On Kevin Morton’s first night in the operating room, he wasn’t wearing scrubs. His mind was reeling, his body shuddering and failing.
It comes back to him in flashes.
In July 2007, when he was 22, he was balancing college classes and working 48-hour weeks as the manager of a Detroit Arby’s. Shifts at the restaurant often lasted until after midnight, and this particular night was no exception. Morton dismissed his co-workers, finished his closing duties and walked out to the quiet parking lot alone.
“My car was in reverse when I saw the shadow (of a man) coming up,” Morton said.
There was a flash of light and a loud noise; Morton knew that he had been shot in the stomach. The man robbed him and ran away.
Morton’s first thought was that the hospital, St. John, was too far of a drive. He knew there was a police station a few miles down the street, since officers would often stop by Arby’s for lunch. Though his body was fading rapidly, Morton somehow steered his car to the road, set for the station.
He didn’t make it far. Morton passed out, but from what he was told, he swerved off the road and was found by a passer-by, who dialed 911. He briefly remembers being inside of an ambulance, an oxygen mask covering his face.
The second time he woke, he was on an emergency room table, having his clothes ripped off by doctors.
“All I could think about was my younger sisters,” said Morton, now 31. “It’s funny, but that’s the only thought I had. I kept thinking, ‘I have to stay alive for them.’ ”
Beating the odds
Dr. Dharti Sheth, a surgeon, was on call in the St. John trauma center the night Morton was shot. She heard the dispatch: a code 1 trauma patient shot in the abdomen, one of the most vulnerable areas of the body.
Luckily, the bullet spared Morton’s vital organs.
“He had no vital organ injuries,” Sheth said. “He was alert, amazingly. I had to convince him that he was going to be OK.”
Despite Sheth’s reassurance to her patient, Morton had about a 10% chance of surviving for more than 24 hours, Sheth recalled. The gunshot had pierced his stomach, damaging his large and small intestines. Most critically, half of Morton’s pancreas had been destroyed.
Sheth moved quickly. She stabilized her patient, controlled the hole in his stomach and began closing the wounds with sutures. Meanwhile, Morton’s family — his father, stepmother and two younger sisters — braced themselves for the worst.
“I think (Sheth) threw a couple of extra staples in there,” Morton said. “She went the extra mile to save my life, even when the vascular surgeon said (my case) was futile.”
He survived the night. But a long, difficult road still lay ahead.
For the next six weeks, Morton was confined to the intensive care unit, his vitals closely monitored for signs of failure. His weight dropped from 160 pounds to 107. Injuries to his digestive system made eating impossible. Even after he was discharged from the hospital, he had to be fed through an IV for the next year.
Morton had complications: A fistula developed in his small intestine, draining liquid onto his skin.
“If I were to drink a Pepsi, the Pepsi would gush out of my side,” Morton said. With every drawback, he told himself, “This will pass. This will pass.”
Recovering and rediscovering a passion for medicine
Morton’s experience was traumatic, but it made his life goals suddenly clear.
“This event happened to me, and it (relit) the fire and love for medicine,” Morton said.
Though some details of the shooting are blurry, Morton remembers the man he was at the time of the shooting. He was a student at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, studying biochemistry: a subject encouraged by his stepmother, who worked for a pharmaceutical company in the area.
Before the shooting, Morton was on a pre-medical track, possibly pursuing a career in pharmacy, but that plan didn’t seem feasible anymore. His grades were slipping. “Life got hard,” he said.
“I couldn’t afford to study as much as the other kids,” he said. At that point, he remembers, “I just wanted to get a degree, get a job and make money.”
Long work hours were necessary to pay rent, but they came at the expense of valuable study time. With student loans looming, Morton was concerned with paying off his college debt, and he couldn’t even consider paying medical school tuition.
After the shooting, Morton’s stepmother gave him a laptop to use in his hospital bed. He started researching his injuries, excited to recognize medical terms from his college science classes. Witnessing the effects of Sheth’s precision in the operating room and compassion with her patients was an inspiration for Morton to pursue medicine again.
“Most surgeons only see patients during the operation, and maybe a follow-up appointment,” Morton said. “(Sheth) was very involved post-care. She kept my family in the loop and continued to check in even after I left the hospital. She was very motivating.”
“Kevin says I inspired him to be a doctor,” Sheth said. “He had mentioned during recovery that he wanted to go into medicine, then he called to say he was going to medical school at Michigan State. I was so happy for him.
“He has all the qualities of a good doctor. He has the intellect, the personality, good eye contact, and is very pleasant and easy to talk to. He’s very positive.”
When Morton graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in May, Sheth came to the ceremony. She also attended her patient’s wedding seven years ago.
Along with Sheth as a doctor and mentor, the unfailing support from Morton’s wife, Sherry, support from his family and a strong conviction in God helped pull the doctor through every challenge — from recovering from a gunshot to managing medical school.
Morton contributes his drive and optimism to his father, Kevin Sr.
“He knows how to make the best out of every situation,” Morton said. “Even in the hospital, when we didn’t know what would happen.”
Because of Morton’s strength of character, Sheth said, “He had the courage to take a good path in life.”
Returning to the operating room
After Morton graduated from Michigan State, he moved back to his hometown of Warren, Michigan, with his wife and young daughter. This fall, he began his medical residency in surgery at the very place where his life took a dramatic turn: St. John hospital.
“It was weird walking down those corridors again,” he said. “They gave me an uneasy feeling.”
Morton doesn’t have much time to dwell on bad memories, however. He rotates between St. John’s three hospital branches, including the one in Detroit where he was treated in 2007.
On a typical Tuesday morning, he wakes up at 4:15 a.m. and arrives at the hospital about 4:45 a.m. to see his patients and meet with the upper level attendants. Then from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., he’s in the operating room, where the soundtrack might be a mixtape of Tupac and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
“It’s very busy, very fast-paced,” Morton said. “Our program is good at getting residents first-hand experience.”
Residency has its lows — long days at the hospital coupled with hours of studying at night — but it also has its highs, like being able to pay back the service he received in 2007.
“I try to block out the past, as a healing process,” said Morton. “But from going through that experience, I feel like I can connect more with my patients.”