Toronto

Gunshots, COVID-19, heart failure: A Toronto man's story of resilience 1 year later

The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by tragedy but also remarkable stories of resilience. More than a year after enduring a shooting, COVID-19 and heart failure, Kevin Kusi's recovery is one of them.

Kevin Kusi, 28, says he’s lucky to be alive after surviving both a shooting and COVID-19

Kevin Kusi smiles for the camera on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in front of a mural on the side of Extra Burger Dundas, a joint he frequented with friend and co-worker Phillip Ackaoui. (Sam Nar/CBC)

It was a slow March night at the bar and a quiet Uber ride home for Kevin Kusi. Then, the 28-year-old's life was turned upside down. 

As Kusi waited for the elevator at his apartment building in the Jane and Falstaff area, three men approached him and pulled out guns. He ran, but not before the men fired at least 20 bullets, striking him in the legs, arms, shoulder and stomach. 

"One of the guys dropped their gun right in front of my face but luckily he didn't shoot me again. He just picked it up and left," he said. 

Kusi was rushed to the hospital, but what he didn't know in the back of the ambulance was that this shooting would be just one of the ways he would nearly die in 2020. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by tragedy but also remarkable stories of recovery, like Kusi's. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Kusi mustered up enough strength to call 9-1-1 and waited until paramedics found him near the stairwell exit.

"Paramedics were trying to figure out if I was involved in a gang or something but I'm not and I was in too much pain to talk."

At the time, Toronto police told CBC News it was an "ambush" shooting and that they were looking for four suspects.

Toronto police investigating a shooting at 40 Falstaff Ave. on March 13, 2020. Officers say four suspects were seen fleeing the scene in a vehicle. (CBC)

Kusi says he had been living in the neighbourhood since he was a kid but never had any issues and always stayed out of trouble.  

Police said they were still trying to piece together a motive for the crime before they eventually arrested two people, Kusi says.

"I got word when I was in the hospital that two out of the four suspects had been arrested. I was told one person was in jail and another was let go on bail," he said.

Bar owner comes to Kusi's aid

For the last five years, Kusi has worked at a popular, cozy basement bar near Dundas Street West and Ossington Avenue — starting out as a security guard and working his way up to become a floor manager.

The owner, Phillipp Ackaoui, says he was closing the bar with Kusi hours before he was shot.

"I remember getting a frantic call at 9 a.m. from a friend saying Kevin was shot. I thought it was a mistake because I was just with him. Then I heard from his mother. I was stunned," he said.

The two men had grown close over the years and Ackaoui was even planning on training Kusi to take over his bar one day. 

Kevin Kusi and Phillip Ackaoui walk by Extra Burger Dundas in Toronto on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Sam Nar/CBC)

"I was devastated to see Kevin hurt. I promised I'd help him out and also that I wouldn't eat cheeseburgers at Extra Burger after work like we used to until he got home," he said.

Kusi had to undergo multiple life-saving surgeries to remove bullets and repair the damage.

Some bullets are still inside him today because it isn't safe to remove them, he says.

However, while he was recuperating in the hospital, cases of COVID-19 started increasing outside in the community.

Contracting COVID-19 in hospital ICU

After two months in hospital, Kusi was just weeks away from being released for rehab when he got sick.

Just as he was preparing to learn how to walk again he tested positive for COVID-19 in May 2020.

Kusi says he contracted the virus while in the intensive care unit at Sunnybrook Hospital.

"I was surprised and I was really mad. I didn't understand how I could've gotten COVID-19. I was tired of being in the hospital and I was more worried about the virus than I was about being shot," he said.

I was more worried about the virus than I was about being shot.- Kevin Kusi

In the days that followed the positive test, his condition worsened. It started with a fever and a cough but doctors soon had to place him in a medically induced coma for 10 days.

All the surgeries he needed after the shooting made his body too weak to fight off the virus.

Kusi told CBC News Toronto he was placed on a ventilator for 30 days and was transferred to Toronto General Hospital.

He doesn't recall much from that time but he says he's thankful to the health-care workers that helped him make it through, along with his friends and family.

Recovery halted by blockage

In the summer of 2020, weeks after beating COVID-19, Kusi was released from the hospital into rehab to start learning how to walk again.

While he was working on building up his strength, Kusi says he started to notice issues with his right leg.

"My leg was always swollen and anything I did would make my heart race. Something didn't feel right," he said. He had trouble breathing and was worried the COVID-19 flared up again.

He tested negative for the virus but after further tests, doctors discovered a blockage stopping the blood flow to his leg and called an ambulance to send him back to the hospital.

Doctors were concerned his heart was on the verge of failure after the surgeries, COVID-19 and now the blockage.

Kusi underwent another emergency surgery.

After the successful operation and nearly six months in hospital, he was finally cleared to go home in August 2020.

Bar owner Phillipp Ackaoui says he wanted to start a GoFundMe campaign for Kusi to help him get back on his feet after the year he's been through. (Submitted by Phillipp Ackaoui)

Ackaoui then launched a GoFundMe campaign to help Kusi get back on his feet after his release.

The goal was to raise $10,000 to help him move to a safer area and ensure that he was financially stable during the pandemic.

With the support of loved ones, Kusi says he was able to persevere through the most difficult time in his life. 

"I won't be playing basketball anytime soon but I can walk again and I'm starting to feel a bit more normal."

Kusi, who is planning to attend George Brown College in the fall to complete his business management degree, says doctors have told him he should make a strong recovery and while he may not ever be the same, he says he's thankful to still be here.

He's hoping he can continue to work with Ackaoui and one day help run the bar.

In the meantime the two friends have kept their promise to each other to get those cheeseburgers,just like they said they would.

"There's a lot of good days and bad days but I'm lucky to be alive," Kusi said. 

 For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Kevin Kusi shares a laugh with Phillip Ackaoui near the front of the takeout doors of Extra Burger Dundas on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Sam Nar/CBC)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Derick Deonarain is a producer for CBC News who grew up in the Northwest end of Toronto. When he's not chasing breaking news you can often find him covering stories that meet at the intersection of culture, social justice, sports and art.

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