By Angela Hill
OAKLAND — During a street robbery in East Oakland on Nov. 4, 2004, in which the thief got away with $7, 18-year-old Michael Angelo was shot once in the lower abdomen.
It took him 39 months to die.
Michael drew his last breath Feb. 4, surrounded by his family in a hospital room at UCSF Medical Center. The finality was unexpected. Family members were sure the 21-year-old would make it, would continue his limited, but happy, life.
After all, he had survived all this time since the shooting, pulling through more than 50 surgical operations and procedures — including an intestinal transplant and open-heart surgery at medical facilities here and across the country. But in recent months, his body had begun to reject the transplant. He was scheduled to be transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for a second transplant in February when an infection set in, and his life came to an end.
Yet through it all, the young man never complained, relatives said. Never asked, “Why me?”
“That’s one thing I commend Michael for highly, that he never felt sorry for himself,” said his aunt, Adria Angelo, who served as Michael’s patient advocate and liaison with hospitals and insurance agents.
“He really just focused on trying to get better and really enjoyed every moment of his life,” she said.
The Tribune wrote about Michael in 2005, noting how a seemingly minor — even commonplace — incident of gun violence could dramatically alter someone’s life, even when it hadn’t resulted in death. At the time of that article, Michael was hopeful. He said he even felt lucky, was expecting his transplant and had plans for the future.
“Maybe after the transplant, I’ll look into going back to school,” he said.
It’s not clear if Michael’s death will be counted as a homicide statistic. The gunshot would have to be declared the direct cause of his death, authorities said, and with so many medical procedures in between, it would be difficult to say for sure. And certainly no one would be charged in the case — the gunman was never caught.
But Michael’s family knows he died as a the result of the shooting.
“He never would have had a transplant, never would have been so susceptible to infection,” his aunt said. “This was a normal high school senior on the way to his cousin’s house when he was shot. He was not in any gangs. Not involved in any drugs. It was a terrible, tragic thing.
“But in a lot of ways, we feel very blessed,” she said. “He lived 39 months to the date after the incident. It was a gift to have had him all that time.”
To be sure, Michael, didn’t just spend his life not dying. Even though he was in the hospital more than out — the longest stretches at home with his father in Oakland were about a week or two at a time — Michael’s experience actually served as a period of personal growth and closeness with his dad.
“We both had so much spiritual growth,” said his father, Noil Angelo. “Sick as he was, we never knew how long he would be here, so we enjoyed everything. We would have long talks. He wanted to know what went on in my life. I got to know him better in four years than in the whole 18 before that.”
Michael had just turned 18 the month before the shooting. He had started a job at a landscape company in San Leandro.
Because of the work, he quit Fremont High School — where his dad is the head baseball coach — and started taking independent study classes. He wanted to get his own place and a car. He and his girlfriend of three years were so devoted they had each other’s names tattooed on their respective left arms.
Despite his dad’s love of baseball, Michael liked to shoot hoops. He didn’t play sports in high school, but he liked little tournaments at the Y and places around town. Liked to play point guard.
He was an average kid, and officers investigating the shooting said it appeared to have been just a random robbery.
On Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004, Michael had left his grandmother’s house and taken the bus to 98th Avenue and International Boulevard.
He was planning to stay at his cousin’s place because it was closer to his job. So about 8 p.m., he got off the bus and started walking in the dark.
“This guy was walking behind me, then got out in front of me and turned around,” Michael said in 2005. “I gave him the money I had, and he just shot me.”
Michael barely survived the night at Highland Hospital. He lost most of his intestinal tract. There was shock and contamination and major blood loss.
“The doctors gave him up twice during that time,” his aunt said. “One time, they told us he had a 5 percent chance to live. So we called in the reverend. We felt we needed to send up some prayers. And it worked.”
Still in the hospital the following January, Michael got an infection, requiring open-heart surgery for a valve replacement. After recovering from that major operation, he was allowed to go home for a while.
When dressed in street clothes and not a hospital gown, he looked the picture of health. There was one entire month when he was “infection-free,” his aunt said, and during that time, he was able to attend Fremont High’s senior ball. His dad got him a ticket. He wore a white tux.
But life was far from normal. Fourteen hours a day, he had to wear a nutrition tube with a saline solution because he could not eat solid food. His only hope for normalcy would be an intestinal transplant.
But it would be a rare procedure, one that only specialists in Chicago could perform.
That’s when his family became red-tape warriors, engaged in constant combat with insurance companies and state agencies. “People have no idea how hard something like this is,” Adria Angelo said. “Just to get access to services, to get SSI, to get paratransit to help with his appointments. And to get his transplant approved. It was unbelievable.”
Frustrated, Michael’s aunt reached out to the community. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s office sent a letter to the insurance company, as did Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks. Southwest Airlines donated plane tickets for the trip to Chicago. And the Angelos’ church did a lot of praying. “We had a lot of community support,” Michael’s aunt said.
Still, months went by. Michael developed more complications. Finally, the insurance company approved the operation, and Michael was flown to Chicago in January 2006.
His older brother was the donor, and the transplant was considered successful, for both of them.
Michael spent months recovering in the Chicago hospital. He was on lots of medication, taking 70 or 80 pills a day. Family members and sometimes his girlfriend would fly out for weeks at a time to be with him. The family even considered moving there.
Michael came home in May 2006. Then, he was in and out of local hospitals — Summit, UCSF, Stanford. Again suffering more complications, he ended up returning to Chicago at least two more times. Then last May, doctors discovered his system was rejecting the transplant, and preparations were under way to find another donor.
“In February, he was at UCSF and was going to be transferred and have the new transplant,” his aunt said. “We had talked that Friday. Then the hospital called us that Saturday and said they were concerned.”
His dad went over right away. “We watched the Super Bowl together that Sunday,” he said. “He was just getting real tired and sleepy. And then the next day he was gone.”
“It’s been really hard, but the whole family learned something from this,” Adria Angelo said. “I have such sympathy for other families. My heart is just burdened to see a homicide or a shooting on the news. Like the young boy (10-year-old Christopher Rodriguez) who was shot near Piedmont Avenue when he was playing the piano. He’s probably paralyzed for life, and I think about what he and his family will have to deal with from now on.”
Noil Angelo agreed. “Like on the homicide map,” he said, referring to the Tribune’s ann
ual publication of photos of homicide victims for the preceding year. “I see so many faces of kids from my school district on there. It’s just not right,” he said.
Contact Angela Hill at email@example.com.