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Man shot while shielding kids

Instinct told Morlan O'Bryan to scramble for cover when three teen-agers with guns rounded his street corner and started shooting. But when he saw a two neighborhood kids running unwittingly into the line of fire, he thought of his own children. He raised himself from the ground and ran to shield the running children.

That's when a 9mm bullet caught him in the spine.

Now O'Bryan, a 33-year-old warehouse worker whose five children range from age 2 to 11, is at University Hospital. Doctors say he may never walk again.

But O'Bryan said he would do the same thing again.

"I was glad to be there for somebody's kids," he said. "I can't live with seeing somebody else's kids die."

He believes the bullet that struck him would have hit the head of 9-year-old Nebulla Stephen, who was fleeing with her 6-year-old brother, Joseph.

"I didn't have any fear. I knew that God would look over me either way," O'Bryan said in a recent interview from his hospital room. "I went for the challenge."

O'Bryan brought his family to Boston in 1984 from the Virgin Islands in search of a steady job and good pay. In April, with the help of a first-time homebuyers' program, O'Bryan and his wife, Loudalia, bought an $89,000 home in a Boston subdivision.

The shooting occurred three weeks later, on April 25.

The bullet injured the lower part of O'Bryan's spinal cord, leaving him with little movement in his legs.

"Miracles can happen," said Dr. Joshua Kaufman. "(But) looking statistically, from experience, chances of him walking again are very, very small."

Now O'Bryan spends his days lifting weights, doing upper body aerobics and attending counseling sessions.

He handles his injury with humor _ saying how horrified he was that medics scissored off his best clothes as he lay bleeding in the street, or commenting on how Boston's pothole-ridden roads made his ambulance ride especially bumpy and painful.

"If I was to look at it from the serious point of view, I don't think I could cope with it," he said. "When you look at it with a humorous side, I can relate to it and have fun with it. I'm trying to lift myself up."

Susan Stephen, mother of the children O'Bryan shielded, has said that all she can do now is to try to help O'Bryan hold on to his home. She has started a fund, now totaling about $30,000, to help O'Bryan.

O'Bryan's act turned him into a local celebrity, prompting media attention and hospital visits from Mayor Raymond Flynn and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston's Archdiocese. But he shuns the hero label.

"I do something because I do it from my heart," he said. "I don't do it to get some kind of recognition."

The teen-ager who shot O'Bryan has not been caught, but he has the sympathy of the man he wounded. O'Bryan urged Law to pray for the youth.

"He's the one that needs some kind of holiness in his life," O'Bryan said.

When O'Bryan returns home this summer, he will have to wheel himself up a ramp to get through the front door. Daily chores he did without thinking will be harder, perhaps impossible.

But he is impatient to get back to his dream house and eager to hit the roads in his 1950s Volkswagen.

"If I get these legs built up some more, enough to push the clutch, I'm set," O'Bryan said. "Who knows, maybe I'll walk again, be on my own two feet."

Contributions can be made to the Morlan O'Bryan Fund; care of St. Matthew's Church; 33 Stanton St.; Boston, Mass. 02124.