So now we can officially say that I have more street cred than the average Joe. This is not a joke, this is not a made up story. I was shot in the back in my own country, and survived to tell the tale.
You hear of horror stories about Brazil, the USA, Europe, the Middle East, and despite the conflicts being different, the root of the problem is still cruel and unfiltered violence towards millions of innocent people. Despite these horrifying headlines, we can’t forget that there are happy endings, such as this one.
The beginning of the new beginning
As I retrace my steps I can’t help but notice that the series of events that led me to the hospital were all orchestrated in a way to protect me. Everything I did the entire day led me to that moment where it all could’ve ended, but clearly and luckily, wasn’t supposed to. So here I am to tell you the story about how I now have a bullet in my back.
It was an above average day.
It was a sunny and muggy Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro, the date was February 28th, I woke up ready for the last day of celebrating my first ever Brazilian carnaval. I thought it was a shame to be considered Brazilian without having experienced the world famous drums, and sparkle of my own people. Little did I know I would leave my country with a souvenir that I could never forget.
We had a blast, we went to block parties, enjoyed moments on the beach, and overall had a great time experiencing carnaval week in Rio before my accident.
About three days in, everything would change. The morning started out with a mediocre breakfast that wasn’t even worth a photo, then Damon and I decided to go to the beach, where I admired the beauty of Os Dois Irmãos, and took a moment to praise the fit men and women playing Beach Volley. Somewhere between taking a dip in the ocean, and laying out for a tan, Damon and I argued about the smallest thing; me always having to share my kanga/beach towel with him because he never wanted to bring his own. The energy between us was less than friendly. It would’ve been a shame to mark the end of a friendship like ours with something so petty.
I spent time in the ocean alone, not as much time as I would’ve, had I known it might’ve been my last opportunity to connect with the magic of the sea. About an hour in, we decide to get up and leave to find a gym for a quick workout. To our disappointment, carnaval meant all gyms were closed at 3pm; we arrived at 3:05. I was unable to get my daily fix of endorphins from a good run, so I decide to check something else off of my “to-do” list and visit my family in Rio’s Northern suburbs, Tijuca.
I get an Uber all the way to my childhood condominium, and meet my dad, half brother, and step mom. My dad and I didn’t have the greatest chance of building a relationship as I grew up, due to the thousands of miles of distance between us. Despite this, I’ve been making more of an effort as an adult with the “I never know how many moments we’ll be able to spend together, so let me see him as much as possible” approach in mind; ironic.
This is my third time in Rio since I left as a five year old, and I made it a point to experience something with him, instead of just talking about the lost time. Around 6PM, we all took off to probably the smallest of carnaval’s blocos, aka block party, and followed a truck that was blasting music, while a small group of people danced and paraded down a small three-street radius.
My dad and I caught up, danced in the street, threw confetti, and really enjoyed this time for unfiltered happiness. That could’ve very well have been my last moment on this earth, which is absolutely insane to think about.
After the block party, I said goodbye to my dad (not in a way where it could’ve been my last time seeing him; again – this is all absurd), and went to my aunt and uncle’s house across the street. Around 9:30PM, after my phone had been blowing up from incoming texts from Damon, and my cousins all waiting for me to head back to Copacabana to keep the party going, I told my aunt that I was going call an Uber to head home. They both insisted on driving me, because it was getting late and it might be dangerous – and we had no idea what was about to happen next.
Moments before I officially became iron woman.
We got in the car; my cousin and I in the back, my uncle driving, my aunt in the passenger’s seat. Five minutes in, I was telling a heated story, placing my hands in between both front seats, and for the first time ever, I didn’t put on my seat belt which was a huge factor in how I survived.
In the blink of an eye, everything changed. As we turned down a dark street in their neighborhood, I saw a man standing with a gun pointing directly at my head, as he stood in front of his motorcycle to block the road in an attempt to steal the next car that came down the street.
There was an immediate click in my brain that turned on the “survival mode” switch, where I would wait and try to capture as much information to react in the best way possible. The car kept moving, and I feel a thud; my uncle hadn’t seen there were two motorcycles, and accidentally hit one of them. From that point on, it was a scene out of a crime movie: “vai, vai vaiiiii,” my little cousin and I yelled from the back seat. Pops from their guns started exploding into the air, and as I heard the noise and smelled the fresh gun powder, I ducked down just in time to see the red flame burst out of a pistol pointed directly at my face. I crouched down on my 15 year old cousins lap, seeing the men’s hands and guns point towards all directions of the car, as my uncle attempted to accelerate us out of that situation. We were out of sight, and seemingly unscratched. And then I felt heat accumulate in my body, after a moment of lost breath.
I heard myself urgently say words I would’ve imagined myself saying: “I just got shot in the back.” I grazed my hand on flesh that didn’t even feel like mine, and felt a warm pool of blood forming. Without panicking, I tried to regain my breath and focus on survival. I leaned on my teenage cousin’s lap, who gave me strength when it could’ve been my last moments; I never want to live in a world where this kind of trauma is just a part of being a kid.
It was all pretty primitive at that point; will I be the badass woman I claim to be? Now was my chance to show it to myself. Moments after I had processed I was hit, my uncle and aunt sped me to an emergency room down the street – God is good. I limped to the entrance of the urgent care, and stumbled into a wheelchair that was waiting for me after my aunt panicked her way into the building saying I had been hit with a bullet. The blood on my hands felt so real, that I wanted it to be a lie. I couldn’t even fathom thinking about the reality, that I, Joanna Franco, had just been shot in the back.
As I laid in the hospital bed, shaking from lost blood and fear, and I look at the nurse, a complete stranger, who was smiling down at me explaining the procedures. I asked her to hold my hand, and thanked her for reminding me that there’s more good in the world than bad.
About fourteen hours later, I had done all of the tests to confirm that there was indeed a bullet lodged inside of my back. By the grace of everything out there, the bullet managed to hit the one spot in my back where it only impacted muscle tissue. Due to the closeness to my spine, the doctors decided to leave it inside of me. As I was released from the hospital, I noticed that despite the feeling of a foreign object inside of my body, and slight pain, I could do everything normally, thank God.
Damon and the rest of my family rushed to the hospital in their carnaval outfits once they heard the news. After a few moments of the initial shock, I was already cracking jokes to celebrate life by doing one of my favorite things about being a human, laughing.
So now let’s get to the real deal:
What does having a bullet in my back feel like? For starters, the initial impact didn’t hurt, it was warm. The kind of warmth that brings panic of what you’re about to feel next, or the kind of warmth that could peacefully enter you into the next stage of life – the afterlife.
Another thing we need to get clear is that despite having a literal bullet hole on my back now, the physical pain is no comparison to the mental pain.
The bullet in my back will be a constant reminder of the pain that plagues humanity; unnecessary violence and greed, and the fact that man pretends to be God and feels the need to choose who can live or die if they possess a weapon.
It appalls me that strangers will shoot at your car for the sake of stealing your money or vehicle. That will never add up to taking a life.
We try to turn a blind eye, focus on the likes, on the comments, who wore it best, what salads will tighten up our bodies. What we don’t focus nearly as much energy on, are relationships that need mending, and people who deserve apologies.
If yesterday were my last day on earth, would it have been a good last day? Of course I’ve lived a good life. In fact, I’ve lived more than I could’ve imagined in 24 years. But on that particular day, I managed to argue with everyone I care about; Damon, my mother, I hadn’t spoken to my friends or siblings in days, and it would’ve killed me (pun so intended) to leave the Earth on those notes with the people closest to me.
Luckily, I have a second chance, and you better believe I’m gonna live the hell out of that opportunity.
And yes, I will go back to Brazil. Happiness will always combat fear in my book. I had an amazing time before and after the incident. Bottom line is that I couldn’t be more grateful for the best case scenario of something that could’ve ended my life.
So where do we go from here?
The sad news is that we’re not operating by logical math. We’re living in a society where things don’t add up anymore. So let’s focus our energy on things we can control, like making sure we do the things our heart’s desire every single day. Making sure we tell those we love that we love them without hesitation. Like appreciating basic actions our bodies are miraculously able to do, like walk, experience sound, take deep breaths, and hug people who have nothing to transfer but love. Now could not be a better time for me to tell you to shut up and go.
I encourage you to ask yourself the question that’s permanently lodged within me. If today were your last day, would it have been a good one?
I have no choice but to let myself feel the pain of a million bullets for all the lives innocently taken. And because I made it out alive, and almost unscratched, I can’t help but be overjoyed that everyday I wake up is a new chance to experience the preciousness of life. Hopefully you don’t have to get shot to feel the same way.
It’s been one week since the accident, and I’m back home safely in Los Angeles. I’ve followed up with doctors who have answered all of my ridiculous questions:
ME: “So if I move like this, will the bullet get out of place?”
ME: “So, do I have to avoid any kind of physical activity after two months of recovery?”
ME: “So basically, what you’re telling me to do is just live my life?”
DR: “That is correct.”
ME: “So since I’m alive, I guess I’ll just have to live.”
Cheers to living life fuller than you would normally allow yourself to, because we really never know when it could all come to an end.
If you’re a victim of a crime abroad, reach out to the embassy of your country, and they’ll help accommodate your needs for travel, and medical bills. Be safe everyone.