Jo Franco knows she’s lucky to be alive.
“It’s not the easiest conversation to call up your mom and tell her you’ve been shot,” the YouTube star, 24, tells PEOPLE exclusively of what her life has been like since she was shot during an attempted robbery in Rio de Janeiro last week.
Franco’s mother had actually moved Franco and her two siblings from Brazil to the United States in 1998 because of the violence in the country. Franco grew up in small town Connecticut “stuck between cultures” but by college had dedicated herself to learning as many languages — and seeing as much of the world — as possible.
As part of her travels — which she and her longtime pal Damon Dominique share with their 580,000 YouTube channel subscribers — Franco decided to head back to her native country to celebrate Carnival, a citywide festival held before Lent every year.
“I’d had an amazing time with my dad and my family and was going to head to near the Copa Cabana to meet Damon,” Franco says of the events leading up to the Feb. 18 incident, which occurred around 9:30 p.m. “I was going to take an Uber, but my aunt and uncle offered to drive me because it was dangerous.”
“About five minutes into the drive, I was leaning forward between the front seats telling them a story when all of a sudden there was a man in the middle of the street pointing a gun at us,” says Franco, who also shares her memories of the horrific evening on her blog and in a YouTube video posted on her and Dominique’s channel Thursday.
Her uncle, who Franco says was going about 40 mph, had no time to stop and crashed into one of two motorcycles the gunman had used to block the street.
“In a flash, everything changed. We just started screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go! Get out of here!’ And within a second, you just hear pops of guns flying into the car,” recalls Franco. “My aunt screamed, ‘Duck!’ And as I ducked, I saw this other guy come out of nowhere popping more bullets. I could actually see the red flames coming out of the gun.”
“All of a sudden I felt heat in my back and I thought, ‘I just got shot in the back,’ ” she says.
In all, nine bullets pierced the car but Franco was the only one injured.
“I told myself as I was laying down, ‘You say you’re strong. Now is the time to prove it,’ ” she says in her video.
Her uncle never stopped driving and within five minutes Franco was getting out of the car at an emergency room.
“As I got out of the car, I looked to the left — to where I should have been sitting if I hadn’t been leaning forward — and saw a gaping hole from a bullet,” she says. “That was the first bullet that hit the car. It would have caught me by surprise and that could have been the end of me.”
But the bullet that ended up hitting Franco in the lower back had actually come through the trunk and the backseat cushion.
“They said that slowed the bullet down enough that my back muscle could take the impact,” says Franco.
Lying in the hospital bed, “I just told myself, ‘Jo, just calm down. There’s nothing you can do so just open your eyes, breathe deep and calm down,’ ” she said of when she first arrived at the emergency room. “Then they put me through the machines and all the kinds of thoughts go through my head: ‘Will I be paralyzed? Is this my last day? What were the last things I said to my loved ones?’ “
“Those thoughts change the way you think,” says Franco. “Most people don’t think about how it’s such a blessing that our bodies can move.”
Ultimately Franco spent 14 hours in the hospital. (There were only nurses at the emergency room that night because the government employees aren’t getting paid — that includes cops and doctors — so a lot of them are on strike,” she explains.) But by noon the next day, she was told she could go home — with the bullet in her back.
“They said I was really lucky because the bullet hit me in just the right spot to not affect anything,” she Franco. “But it was so close to my spine that they said it was safer just to leave it there.”
She spent five days recovering in Rio before flying back home to Los Angeles.
“I’m taking things easy — no big workouts — but I’m going grocery shopping and living my life,” says Franco, who still has a patch over the wound and will be seeing a doctor in the U.S. to make sure she doesn’t get an infection but otherwise will just have her back examined annually. “I’m just so thankful and so lucky that I’m okay.”
But now, as she reveals her traumatic story to the world, Franco hopes to both inspire and educate her fans.
“We are lucky to live in a country where the average American family doesn’t have to worry about being held at gunpoint on a daily basis like my family in Brazil does,” she says. “My 15-year-old cousin shouldn’t ever have had to live through holding me as we rushed to the hospital. No child should.”
“I want to open people’s eyes. But I also don’t want them to live in fear. I refuse to live in fear. I will go back to Brazil and I encourage other people to visit my beautiful country,” she continues. “Our entire channel is encouraging people to live for happiness instead of fear, so I’m hope by sharing my story I can emphasize that everyone needs to live. Carpe diem. Carpe the hell out of that diem. Do everything that makes you happy because there is no promise of tomorrow.”