Photo Credit: Courtesy or Ian Stewart, Justin Constantine, Michael Segal
In the movies, a gunshot to the head usually signals the end. But in real life, that isn’t always true. The brain is amazingly resilient and, depending on the type and location of the injury, some gunshot victims can survive and go on to live healthy, productive and inspiring lives.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition after suffering a gunshot wound to the head in the mass killings outside a Tucson supermarket on January 8. But doctors say the Congresswoman's progress is encouraging. Here are the amazing stories of three others who survived similar injuries, and what they’d like Rep. Giffords to know about life after a traumatic head injury.
Don’t look back; move forward
Ian Stewart made a career out of chasing wars around the globe. From Cambodia to the Congo to Sierra Leone, Stewart reported from some of the most dangerous places on the planet and eventually worked his way up to West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press.
He was reporting on war; he wasn’t supposed to become one of its victims. But one fateful day in 1999, he and his team were attacked by child soldiers in Sierra Leone. His cameraman was killed. Stewart was shot square in the middle of his forehead. The bullet traveled along the midline of his brain and lodged in the base of his skull.
While the injury didn’t cause any cognitive problems such as memory loss or learning problems, the reporter who once ran down breaking news leads now walks with a limp and his left arm just won’t move. He had to give up his journalism post and rewrite his expectations for the next chapters in his life -- which now include a Ph.D. dissertation on child soldiers in Africa. He also had to work through issues of survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress and that most basic of emotions: Anger over being robbed of physical vigor and his sense of security.
While every brain injury is different, Stewart expects that Giffords -- who is also accustomed to a fast-paced life and who survived when others didn’t -- might deal with some of the same challenges.
“You have to channel all of your energy into recovery and let go of things like anger,” says Stewart, 44, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. and went through years of counseling following his ordeal. “I was angry for years and I think that just retarded my recovery.”
Stewart feels deeply for the challenges Giffords faces and hopes that if nothing else, she can learn to accept whatever deficits the injury might leave her with. “I used to measure ‘Ian Before’ (the shooting) against ‘Ian After,’” says Stewart. “But ‘Ian After’ will never be ‘Ian Before.’ My arm will never be functional. This is as much as I’m going to get. But my life is good. I’m married. I’ve got kids. I’m very happy. Don’t chase after something you had before. Embrace what you’ve got and move on with your life.”