18-Month-Old Boy Treated at Cook Children's After He Was Shot in Leg During Family Outing by Stray Bullet
Cook Children’s treated 42 patients for traumatic gunshot wounds in 2022
By Jean Yaeger
Kaitlin Bates and her three young sons heard a loud pop while walking on a nature trail one day last summer.
At first, Kaitlin thought their stroller ran over something, maybe a snake. Then her 18-month-old son Jace started screaming. Kaitlin was shocked to see blood flowing from a hole in Jace’s knee. The toddler, seated in the stroller, had been shot.
The Bates family’s trip to a nature center in Wichita Falls on Aug. 11, 2022, turned tragic because someone fired a gun. Was the shooter aiming at the boys and their mom? Or was Jace randomly hit by a stray bullet? No one knows.
Whether or not the shooter intended to cause harm, the consequences were serious. The bullet tore through cartilage, ligaments and tendons, and also chipped off a bone fragment from his tibia. Jace required surgery – followed by months of physical therapy to regain the use of his left leg.
“Jace is so resilient,” Kaitlin said. “It slowed him down for awhile and he had a lot of pain for awhile while, but I think Jace has the beauty of ignorance because he’s so young. He never knew what happened. He didn’t know it was a gunshot.”
Jace was one of 42 children and teens treated at Cook Children’s Medical Center for gunshot wounds in 2022. Most of those patients were ages 11 or older, although some were babies or preschoolers. Five died from their injuries.
Hospital data show that handguns accounted for almost half of the gunshot wounds treated at Cook Children’s last year. Traumatic injuries also resulted from shotguns, BB guns and airsoft guns, which use compressed gas to launch pellets.
In an effort to reduce injuries and fatalities from firearms, the Cook Children’s Aim for Safety® program promotes awareness and responsibility to help protect kids from accidental shootings. The program emphasizes three basic steps:
1. Safe Storage – Keep firearms unloaded and in locked locations out of reach of children. Use trigger locks and gun safes. Secure ammunition separately.
2. Safe Children – Teach your child don’t touch if they see a gun or someone aiming a toy gun at others. Teach them to run and tell an adult.
3. Safe Play – When non-powder guns are in use, remember to never aim BB guns or pellet guns at another person. Wear safety glasses when using a paintball gun, gel bead gun, water bead gun or soft foam gun. Before a playdate at a friend’s house, find out if guns are kept in the home and how those guns are secured.
Daniel Guzman, M.D. understands the Texas hunting culture; he’s a firearm owner himself and respects the Second Amendment. But as a physician at the Cook Children’s Emergency Department, he also knows the danger. Dr. Guzman started Aim for Safety® in 2017 after the upsetting experience of treating a 4-year-old shot on accident by a sibling. The child died from the injuries.
“No one is here to talk about keeping a gun from anybody, but there are definitely things that we can do to help minimize the injuries,” Dr. Guzman said. “The number one thing that comes with gun ownership is safe storage and responsibility.”
In Jace’s case, maybe the shooter hit the boy on purpose. His parents think the more likely scenario was carelessness … the shooter pulled the trigger without knowing what or who could be in the bullet’s path. Aim for Safety® wants to keep such tragedies from happening.
Jace can once again walk, ride a tricycle and romp around with his big brothers. Kaitlin and Justin Bates are thankful for their son’s recovery but don’t know if the injury will impact his growth or cause complications when he’s older. Here’s a closer look at events and the care Jace received at Cook Children’s.
Bullet out of the Blue
The bullet came in at a downward angle, entering through the inner leg and protruding like a knot on the outside of his knee. Kaitlin unbuckled Jace and ran with him in her arms the short distance back to the nature center. She yelled for help.
“There was blood everywhere. Jace’s leg was just pouring blood,” Kaitlin remembers. “I was just looking at him and trying to assess what had happened. I saw a perfectly round hole in his leg.”
Two of Kaitlin’s former schoolmates happened to be there. They comforted the older Bates brothers, who were scared and crying. Someone called 911. Another guest offered a first aid kit, and Kaitlin sat Jace on the counter in the restroom. The two women made a tourniquet and applied pressure with paper towels. But the bleeding didn’t stop.
“Jace was kind of starting to pass out,” his mom said. “He had lost a lot of blood and he had quit crying. He was very still at this point.”
The ambulance rushed Jace and Kaitlin to a local hospital, where doctors put his leg in a soft cast and lined up transport by helicopter to Fort Worth. Kaitlin knew it was a bad injury, and she wanted to go to pediatric specialists at Cook Children’s. The Emergency Department was ready and waiting to give Jace a scan and pain medication to get through the night.
In surgery early the next morning, two incisions were made to remove the bullet and to flush the wound of residue that could cause infection. Jace was put in a cast from his groin to the toes on his left foot. He went home the next day.
The cast prevented Jace from putting any weight on his leg. Normally a rowdy fireball of energy, the boy couldn’t stand up when the cast came off a month later.
“He couldn’t bend or straighten his leg. It was frozen in that position,” Kaitlin said. “It has been grueling. He's had a lot of pain. and even still, if I pick him up in a weird position or if I'm rocking him and I hold his leg funky, he still will reach down and grab his leg and start crying.”
Physical therapy sessions twice a week in Wichita Falls provided stretching and climbing practice to help Jace improve his strength and range of motion.
Cook Children’s will continue to monitor Jace, who limps when he’s tired. Doctors don’t know how the growth plates in his knee might respond to the injury. Arthritis could potentially be another long-term complication.
Jace’s parents aren’t anti-gun. In fact, they practice safeguards at home because Justin owns a firearm.
“Being a responsible gun owner myself I never would’ve imagined that someone’s negligence would affect my family in this way,” Justin said. “It is paramount that firearm education is taught in our communities with the understanding that a firearm is a tool that should be operated, maintained and stored responsibly.”
His parents suspect the bullet that hit Jace came from a handgun fired blindly from a neighborhood or city park outside the grounds of the nature center. As of January 2023, the shooting remained unsolved.
“Maybe someone was just shooting up into the air and didn't realize that what comes up has to come down,” Kaitlin said. “I really don't know. There's a lot of yuck in this world, and so maybe someone did it intentionally. But overall, my husband and I really are on the page of somebody shot a gun not knowing what was behind him, which is just as stupid as doing it intentionally.”
Jace getting shot was one of the scariest things his parents have ever faced. They don’t want other families to go through what they experienced. But they rely on faith and see blessings throughout the ordeal. Kaitlin points out that if she had pushed the stroller one step further on the trail, Jace could have been shot in the head or heart instead of the knee. He could have been killed.
“We are constantly praying that the Lord would use this to bring about a mighty testimony in all of our lives, especially Jace’s,” she said. “We pray that Jace would come one day to know how much God loves him and protected him and that Jace would spread that love to all those he encounters in his life. No matter the circumstances, God is still good.”
Access and Risk
As medical director of Aim for Safety®, Dr. Guzman works to spread the three-point message of Safe Storage, Safe Children, and Safe Play through presentations at schools and community events. He and the program have reached thousands of families, provided hundreds of locks and safes for safe storage, and distributed more than 3,000 education and awareness resources.
In 2022, he made presentations to eight elementary schools and six community events in the Fort Worth area. The program also includes online classes offered through the Cook Children’s Center for Children’s Health.
“I wanted to get out there and talk to families and remind them of the importance of storing firearms safely – unloaded and locked in a safe,” Dr. Guzman said. “I’m not here to make a political statement. I’m here to educate families and keep our children safe!”
His goal is to help people understand the risk of gun ownership – similar to the risk of drowning that homeowners can proactively reduce by installing fences and locked gates around a backyard swimming pool.
Frequent conversations with your child are vital. Teach them never to touch a gun they might come across in a purse, nightstand drawer, vehicle or other location. But families also need to put barriers in place to limit access. Dr. Guzman estimates that Aim for Safety® has given away 175 gun safes and more than 1,000 gun locks in the past two years.
The national Gun Violence Archive website lists 314 fatal shootings of U.S. children ages 0-11 in 2022. Unintentional shootings can be prevented, Dr. Guzman pointed out. He never wants to hear another grieving mother in the emergency room say she didn’t think it would happen.
“I know my kids like to explore. They’re curious about things. They’re going to play hide and seek and play with things they may across,” he said. “Again, it’s not about browbeating anybody. It’s just about keeping our kids safe.”
Cook Children’s Aim for Safety® presents a non-political educational approach to keeping everyone safe when guns are in a home, The program emphasizes responsibility through three steps: Safe Storage. Safe Children. Safe Play. It doesn’t debate whether guns are right or wrong. It's about protecting our children.
For more information or to register for an online firearms safety course, go to Gun Safety (centerforchildrenshealth.org)