Originally created 02/23/03

A life sentence



Delshon Flournoy doesn't venture outside very much these days.

He seems satisfied with staying in his upstairs bedroom at Underwood Homes, eating Ritz crackers and watching kung fu movies. On a good day, family members or old friends come by to visit.

But those stopovers are becoming less frequent, and when visitors do come by, they do all the talking.

Mr. Flournoy was robbed of his speech by a bullet to the brain in 1999. Two men with revenge on their minds came to a Chestnut Street home July 24, 1999, and shot into the house. Several people were inside, including children.

Mr. Flournoy, a visitor who was not the intended target, was struck in the head by a bullet. He eventually emerged from a coma, paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak.

The shooters stole more than his ability to speak. They also took his ability to hold his daughter, to earn a paycheck, to play basketball with his buddies, to drive a car.

Instead of worrying about being late to his job at Applebee's, Mr. Flournoy, now 24, must worry about taking medication to avoid a seizure. He can't make his bed. His 11-year-old niece does it most days.

"I come over every day after school," said Keyerra Walker, a fourth-grader at W.S. Hornsby Elementary School. "He used to talk and clean up by himself and stuff. He liked to play with us. We would play freeze tag."

In mom's care

Mr. Flournoy is back home, living in the projects with his mother, Mary Flournoy. She was getting used to baby-sitting her grandchildren when her son got hurt, and now she again has the responsibility of caring for one of her nine children.

In December, before a judge sentenced rapper Verenzo Holmes and convicted marijuana dealer Jeffery Foat to 25 years for the revenge shooting that injured Mr. Flournoy, a prosecutor read a statement from his mother.

"Delshon will never be able to play basketball, computer games or do any of the things that he once enjoyed doing," she wrote. "Delshon will never be able to communicate the way he once did, and it breaks our hearts."

At home every day, Ms. Flournoy puts lotion on her son. She makes sure he takes his medication. She prepares his meals.

"I like soul food - butter beans, green peas, steaks and small pork chops," Ms. Flournoy said. "He doesn't like that. He buys spare ribs. He buys lasagna and Ballpark hot dogs with cheese in them."

Mr. Flournoy pays for his food with his disability checks. He used to make money working two jobs. He was a cook at Applebee's and a stocker at Kroger.

Work isn't an issue these days. Communicating is the bigger chore.

'It moved me'

Deanna Kelly knew Mr. Flournoy needed help as soon as she met him in the District Attorney's Office, where she works as a victim services representative.

"This is going to be a life sentence for him," she said.

Ms. Kelly was moved by Mr. Flournoy's plight because her nephew had been shot in a similar situation.

"He was an innocent bystander and got killed," she said. "For Delshon to have survived, it moved me."

Ms. Kelly looked into resources that would aid Mr. Flournoy in his recovery, including a computer he could use to communicate. Because he is disabled, he might qualify for money through Medicaid, she said.

After the 1999 shooting, Mr. Flournoy spent five months recovering at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and three months at Walton Rehabilitation Services. But transportation became a problem for his mother, and they stopped going. Only recently have they begun looking for other options.

A broken brain

Doctors use technical words, such as expressive aphasia and verbal apraxia, to describe Mr. Flournoy's conditions. The meaning is simple: He has trouble talking.

The gunshot struck the left side of his brain, messing up his ability to communicate. He can't seem to get his tongue to cooperate.

Mr. Flournoy understands what people say to him - reacting is the problem. He can write answers to simple questions. He can point to a banana if you ask him to. But don't ask him to point to a banana, an apple, an orange and then the apple again.

Marti McElhone, who works as a speech pathologist at MCG Hospital, knew right away that Mr. Flournoy had "expressive aphasia."

She asked how he was doing. He mumbled something, but it was not a real response.

"He mostly has difficulty expressing himself," Miss McElhone said.

She said he appears to be a great candidate for augmentative communication, using a small computer that speaks.

"You punch in information, and when you're done you hit a button. And then it says something like, 'I'm hungry. I would like a cheeseburger to eat."' Miss McElhone said. "He could express his wants and needs, which is a basic goal for someone like him who has had a severe brain injury."

Therapy could help, but patients with the best chances have family support, personal dedication and repetition.

Unfortunately, Mr. Flournoy has gone a long time without help.

"It's like having a broken arm. You to need to exercise it to stimulate it," Miss McElhone said. "Essentially, he's broken his brain, and he needs stimulation."

Miss McElhone is preparing a report for Mr. Flournoy's doctor. If the doctor agrees with her recommendation, Medicaid could fund the therapy and the computer system to help him communicate.

"We will give it a shot," she said.

Expressing himself

Spend a few hours with Mr. Flournoy, and he seems very happy. In fact, he laughs a lot, almost uncontrollably, but that doesn't mean he's in a good mood.

Because of his frontal lobe injury, he sometimes acts like a child, but he makes it clear he doesn't like people to talk about his getting shot. He jerks his good hand across his neck, indicating that the person talking should stop.

"Since he got hurt, his temper (has been bad)," his mother says. "He gets angry quicker than he did before."

Mr. Flournoy knows he has changed. He doesn't like remembering how he used to be. It's too depressing.

A family portrait hangs on the living room wall in his home. After his shooting, he scratched out the eyes on his boyhood image.

He perks up, though, when people talk about his 5-year-old daughter, Precious Hawkins. With a heavy limp, he hurries upstairs to retrieve the most recent picture of her.

Precious has moved to North Carolina with her mother, Mr. Flournoy's ex-girlfriend. He doesn't get to see his child much, but when her mother brings her for a visit, Mr. Flournoy is in heaven.

If he works hard at therapy, Miss McElhone said, she believes he will be able to communicate with his daughter again.

"Hopefully, we can get to a point," she said, "when he can express 'I love you."'

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.



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