‘Did I survive that gunshot wound so I could save these people?’ Wounded in shooting, man called to become Chicago firefighter

In tonight’s Medical Watch, we’re continuing our focus on a real plague in our city. The violence on the streets of Chicago is not new. For decades we have been covering murders and their aftermath. Now we get to follow up on a story of a young man shot who was stabbed and beaten decades ago, who later struggled, survived and thrived. Now he picks up victims and tries with every breath to help them live.

He believes the key to stopping violence is to face it head on, which he was forced to do even in our interview.

Chicago firefighter Jesse Rangel was at the academy recently as a veteran and was helping out at the academy on a high-rise training drill.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter,” he says. “Best job in the world. It really is. It’s the best job in the world."

Jesse lives on a quiet block on the Northwest Side of the city. It’s the same area where he and his wife raised three children. But his story begins in another part of town.

“I grew up in Little Village,” he says. “What a wonderful neighborhood! Restaurants, people, the Mexican Day Parade … but it was also filled with a lot of violence, drugs … gangs everywhere. So it was a tough neighborhood but it was home to us. We didn’t know anything different.”

Jesse gave WGN Medical Watch a tour around his old neighborhood. He made a stop at his church.

“This is the place where I would come every Sunday. This is where I made my first communion. This is where I made my confirmation,” he says. “If the church wasn’t involved in my life and I didn’t have that strong family structure, I don’t know where I would be at right now.”

Faith and his devoted parents kept Jesse and all nine of his siblings from joining the gangs that claimed the neighborhood, despite constant pressure.

“There was one time I was severely beaten by a gang that was just a few blocks, the opposing gang from the area from where I lived,” he says. “Three of them guys came up to me and just started beating me up. (I had) cuts all over my head, blood all over. I ended up getting stabbed in my arm. … They wanted me to join. It didn’t work.”

It wasn’t the first or last time he was the victim of gang violence. Years later, when Jesse was in his early 20s, something happened that changed the course of his life.

“I was just an innocent bystander. I was walking from my brother’s house to my mother’s house. And suddenly I hear some shots. Three weeks later woke up in hospital trying to figure out what happened.”

As WGN Medical Watch set up for his interview at the location where he was shot, it seemed quiet. But within minutes of our arrival, the scene grew tense.

“So I’m a little disturbed right now that there are still gang members here and they are approaching us right now,” he said.

To be safe, the interview was cut short and regrouped to a spot a few blocks away in the heart of Little Village.

“I kept looking at them and they were looking at me so they were squaring us up and I was doing the same thing squaring them up but we needed to get out of there, just too intense.”

The encounter brought back some of the same emotions Jesse felt as he recovered from his gunshot wounds and the fear and pain his father went through.

“It felt like I was drowning and sometimes I still feel that way,” he says. “Why is it me? Why was I saved? So I struggle with that even today. Why am I here? … I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life and that kind of convinced me, I wanted to make a difference.”

In 22 years Jesse has responded to so many fires, he’s lost count. But there’s one he’ll never be able to let go.

“I think about this one fire in particular,” he begins. “We arrive on the scene and this woman is yelling and despite the fact that she’s three stories up she’s ready to throw her baby. She had already thrown one baby down and there was a baby lying on the sidewalk … and she says ‘I’m gonna throw the baby! I’m gonna throw the baby!’ And I’m yelling at her at the top of my lungs, ‘Do not throw the baby! I’ll be right there!’ So I grab the ladder.

“I got up to the baby, she passed me the baby down and I ran down the ladder, passed the baby off and I ran back up. I grabbed the mother and I was able to bring the mother down. … The company that I was on that day, and myself, we ended up saving these kids … Did I survive that gunshot wound so I could save these people? It’s always on my mind, why am I still here?”

The question has haunted Jesse for 30 years. But at the same time, it’s what drives him.

“The majority of all our calls are EMS runs and its sad because you see a shooting victim, you see a stabbing victim and you think about what’s happening to their families. Just like my dad when he experienced that knock on the door.”

“There’s so much good out there,” he continues. “But there’s just a handful of bad people out there that do all of these bad things and evil. And that’s the part I don’t understand why people do this to other people. We seen them bad guys over at 25th and Trumbull. They’re up to no good and I felt strong enough to come in here and say a prayer for them that maybe they could change their lives, maybe they could turn around and think about not coming to violence on somebody else, and that’s what I prayed.”

Sunday at 6 p.m. WGN will  spend a half hour exploring the Violence Plague: Solutions and Success stories. We take you inside the hospital to see the medical impact of a gunshot wound, we explore the church’s role as a field hospital and we talk with a young man who knows exactly why he is surviving – and he has advice on how others can help. 

More on WGN’s series The Violence Plague: