Jason Gatrell waited nearly a month to eat his first nonliquid meal after being shot in the neck by a robber on Thanksgiving.
When feeding tubes were finally removed on Dec. 20, his mother prepared a special meal: ham and potatoes. But still weakened by the attack that fractured a vertebra in his neck, Gatrell had to pulverize his dinner in a food processor.
"I look at a lot of different things differently — every time I take a bite of food, every day I wake up," Gatrell said recently. "It takes a lot for me to be frustrated or upset now, because I'm just thankful to be here, really."
On Dec. 21, the 21-year-old St. Paul native took his first bites of food without the aid of machinery: two Big Macs and fries from McDonald's.
Gatrell was seriously injured on Nov. 23 while working with his younger brother, Jordan Gatrell, at the SuperAmerica gas station at 756 Snelling Av. N. in St. Paul's Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
Gatrell said he was washing dishes in a back room when an armed man entered the gas station, pointed a gun at his 19-year-old brother and ordered him to the back. The suspect was surprised to find the elder Gatrell.
"I [saw] him pointing a weapon at my brother, and it freaked me out," Gatrell said, "and the second he took it off of him, I just jumped for the gun."
Gatrell said the suspect pointed the gun at him and ordered him to the ground. Gatrell grabbed for the weapon. A struggle ensued, and the suspect's gun fired.
Gatrell and the man fell to the ground. The suspect jumped up and fled. But Gatrell lay crumpled on the floor. His arms and legs wouldn't move.
"I tried to scream for help," Gatrell said, "but nothing came out of my mouth."
Gatrell's brother called for help. Gatrell looked over at a pool of blood on the floor and realized he had been shot.
"I thought I was going to die, honestly," he said.
Jordan Gatrell applied pressure to the wound until paramedics arrived.
Gatrell underwent surgery at Regions Hospital and returned home Nov. 29. He wears a neck brace, was ordered not to lift anything over 10 pounds and limits how much he stretches, twists or bends. He did not suffer any paralysis.
"It gets a little bit better every day," he said of his recovery.
Gatrell, who has a 4-year-old son, hopes to return to work soon — possibly this week. He and his brother both started working at the gas station when they turned 16. Their grandmother manages the operation, and a cousin is also employed as a cashier.
Gatrell never feared for his safety despite previous armed robberies at the location. He's stuck around, he said, because it's a good place to work.
"It's always been good to me," he said. "Even the people who aren't family are kind of like family to us."
St. Paul resident Steven Ives said he goes out of his way to patronize the gas station instead of one closer to his home because of Gatrell and the staff.
"He's always been a very kind kid," Ives said.
Kathryn Debruycker, a family friend, started a GoFundMe page to help Gatrell with medical costs not covered by his insurance.
"When something like that happens, it goes on the news, people see it and then it's forgotten about," Debruycker said. "And you still have the victim, the aftermath, the trauma and the recovery. … I just wanted to help him out."
Although St. Paul police released photos of the suspect, there have been no arrests in the case.
Gatrell couldn't tell whether the gun was fired intentionally or accidentally, but he said he doesn't hold a grudge against his attacker.
"You know, I'm not really worried about catching [him]," he said. "I hope it doesn't happen to anybody else. I'm just happy to be here, honestly."