Angley Hemphill believes love is more powerful than a bullet.
You might think so, too, if you saw her nephew limp across a room in his size 14 Timberland boots.
Or watched the teenager work with his therapist to remember his colors.
Or heard him struggle to tell his aunt, “I love you.”
Hemphill was the only one who never doubted that Dwyane would survive a gunshot wound to the head last summer.
His doctors thought his chances of surviving were poor. But Hemphill stayed at Dwyane’s bedside, praying and holding his hand and telling him she loved him.
“His whole name is Dwyane Jermaine Lashawn Hemphill. I would say, ‘Dwyane Jermaine Lashawn Hemphill, it’s your Auntie Angley. You’re gonna pull through. I’m not going to leave you. I’m here.’ ”
The doctors at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn performed three surgeries on Dwyane in one month to relieve the swelling in his pumpkin-sized head.
When he emerged from a coma, he opened his eyes – first the left one, then the right. He grasped his aunt’s hand with his left hand. And he started mumbling, trying to communicate despite his devastating brain injury.
Now, he’s recovering at Maryville Academy’s Children’s Healthcare Center on the Northwest Side. He can dance, his speech and vocabulary are improving, and he has begun to swim despite lingering paralysis of his right arm and hand.
Hemphill said she draws inspiration from Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman whose husband was at her side while she recovered from a bullet to the head.
“Dwyane has a long road to go, but he is going to be OK, like Gabrielle. He is going to be the same Dwyane Hemphill he was,” his aunt said.
Hemphill became Dwyane’s legal guardian when he was 2 1/2 because his mother was suffering from schizophrenia. His mother died of natural causes in 2010. Months later, his father died of a heart attack.
Dwyane, whose dream was to become a firefighter, attended church with his aunt and participated in Boy Scouts, flag football, softball and wrestling.
Wrestling earned Dwyane a nickname.
“I called him Hurricane Dwyane. He was all over the place,” said Brian Stanley, Dwyane’s coach at Fort Dearborn Elementary on the South Side.
Dwyane is 5-foot-10 and 260, but Stanley remembers him crying after losing a match.
“He’s a softie,” Stanley said. “He’s a little person in a big person’s body.”
Once, Dwyane was suspended from school for a “play fight” that turned rough, Stanley said. Most of the time, though, he was friendly to classmates and teachers.
“He was very helpful. He’d say, ‘Good morning, coach. Do you need anything?’ ” Stanley said.
Shot a block from school
On July 12, just after 9 a.m., Dwyane was walking to summer school at Fort Dearborn Elementary, 9025 S. Throop, in the Brainerd neighborhood.
He was 13, getting ready for eighth grade, and lived with his aunt in an apartment a few blocks from school.
A private surveillance camera showed Dwyane heading east on 91st Street toward school.
A man in his 20s ran up behind Dwyane. He wore a burgundy T-shirt with white lettering, a black cap, black basketball shorts with a white stripe on each side and white gym shoes.
The man shot Dwyane in the back of the head. The bullet exited through his forehead.
The gunman then turned and walked west on 91st. He was limping, police said.
A girl who attended Fort Dearborn heard the shot and ducked, Stanley said. She saw the gunman but didn’t know him.
“She was scared to death,” Stanley said. “She was having nightmares.”
The student transferred to another school because of the shooting, Stanley said.
Police would not discuss the case. No one has been charged, they said.
Hemphill said she doesn’t think Dwyane was involved in gangs.
“He’s no gang-banger,” added his principal, Arey Desadier.
But Hemphill wonders whether gangs were trying to recruit her nephew. She’s trying to find another apartment because she doesn’t want Dwyane to end up back on the same streets.
Children in the neighborhood of well-kept homes have to walk through three different gang territories surrounding the school.
And shootings aren’t uncommon. In 2010, a former Fort Dearborn student was killed while running to his house a few blocks from the school.
Dwyane was among 285 Chicago kids under 16 shot last year – almost five school-busloads of children. But the chances are slim that their shooters will wind up in jail. Only 15 percent of the shootings in Chicago last year were cleared.
‘A young man got shot’
Hemphill, a housekeeper, was working when Dwyane was shot. He didn’t call after school, and she was panicked. He always called between 1 and 1:15 in the afternoon. At 4:45 p.m., Hemphill’s phone rang. It was a detective.
“She said, ‘A young man got shot today, and we found this number in his pocket,’ ” Hemphill said. “ ‘He’s in his 20s.’ ”
“I said, ‘No, ma’am, that can’t be right. He’s just 13.’ ”
The detective visited HempÂhill at her home to look at photos to identify Dwyane. She confirmed he was wearing orange gym shoes to school that day. Then, the detective urged Hemphill to contact family members because Dwyane was in critical condition.
Hemphill recalls saying, “ ‘Ma’am, if he done died, tell me.’ She said, ‘Ma’am I can’t tell you he died. He was not dead when I left there. But I am not saying he will be alive when you get there.’ ”
When Hemphill walked into Dwyane’s hospital room, she didn’t recognize him. His head was so swollen she couldn’t see his eyes.
“There’s no doubt that in this situation, you’re going to say the chances we’re going to save his life are very low,” said Dr. James Doherty, the trauma surgery director at Christ Hospital.
Dwyane was a five on a “coma scale” of three to 15. A patient with a three is in the worst condition – with life signs “like a chair,” Doherty said.
Still, Dwyane’s brain stem was functioning, and he could be saved, especially given his youth, Doherty said.
A neurosurgeon removed bone fragments from the wound and took out a section of skull to relieve pressure on his brain. Another section of skull was taken out 10 days later.
Dwyane required a third surgery on July 29 to drain spinal fluid from his brain.
“That clearly made a difference,” Doherty said, calling Dwyane’s recovery “an unusual outcome . . . wonderful.”
He said Dwyane’s aunt was key to his recovery.
“There’s no doubt when you come out of a coma, you’re going to respond better to familiar voices,” Doherty said.
Dwyane was treated at La Rabida Children’s Hospital and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, both on the South Side, before arriving at Maryville Academy’s facility on Nov. 17.
Carrie Alani, the director there, recently sat across from Dwyane at a table and opened a book of memory exercises. She pointed to pictures of shaving cream and a razor, and he mouthed the words for them.
“And when you want to see how good you look, what do you look at?” Alani asked.
“Mirror,” he said, smiling, then adding, “Yeah, boy!”
Back in his room, a nurse handed Dwyane five crisp $1 bills for doing laundry. He started singing, “Five Dollar Footlong,” the Subway sandwich jingle. Everyone laughed.
As Hemphill was about to go, Dwyane hugged her and said, “Me and Angley.”
“Say you love me,” his aunt said.
“I LOVE YOU!” he replied.