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Byers' Beat: When a homecoming doesn't feel like home

Shooting victim will have to return to the room where her life changed forever to start her recovery on her own

ALTON, Ill. — Jasmine Kay-Johnson is someone I haven’t met, but feel like I already know.

That’s because her mother, Shawntaya Wagner, and I have messaged with each other and talked countless times since I wrote about the day, April 8, that a stray bullet struck her in the head while she was studying in her Alton bedroom. She was a senior journalism student at the University of Missouri.

Her mother has told me about her 22-year-old daughter’s perseverance, her dreams to become a magazine editor and how she knows the girl who got shot that day is still the same -- personality-wise -- as she was before the bullet struck her brain and lodged in her left cheek.

“She’s already correcting my grammar,” Wagner said. “And I joke with her about how, ‘You’re the one with the brain injury and you’re still correcting me.’”

I’ve stayed in touch throughout my career with several families of crime victims whose loved ones I have written about.

But not every update is newsworthy enough for another story.

And not every update is something families even want to be shared publicly.

This week was different.

Jasmine came home.

She’s had three surgeries so far at Barnes Jewish Hospital. And spent six weeks in a Mercy rehabilitation center. And her mother had to watch the first six weeks after her daughter was shot from a distance due to coronavirus restrictions on visiting her in the hospital. The mother and daughter would have video chats on their phones. And her mother would sit outside her window when she got to the rehabilitation center and talk to her through the window.

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The first time Wagner got to physically see and touch her daughter was May 15 – graduation day.

Despite missing those last few weeks of school, Jasmine had enough credits to graduate, her mother said.

She said she brought her daughter’s cap and gown to her rehabilitation center room, but it proved too difficult to put on. So, she hung it up behind her as her daughter watched a virtual graduation in which the school scrolled the names of graduates online. The formal graduation ceremony was also canceled due to the pandemic.

As soon as Jasmine’s name came up, all of the friends and family who came to the rehabilitation center that day started honking their horns. Jasmine heard them – a miracle in and of itself considering how close the bullet came to robbing her ability to hear, let alone live.

Wagner spent Thursday night preparing a bedroom for her daughter, who now relies on a wheelchair most of the time. Her left leg remains weak. She just regained mobility back in it five weeks ago.

It used to be Jasmine’s room, but her 8-year-old brother took over when his big sister left for college, and didn’t expect to be moving back after graduation. So, it’s back in mom’s room for him for now.

Going back to the home is also going to be another traumatic part of her recovery. Her mother said initially that she wanted to move as soon as possible because she kept reliving the night she, her young son and mother ducked for cover when shots rang out and she found Jasmine bleeding from her mouth. 

But, they haven't been able to move, yet.

So, Jasmine will have to return to the room where her life changed forever to start her recovery on her own.

Wagner said her goal is to get her daughter independent enough to live on her own – as is the goal for any parent.

That goal has just been delayed.

Doctors have told her it will take 18 months to know just how fully Jasmine’s brain will heal itself, and, how fully she will recover.

Starting next week, she will be going to outpatient therapy five days a week for six hours a day. Speech therapy. Physical therapy. And occupational therapy.

She’s had three surgeries so far – the first to relieve swelling on the brain, a second to install a shunt because of bleeding on the brain, and a third to replace the skull that was removed during the first surgery.

And there may be more ahead, her mother said.

Only time will tell.

Although, knowing Jasmine, she would probably say that was too cliche.

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