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Cover Story

What It's Like to Be Shot

Many officers have survived ballistic trauma in a gunfight, but it helps to know what to expect.

September 17, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo by Mark W. Clark.
Photo by Mark W. Clark.
"And then it felt like something just jumped up and bit me."—Forrest Gump

It's rarely a failure of the imagination that causes officers who find themselves engaged in a shooting to be surprised at the situation. More often, it is a matter of inconvenient timing. They just weren't expecting it to happen right then and there. Despite having developed all manner of contingency planning, strategies, and tactics that would theoretically allow them to acquire and maintain the upper hand, vigilant officers still run the risk of seeing things literally shot to hell at any time on duty or off.

It is in such moments one additional bit of foresight may prove profitable: Recognizing just what they might expect when they find themselves shot and wounded. At such times, they may find comfort in the voices of people who have, unfortunately, been there and done that.

"I chased him across the street [where] his getaway car pulled up. He took the classic shot—two hands on the gun—and shot...

"I saw the flash come out ... Anyone who has been shot will know it's just the absolute coldness that goes through your body. It just looked like a dot in my leg, but actually my leg was smashed. Something that worries me: Where are the pants that I was wearing? Everything that I was wearing disappeared, and I remember (the paramedics) were cutting at my trousers to get to the wound. I said, 'These are new pants,' and [they] said, 'Sir, we don't give a shit.' But I'm alive, and I feel good."

While it would be easy to infer this quote as the words of a police officer, they are actually the comments of British rock star Ray Davies describing to the Seattle Weekly what happened to him in the aftermath of a 2003 mugging. The story of the musician's shooting serves to illustrate just how common some of the human responses can be among those who have found themselves at the wrong end of a gun: a perhaps surprising lack of visible trauma, an incongruous—if momentary—fixation on subordinate concerns, and a sense of jubilation at surviving.

It's not much different for law enforcement officers who have been shot in the line of duty.

Physical Responses

"...hot gravel..."

"...like getting hit with a baseball bat at full swing..."

"...a red hot poker going through you..."

These are expressions used by officers to describe the pain of being shot. But while it can be undeniably intense, such pain is often not debilitating.

And even physically debilitating injuries do not necessarily mean incapacitating. The officer whose radial nerves have been shattered and rendered incapable of retrieving or manipulating his firearm may still be able to run and move for cover. The officer who finds her shotgunned legs swept out from under her may still be in a position to return fire.

There may even be a delay in realizing the nature of the injury. Fort Hood shooting casualty Pfc. Joey Foster was unaware that he'd been shot by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan until he'd been hiding behind a wall for 20 minutes.

When Jacksonville, Fla., Officer Jared Reston's field of vision suddenly filled with exploding stars, he didn't immediately realize what had happened to him. It wasn't until he rolled down an embankment and found that his jaw had collapsed upon itself and his teeth were laying sideways in his mouth that he knew that he'd been shot.

Chippewa County, Wis., Dep. Sheriff William Kelly hadn't felt any pain when he was ambushed and shot in the ribs and hip outside a deranged man's home. It wasn't until a bullet splintered his shin bone that he began to hurt.

Sensory Response

Despite their pain, both Reston and Kelly were able to return fire and put their assailants down. Such experiences are not unique, and they illustrate the body's ability to regulate itself even under the most arduous of circumstances. This ability is the result of a series of chemical changes within the body upon sustaining a ballistic injury, changes that simultaneously inhibit some bodily functions while activating others.

The human pupil may dilate during a shooting, leaving the viewer with the impression of seeing things through a tube as everything else blends into the white periphery. One advantage of having such tunnel vision during a shooting is the ability to focus on perceived threats immediately in front of you. Some officers involved in gunfights have even been able to see bullets flying through the air. A liability that comes with tunnel vision is that you may not able to identify potential collateral casualties through your peripheral vision.

Additional sensory deprivation may take the form of auditory exclusion. This is the result of the "fight or flight" impulses of the brain screening out extraneous information to better focus on the imperative.

Similar phenomena result from the body producing larger amounts of the hormone epinephrine under potentially deadly stress. During this so-called "adrenaline dump," the effects of pain may be diminished, and you may view your surroundings in muted colors or find it difficult to carry out simple tasks.

Other physical responses may become amplified, including the mind's ability to process information and multi-task. Drawing on memory resources, the mind may lock on a variety of visual cues in recognizing collateral threats inherent to the situation, threats not only to you, but to others in the area, as well. Not only may this adrenaline-enhanced acuity allow you to detect particles of unburned combustion in the air, but particularly adept officers may even experience a kind of psychological splitting, with the body moving so quickly that the mind may take an out-of-body perception of events.

In the seconds immediately following a shooting, both injured and uninjured officers may experience a sense of disorientation as their bodies attempt to regulate themselves back to some manner of equilibrium. Officers may also find they need to empty their bladders or evacuate their bowels. As blood pressure increases and respiration and perspiration rates increase, breathing may become difficult, making you feel as though you are going to hyperventilate.

Mind Over Body

Here is where the importance of mindset becomes acute. And when it comes to the brain's role in surviving trauma, few people are more knowledgeable than Andrew Dennis. In addition to being a sworn law enforcement officer, Dennis is a physician on staff with Chicago's John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital.

Dennis' work at one of the busiest trauma centers in America has convinced him there is a paucity in the training that law enforcement officers get with regard to penetrating injuries associated with shootings and stabbings. It is a conviction that has found Dennis teaching a course titled "Medical Tactics for Law Enforcement."

"Officers need to remain in control of their faculties and familiarize themselves with the compensatory blessings nature has afforded them," asserts Dennis. "Getting their priorities straight requires officers to not only have realistic expectations of what can happen during a shooting, but a willingness to take the initiative when circumstances dictate such as when they may be required to self-manage and self-treat pending the availability of professional medical assistance."

Accomplishing such self-control demands realistic expectations of the officer. Unfortunately, many cops are not so grounded.

"Most police officers have never been involved in a shooting," notes Dennis. "If your frame of reference is what you see on television, then your perception is very much altered—for the worse. And if an officer's perception is flawed, then his fear will most likely be disproportionate or inappropriate."

Dennis, author of "Officer Down: A Practical Guide to Surviving Injury in the Street," says that a compromised mindset can exacerbate the fear naturally inherent in a shooting, and also undermine the officer's physiologic response to it, compromising nature's mechanisms for responding to fear and/or injury—heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate—from operating at maximum efficiency. Such are the reasons that Dennis cautions against allowing yourself to suffer from a disproportionate fear should you be wounded in a firefight.

"All of these things culminate in your overall reaction or response which is defined as your decisions and actions," counsels Dennis. "As opposed to training with a true understanding with a strong frame of reference, an accurate perception, ultimately that leads to allowing one to keep their fear in check, limit their degree of fear, or have control over their fear, and their mindset is strong, their physiological response is appropriate and proportionate, and ultimately their decisions and action are better. That is the most important thing when it comes to understanding injury and shootings."

Of course, just retaining one's consciousness—let alone lucidity—can be a heady proposition. When civilian Kenny Vaughan was shot about 20 times outside his home in 1995, he refused to close his eyes. "I kept telling myself, 'If you close your eyes, you'll go into shock and you're dead.'"

Sometimes, you can get by with a little help from a friend.

Stretched out in an ambulance in the aftermath of a shootout, Fort Worth, Texas, Officer Billie Daniels listened as an EMT gave medical instructions to fellow officer, Fred Myers.

"Every time he closes his eyes, you've got to hit him in his forehead, hard. That's the only thing that's going to keep him alive. Don't let him lose consciousness or he'll shut down," the EMT ordered.

"And that's the way it was," Daniels recalls. "As we were rolling to the hospital and the paramedics were working on me, the entire time Fred was popping away, jamming my forehead.

"I was so pissed, I wanted a piece of Fred," says Daniels. "Fred hit me once more for good measure. I remember that he hit me pretty good."

Good enough, apparently, for Daniels to survive his ordeal.

Emotional Survival

The mind's ability to multi-task can be considerable. But capitalizing on that potential requires front-end investments above and beyond the development of tactics and muscle memory.

Fostering the survival mindset constitutes an important aspect of that investment. Warrior discipline brackets both the immediacy of the shooting episode and what occurs in its long-term aftermath. As much physical trauma as a bullet can make, it is often the immediate emotional response to a shooting that can make or break an officer's chances to survive the ordeal.

There are many people who have not only survived but thrived after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds and many cops routinely come in contact with gang members whose torsos are cross-stitched motifs of scar tissue. These same gang members often express anticipations of coming under fire again with a degree of candor that is remarkably bereft of false bravado.

Such men serve not only as omnipresent specimens of the human body's capacity to absorb trauma and survive but as reminders of the role that experience and mindset can play in surviving gunshot wounds. Their experience can help push aside the perceptions of gunshot wounds as instantly fatal that have been generated by a century of Hollywood images.

The wounded officer who makes it to the trauma center alive has a 98% probability of survival. But his or her career survival is often emotionally predicated.

Some officers have been forced to leave the profession because of their involvement in on-duty shootings where they themselves were not injured. Conversely, officers who have suffered devastating physical trauma have been able to return to duty without restriction.

The difference? Their emotional and mental makeup.

It may be easier for officers who viewed their actions throughout the incident as defensible and justifiable to deal with the psychological aftermath of a shooting. Whether an officer adopts an "it was either him or me" or an "if only I had done something differently" mentality, he or she will require some measure of emotional support. Such support can come from family and friends, religious beliefs, and formal counseling. It is also important that the officer makes a conscientious effort to practice constructive life practices, such as working out and participating in social outings, and refraining from sublimation acts such as gambling or drinking.

Perhaps the most significant factor in an officer's ability to recover from a shooting incident is the level of support offered to him by his department. Departments that provide post-shooting support and advocate for their officers in the media and with health care providers are more likely to benefit from their actions in the long run. Officers whose departments provide no measure of support or, worse, hinder their access to employee benefits, may find themselves transferring to another department or leaving the profession altogether.

Officers who develop realistic expectations for experiencing and surviving a shooting—both during the event and throughout their recovery—are more likely to recover successfully from such traumatic incidents.

Preventative Measures

It is redundant to note that safe practices mitigate both the possibility of being shot or dying from gunshot wounds. Still, the caveat is obligatory. Wearing a quality ballistic vest is part and parcel of officer survival. Increasingly, officers are wearing ballistic-resistant helmets.

But additional consideration should be given to other possible body wear. For Oklahoma Police officer Darren Bristow, the polycarbonate sunglasses he ordered just weeks before his shooting may have been instrumental in saving his vision when he was shot multiple times with a shotgun.

As noted, the bad guy can be just as capable of continuing to fight despite the presence of grievous—even fatal—injuries. Just as officers must do everything possible to eliminate the immediacy of the threat, so, too, must they ensure themselves the opportunity to survive its aftermath.

Part and parcel of that need is prior planning.

"I'm a huge fan of simulation," states Dennis. "There is good simulation and bad simulation, but it is the best way outside of a true living experience to preset your response. Capt. Sullenberger wouldn't have been able to land that plane in the Hudson River had he not pre-scripted that type of scenario or something close to it."

Dennis emphasizes the need for every law enforcement officer to understand injury because it allows him or her to better respond to it.

"Your response will always be better if you've pre-scripted it. If you've experienced it, lived it, you know what to expect," he says. "It's not an unknown. So your predictability as far as what your response will be is better, therefore, limiting the unknown is better, so your frame of reference is accurate. Hence your perception is accurate, your fear is in check, your mindset is strong, etc. When we train on the range with firearms, it's all about muscle memory and pre-scripting.

"In times of stress, the old adage says you'll never rise to the occasion, but you'll fall to the level of your training."

Related:

How to Survive Being Shot

Tags: Assaults on Officers, Jacksonville Sheriff, Chippewa County (Wis.) Sheriff, Officer Involved Shootings, Trauma Care, Medical Aid


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

R. Mansfield @ 9/19/2013 12:12 PM

I just finished reading "What it's like to be shot". I would like to compliment Dean Scoville for a

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