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On a summer night just after midnight, Kevin Morton Jr. was in his car after work when someone emerged from the shadows and shot him.

Morton was 22, a student at Oakland University and working at an Arby’s in Eastpointe that night in July 2007 when a bullet passed through his stomach, diaphragm, pancreas and two main blood vessels.

A few miles away, Dr. Dharti Sheth-Zelmanski was the trauma surgeon on duty at Detroit’s St. John Hospital when she got a page that a Code 1 trauma patient was arriving. She and other surgeons worked for hours to remove the bullet from Morton’s abdomen and stop the bleeding. One resident doctor told Morton’s father he wouldn’t live through the night.

But Morton survived five surgeries, 58 days in the hospital and more than a year of recovery, inspiring him to become a doctor and help others as Sheth-Zelmanski had helped him.

Thursday, almost nine years later, Morton will graduate from Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, with Sheth-Zelmanski participating in the ceremony.

He plans to specialize in surgery, and hopes one day he can pass on the gift he received from Sheth-Zelmanski.

“I want to be there for someone else, and keep paying it forward,” said Morton, now 31. “If I am ever in that situation, I hope God gives me the necessary skills, confidence and steady hands to save someone’s life, like Dr. Sheth did for me.”

Sheth-Zelmanski, now medical director of breast care services at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, says she was only doing her job, and trying to do the best for Morton as she does for all of her patients. She credits Morton with persevering through injuries to so many major organs, and for getting through medical school.

“He has such a strong will and such determination,” she said. “He could have said, ‘Look at my injuries. I am going to go on disability.’ But he said, ‘No, I am going to do better than that.’ He’s the hero in this. He’s the true inspiration.”

Morton had toyed with the idea of being a doctor when he was younger, but said he didn’t have any role models and never met doctors at career fairs while attending Pershing High School in Detroit. His stepmother’s career prompted him to study biochemistry, with a goal of working in the pharmaceutical industry, when he enrolled at Oakland University in 2003.

But Morton changed his major to biology after he was shot. While at his job as a manager at Arby’s on Eight Mile near Gratiot, he was finishing up paperwork to prepare for the following week’s business meeting.

It was a normal day, Morton recalled, as he was closing up the restaurant around 12:30 a.m. When he got into his car, he saw a figure approach him as he was attempting to drive home.

“I was scared because that neighborhood wasn’t the best,” he said. “We were already robbed twice in the previous months. I panicked and tried to drive off and that’s when I was shot.”

Morton knew he needed someone to help him, so he started to drive to a police department about a mile away. But he crashed after about a half-mile. He later learned an off-duty EMT worker stopped and helped get him to the hospital.

He remembers very little after he was shot, except the burning sensation from the bullet in his body.

Morton’s dad, Kevin Morton Sr., will always remember being in the hospital chapel that night.

“I never prayed so hard in my life,” Morton’s father said. “My son never did anything wrong. I couldn’t believe some stranger was going to steal his life in the middle of the night. There is no doubt he was left here to save somebody else’s life like his was.”

Weeks passed before Morton awoke in the intensive care unit, where he spent more than a month. He lost half of his pancreas, half of his large intestine and a small part of his small intestine. Surgical complications led to Morton developing four fistulas that required him to be on a liquid diet for nearly a year.

During the long hospital stay, Morton developed a bond with Sheth-Zelmanski, met others in the health care industry and became intrigued by the human body. He also found himself thinking about how he would handle a patient like him in the aftermath of such a trauma.

That’s when Morton decided to seek a career in medicine. Initially, he was on the path of becoming a physician’s assistant.

But when he sold his motorcycle, the buyer was Dr. Jason Dilly, an ophthalmologist at Henry Ford Hospital, who encouraged him to go all the way and become a doctor.

The first thing Dilly noticed about Morton was how immaculate his bike was. As they talked, Dilly was struck by how Morton made eye contact, conversed easily and radiated compassion — traits not always seen among physicians.

“There’s something about him that is so direct and so engaging,” Dilly said. “When you first meet him, he puts forth the best that humanity has to offer. That’s a strange thing to say about a stranger you just met. But I could tell after talking to him for 15 minutes he was truly a special man.”

Morton’s father encouraged him, too.

“I thought he had the ability, and though he had doubts, my son always was a straight A student,” said Morton Sr. “I knew he could do it. Why sell yourself short?”

Morton has since married his longtime girlfriend, and invited Sheth-Zelmanski and her husband to the wedding. When they arrived a little late, Morton introduced her to the guests as the surgeon who changed his life.

“She was so influential in the path I am on,” Morton said.

Morton and his wife have a daughter and own a house in Warren.

“It seems like everything in my life is perfect,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

His journey was shepherded by many people, though it was launched by someone who inflicted a near-fatal bullet and was never apprehended.

Morton still doesn’t know why the gunman targeted him. Even so, Morton has forgiven him.

“Holding on to things like that tend to hold you back,” Morton said. “It’s the only way to move forward.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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