A patient uses his traumatic experience to heal others

“Are these my real teeth?” That was the first question Paul Carter III asked his mother, Yvette Carter, when he awoke at Harborview Medical Center. He had to use a whiteboard to ask her, because his jaw was wired shut.

Although he doesn’t clearly remember the events that led to his injury, he does remember that he was on his way to diffuse a tense situation. He wasn’t expecting there would be guns.

Slowly, with the help of his mother and the whiteboard, Carter pieced the story together.

He learned that a bullet had gone through his jaw, tearing his esophagus in half. He was rushed to Harborview, where surgeons repaired his esophagus, put in a tracheotomy tube and addressed bleeding complications by removing half a lung. He was in a coma for three days.

Carter’s mother also confirmed that all of his teeth were his real teeth. Then she had to deliver the news that was hardest for Carter to hear: His friend, who was also involved in the altercation, had died.

While processing that loss, Carter was also beginning to realize that he had a long, difficult journey ahead of him. His doctors told him there was a chance he might never eat, drink or speak normally again.

A change of heart

At first, Carter was severely depressed and frustrated, and he resisted care. There were many procedures, and he couldn’t ask questions. He felt changed. “I wasn’t anything like how I was before. I didn’t want people around me because I didn’t feel like I was myself,” says Carter.

Estell Williams, MD ’13, assistant professor of surgery, remembers that Carter’s injuries were severe. “You see people at their most vulnerable when they are here. We don’t always know if they’ll return to being that person who their friends and family remember, love and cherish,” she says.

Then Carter had a breakthrough. He realized that others were willing to help him, if he was willing to help himself. From that moment on, he dedicated himself to recovery.

The million-dollar smile

Carter’s progress was remarkable. Two months after being admitted to Harborview, he was discharged. Not long afterward, his trach tube was removed. After many months of physical, occupational and speech therapy, he regained his voice. And the wound? What was once a bullet hole now looks like a shaving nick.

His smile returned, too — a fact that pleases his mom. “The one thing about Paul is that he has a million-dollar smile. Everyone knows him for his smile,” says Yvette. “I can’t believe that the bullet went through his jaw!”

In his turn, Paul attributes his health to many things, not least the Harborview staff and the thoughtfulness of the people who give to the hospital. “Everybody from top to bottom has done their best to help me recover,” says Paul.

The promise and the calling

When he was at Harborview, Carter made a promise to a nurse, Soo Baus, in the intensive care unit.

“Soo told me that once I got better, I needed to come back and give back. And I told her I would love to do that,” he says.

Now, with the assistance and guidance of trauma coordinator Andrea Gahl, Carter volunteers every Friday with Harborview’s Trauma Survivors Network, sitting down with other patients who are also in recovery.

“Paul is able to navigate some of the complex situations that our trauma patients face. He’s non-judgmental, supportive and very generous with his time,” says Gahl.

When Carter visits a patient, he listens and shares his own experience when he thinks it will be helpful. He understands what it’s like to spend 60 days without being able to eat or drink — to fantasize about that first sip of water. He can relate when patients talk about how they never felt anxiety before the experience that put them in the hospital.

“When you’ve gone through a trauma, it’s not always easy to talk to just anyone about it,” says Carter. He also trades anecdotes with patients about all the hospital staff.

“Paul knows everyone! He’s like the mayor of Harborview,” says Gahl.

Nothing makes Carter happier than to offer a bit of solace, every Friday, to people in recovery. And who wouldn’t feel a little better after a visit from the mayor? With the million-dollar smile?

“‘I think this is his calling, his purpose,” says Yvette Carter.

By Eleanor Licata
Photos: Stephen Brashear