Friends are raising money for a Florida man who was shot at his home while throwing a party for his kids. He is paralyzed from the shoulders down.
OAK HILL — It's the little things Joel Tatro once took for granted — brushing his own teeth, feeling the warmth and solitude of a long, relaxing shower, lying down beside the woman he loves.
Tatro, 48, hasn't been able to do any of these things since Feb. 17, when police say a 15-year-old shot him in the neck, paralyzing Tatro from the shoulders down. Witnesses say James Powell, now 16, shot Tatro after the father of three told him he and his friends had to leave a party Tatro had thrown for his kids.
Authorities have said Tatro confronted Powell, a self-described gang member, who shoved Tatro and threatened him. Tatro shoved back. That’s when Powell pulled out a gun and fired it at least three times, according to arrest reports.
Since then, life as the Tatros knew it has been irretrievably altered.
Joel's wife Lisa, once primarily his business partner, co-adventure seeker and lover, has transformed into his nurse, caretaker and protector.
"I don't sleep in bed with my husband anymore," said Lisa, gesturing toward a chair in the small Oak Hill living room where they reside. "I don't think they realize the magnitude of what they've done."
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The living room space is borrowed from a generous friend, one of many kindnesses for which the Tatros are thankful. While Lisa does the heavy work, friends and strangers have been helping the family with small needs, and a fund to help the family into an ADA-compliant home, which was started when Joel was in the hospital, is gaining ground.
Joel was recently released from the hospital and right now, the family is hoping one more kindness can help improve their new lives — a wheelchair.
Since Joel doesn't have the use of his arms, he requires a custom-made wheelchair so he can drive it with his head. Think Stephen Hawking, but in Oak Hill, with no insurance.
Lisa said they were researching affordable insurance plans just before the shooting.
Since then, Lisa had to quit her job to take care of her husband full time. She said the couple receives disability funds, but do not receive government food assistance, and Lisa said the disability disqualifies them from receiving additional aid. Instead, the Tatro's three children, ages 28, 19 and 17, have been helping with food and bills.
It’s enough all at once to leave the couple feeling lost.
"He's laying here and he's worked his whole life and we can't get (expletive deleted) for help," said Lisa. "I feel like the system, our government, has kicked us square in the teeth."
Lisa said she borrows wheelchairs from friends to get Joel to and from doctors appointments, but he slumps in them because his body cannot hold itself upright.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are about 17,730 new spinal cord cases each year. Most are the result of vehicular accidents, followed by falls and acts of violence, like in the Tatros’ case.
Lisa said she’s been working with a single nurse to try to help her navigate the system and get the supplies they need, and has been in talks with a spinal-injury organization, but the resources are limited "until he can do outpatient" treatment, meaning the wheelchair could make more help possible.
She said Joel could return to the hospital, but he wants to be home.
Getting a chair that fits would improve his life considerably, Lisa said, adding he'd be able to go to rehabilitation, which could possibly help him extend his range of movement eventually, as other quadriplegics have done.
"If he was a paraplegic, we could take a hand-me-down," said Lisa. "He can lift his arm up, but it's not able to do what he needs it to do."
A fundraiser has been set up to help the Tatros, but the estimated price tag for a specially-made wheelchair that can navigate unpaved roads like the one they live on and help prevent the risk of pressure sores that come with Joel’s condition, is high. The campaign, created Oct. 23, is attempting to raise $20,000. The campaign has raised $9,955 as of Tuesday evening.
In the meantime, the Tatros have been trying to make it work with what they’ve got. There are ups and downs.
Lisa flew through a range of emotions in a matter of minutes. Sadness, anger, disgust, fear, frustration — a hint of shame.
“I mean, this is just ...” Lisa’s voice, choking, trailed off. “What kind of life is this?”
She adjusted a bandage on her husband's arm. He gritted his teeth and winced.
He still feels pain.
Joel doesn’t spend much time speaking, though a valve in his throat allows a few words now and then.
“If it wasn’t for this woman right here, I probably wouldn’t be here. She is everything to me,” whispered Joel.
He said it is humbling to watch his wife care for him.
“I’m very, very grateful. She’s my star,” said Joel of his wife, pausing a few moments to catch his breath. “But it’s tough.”
Powell, the teen accused of shooting Tatro, was charged as an adult with two counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm back in February. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.
In the first-count, Powell is accused of shooting Tatro at the East Church Street party.
The second-count of attempted first-degree murder is because, after shooting Tatro, Powell fired several more times into the crowd of kids, said Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood at the time.
Powell, who goes by the nickname “Budha,” had his bond revoked in September.
Both Powell and his alleged accomplice, Sylvano Leslie II, who is charged with accessory after the fact, a first-degree felony, are expected to appear in court Dec. 10.
The Tatros say they remain pro-gun after the incident, but carrying a weapon should include training and responsibility.
“For a child to have a gun in his hand and do what he did — I don’t think they even realize the magnitude of what’s happened to our lives,” Lisa said. "I don't have the energy to hate. But I dislike. I very much dislike."
While a friend works on a way to more cheaply recondition a donated power chair, Lisa said she is looking forward to pretty much anything that can help her husband gain more independence.
“Until this happened I didn’t realize those little things that we all take for granted,” said Lisa. “I took them for granted, too. I did.”
Asked if there was one thing he might say to Powell, if given the chance, Joel Tatro pondered the opportunity a few moments, weighing it in his mind.
"Grow up?" he said, inflecting, as if answering the query with another question, but then settled on the response. "Basically. Whatever you thought you were doing that night, being cool, whatever. It ain't so cool. It ruined a whole family's life.
"Sleep on that for a night."
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.