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East High teen shooting victim explains physical, emotional toll of recovery

RJ Harding
Posted at 5:18 AM, Apr 03, 2023

DENVER — Denver Public Schools returns from spring break this week. And, for those at East High School, it will be their first day back since a student was found with a gun and shot two deans.

It was the third episode of gun violence at or near the school this year. It started in September 2022, with a shooting a block from campus outside the Carla Madison Recreation Center. Two teens were arrested.

Fourteen-year-old freshman RJ Harding, who is now 15 years old, was shot as an innocent bystander.

East High teen shooting victim explains physical, emotional toll of recovery

He and his girlfriend were leaving the rec center when he heard gunfire and saw bullets flying through the air.

"It just hit me right here," Harding said, pointing to his face. "It felt like another one hit me right here, and a piece of the bullet came off and it hit me in my neck. Everything went white, and then everything went black. I thought I was dead, until I heard my girlfriend screaming for help. I remember trying to keep myself alive, because I felt my soul about to leave me. So, I'm just fighting for my life."

A barber and doctor in a business nearby rushed to help Harding contain the bleeding until paramedics arrived.

The bullet was millimeters from vital organs, and Harding spent a month in the hospital. He underwent four surgeries and had to learn how to walk, talk, and eat again, which took its toll physically and mentally.

"After I worked my way through all of that, I just tried to get myself together mentally," Harding said. "I was talking to myself every day, giving myself pep talks."

"I would tell myself I could push through this. I couldn't give up, because I wanted to give up really bad. I'll be honest, I was really suicidal through the whole thing. I was in so much pain. I just wanted the pain to end," he continued.

He said he's doing much better now, and he has his family, friends, and medical staff to thank for that.

But, he isn't 100% back to normal.

He's much more aware of his surroundings in crowded areas. He doesn't ride the bus as often. And, he doesn't go to East High School anymore.

"The first time I went back there, I had a panic attack," Harding said of driving by East High School. "Nobody knew about it. It was just me in my own head having a panic attack. It felt like my mind was everywhere, thoughts were bouncing off my head. It felt like something was going to happen again."

Since then, he's been recognized for his resiliency, honored with the Department of Activities Leadership Award at the Black Student Alliance banquet.

Now, he wants to get back to doing what he loves, which is boxing. But, he still has some rehab to get through. So, if you'd like to help in his return, his family has set up a GoFundMe for you to donate.

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