Fourteen years have come and gone, but one memory is still crystal clear for Jeff Droke of south Cordova: The day a man shot him eight times.
“That’s not a fun thing or anything you expect to have happen to you,” he said drily.
He told his horrifying story while explaining how a new support group for gunshot victims is a much-needed resource that deserves publicity. The group meets at noon on the first and third Thursday of every month at the Shelby County Crime Victims’ Center, 1750 Madison Ave., Memphis, in the first floor conference room.
His shooting story
Droke’s own too-close encounter with bullets came on Jan. 22, 2003. He had testified against an ex-employee about child abuse in a child custody case. He also had filed a civil suit about witness intimidation in the case and said he was two days away from getting a judgment when his personal nightmare began.
It was 8 a.m. and he was about to wake up his then-11-year-old daughter for school when he spotted a stranger outside who seemed out of place. Droke tried to call a Memphis police detective who lived two houses down, but he didn’t answer. So Droke stepped outside. He was walking to his next-door neighbor’s house when a young man jumped out of his car and started firing away.
“He had a target pistol from the ’40s,” Droke said. “They couldn’t find it in the ATF registry. He was a good shot with it.”
The first six shots hit Droke, and the man swore at Droke and said he would kill him.
“He turned his gun sideways because he’s a ‘tough guy,’” Droke said, snorting. “He looked like Eminem, and I hate Eminem. And a lot of things kicked in with me, and I thought, ‘The hell you are.’”
With a rush of adrenaline, Droke counter-attacked. “I hadn’t been in a fight since the seventh grade,” he said.
But he wrestled with the attacker, who shot him in the head twice, with Droke’s skull deflecting one bullet. Droke wrangled the man’s arm up, and he shot the remaining rounds into the sky. Droke shoved the man onto his trunk deck lid, trying to choke him or disable him. That’s when Droke realized he was starting to lose strength from his blood loss, and he remembered to reach for the gun he was packing himself. That’s when the fight changed entirely.
“He was crying and screaming, ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me!’ “ Droke remembered. “I shot his car up. I don’t know how I didn’t hit him. When they found him, he had defecated and urinated on himself and was hyperventilating. He had been a one-man crime spree in Northeast Memphis, and he was very good at pulling guns on people and getting his way. He wasn’t used to it the other way around.”
His life-threatening wounds
The shooter fled, and Droke walked to a neighbor’s house. She started screaming when she saw his bloody wounds. There was a delayed emergency response, so she had to call 911 again, Droke said.
“I sat there a while, laid down and went into shock. Everything got real glassy,” he said.
Then Droke had a near-death experience and began to feel peaceful and at one with the universe. But he didn’t want to die.
He started praying as loud and as hard as he could while his neighbors and medics tried to save his life.
“I was yelling at Jesus, ‘I’ve got an 11-year-old! I can’t go!’ And pretty soon all the pain and suffering came right back.”
At least, he thought he was praying out loud. Later when he asked them, they said they didn’t hear a thing from him.
Fortunately, the neighbor was an occupational therapist, and another neighbor owns a home healthcare business, and they were able to take care of him until medics arrived and rushed him to The Med in Memphis.
He had been shot twice in the head, three times in the neck and three times in his chest and one shoulder. One of the neck wounds was to his left carotid artery, and he said his doctors were surprised it didn’t blow out. He still carries around scars and some of the bullets in his body.
He was only in the hospital for a few days and had to follow up with an ear-nose-and-throat doctor on the head and neck injuries. Droke still feels the aches today, particularly when the weather changes. In recent years, he has visited a neurologist and a neurosurgeon and finally a pain doctor to help him cope with residual neck pain. He also relies on old tried-and-true reliefs like hot showers and ice packs as needed.
He also knows life is a gift. He said he’s grateful for the care he received and was lucky to have neighbors who advised him on healthcare choices afterward.
New mission in life
Droke followed his attacker’s progress in the court system and learned about the man’s serious criminal history and recent prison release. The suspect pleaded guilty and was sentenced as a mitigated offender to a maximum of 13.3 years in prison. He was out in about eight, despite picking up two more felonies attacking guards while he was jailed.
Since his attack, Droke has served on Shelby County Mayor Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr.’s crime victims committee and become involved in the gunshot victims’ support group. He praised the work done to save him at The Med and said the support group is great for helping victims who feel a little lost when they are discharged.
He said the support group is a lifesaver for people who aren’t familiar with navigating through the medical system, surgeries, chronic pain from the gunshot wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder. It also points people to community resources and gives shooting victims and their families a safe place to talk where they know they will be understood. They can talk about their sense of injustice over lifelong scars and pain, as well as their disgust when their attackers have brief sentences or escape prison entirely.
Some victims end up with mental problems and drug addictions — “the ones that have sort of left society and just retreated back to their mother’s bedroom,” Droke said. The group has given them a place to talk to others.
A recent addition to the support group told Droke, “No one understands what it’s like to see someone with a gun, coming to take the most precious thing away from you — your life.”
Droke continues to work on behalf of other gunshot victims. He has met with representatives from The Med and the attorney general’s office and with Anne Whalley, who is over the Shelby County Crime Victims Services and Crisis Center. Over the past year, they have developed the support group. A brochure is in the works to pass out to gunshot victims being discharged from the hospital. Droke and others are also trying to work with Rep. Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova) on increasing the maximum of $30,000 in state funding available to crime victims to cover their expenses.
For details on the gunshot victims support group, call Anna Whalley at (901) 222-3950. To see photos from other real-life shooting victims who survived their attacks, Droke recommends the website shotproject.org, which chronicles the survival of 101 different shooting victims around the country.
CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.