles: Talking about the scars left by the trachea and stomach tubes, Stein jokes that when she returned from the hospital, “I was blowing air for weeks, like a whale!”

Both those scars, in fact, are far bigger than the one made by the bullet.

“The stuff you have to go through as a patient is so gruesome, they don’t even put it in the movies,” says Stein. Once the trache-tube was removed, she had to let the wound heal naturally, without sutures or stitches. “How do you clean a wound that leaks into your lungs?” she still wonders aloud.

And, even more to the point, how do you deal with the violation of being shot?

“No one gives you a manual for that,” Stein ruefully observes.

Everybody’s problem

“If you shoot someone, what do you really gain? The whole community loses,” Stein asserts.

Beyond the details of her physical recovery, she struggles with such thoughts, observing that one of the hardest things facing her is the survivor’s dilemma: “I lived, and others died: Amber Lundgren, Karen Styles, Kelly Froemke. I lived. And somehow, God’s given me a job to do — on their behalf, as well as on behalf of the kids who, because of our neglect as a society, became criminals,” Stein proclaims.

“This is what we’ve been struggling with and talking about since the shooting,” her husband adds. “How do we transform what has happened?”

Since moving to Asheville a few years ago, both have been active in citizen efforts to improve our public schools. Hootstein regularly volunteers his time, working in the classroom with third- and fourth-graders. He noticed early on, he says, how many young minority students — boys, in particular — seemed to fall behind, grow frustrated and lose confidence.

Banding together with other concerned residents to form the North Carolina Coalition for School Excellence, Hootstein researched the problem. He was appalled to find that, in Asheville elementary and middle schools, 60 percent of male African-American students regularly fail the state-required, end-of-year tests (part of North Carolina’s School-Based Accountability and Management Program), referred to as the ABCs.

As a representative of the NCCSE, Hootstein sent a letter to the Asheville City Schools’ new superintendent, Karen Campbell, contending that the ABCs are not an accurate measure of either student or teacher performance and that they are actually detrimental to students’ success in school — particularly minority children.

After the shooting, Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore handed Hootstein a report completed recently by North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt‘s Commission on Juvenile Crime and Justice. Two-thirds of the youths arrested or put in secure custody in the state are minorities — although they make up just one-third of all North Carolina youth, according to statistics compiled by the commission.

Says Hootstein, “I’m willing to bet that the 60 percent of kids [who are] failing in the third grade are the [same] two-thirds who are committing crimes as they get older.”

Trying to channel his anger about the shooting, Hootstein continued his research, talking with school officials, commission members and Moore. Hootstein learned that juvenile crime in North Carolina has increased 172 percent since 1976 — despite a significant decline in the state’s youth population during that period. The commission, Hootstein says, recommended a series of reforms to the state’s juvenile-justice system — such as opening juvenile hearings to the public and to victims (which the court did in the Stein case); requiring parents to attend those hearings; and raising the age until which juveniles can be kept in custody (from 18 to 21).

Acting on these recommendations would represent a step forward, Stein and Hootstein concede, but they insist that the problem must be dealt with on several levels simultaneously: Juvenile-crime-system changes must dovetail with educational reforms.

“Our interest in [telling] our story is only if it’s taken to the next step: How do we solve the problems in a society that refuses to accept responsibility? We’re trying to raise awareness about the real, underlying issues,” Stein explains.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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