Living Miracles: Survivors of Gunshots to the Head

Photo: bullet in head

As shots rang out, a cheerleader in Ohio, a student-athlete in Colorado, a university research chemist in Mississippi and a 3-year-old New Jersey flower girl visiting Nigerian relatives began harrowing journeys that brought them into the rare fellowship of people who have made remarkable recoveries from gunshot wounds to the head.

Their survival against enormous odds attests to the power of love, prayer, determination and the best that modern neurosurgery has to offer.

But if you step back, listen to them speak and study their smiling faces, which bear few, if any, traces of the random violence that sent them and their families on dark journeys from which others sometimes don't return, you can't help but think there's a simpler explanation: All are living miracles.

Some of their doctors would agree. Similarities between aspects of their cases and that of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., make brain specialists optimistic about her recovery.

Even experienced neurosurgeons who have witnessed devastating neurological damage will tell you of the brain's incredible plasticity; the extraordinary ability to generate new brain cells, called neurons, and create better, stronger electrical connections among existing neurons. That plasticity allows patients to get closer to where they were before gun violence knocked them to the ground, literally and figuratively.

Youth, motivation and excellent support systems also go a long way toward maximizing recovery.

"Mortality from gunshot wounds to the brain is very high, 90 percent," said Dr. Alan H. Weintraub, medical director of the Brain Injury Program at Denver's Craig Hospital, one of the nation's top rehabilitation centers.

"Neurological medical complications are very high. But if you get through all of that, the ability for a person to benefit from specialized rehab and end up with a fairly positive outcome is surprisingly high."

Survivors of penetrating gunshot injuries to the brain who get past the early complications "can do much better in terms of outcomes than, say, from a brain injury one might see from a military blast injury or from a motorcycle accident."

Although brain injuries leave some of the pathways by which brain cells communicate in "functional shock, it doesn't mean those pathways are 100 percent totally disconnected or destroyed," Weintraub said.

While much of the improvement in function occurs in the initial weeks to months, language and thinking can continue getting better for two years or more, and even after that, "people learn to compensate."

Others agreed. "The brain is an amazing organ," said Dr. Antonio Chiocca, chairman of neurosurgery at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

Rachel Barezinsky

After Rachel Barezinsky arrived at Ohio State University Medical Center Aug. 22, 2006, with bleeding to the brain from a gunshot wound to the head, doctors told her parents that the Worthington High School cheerleader wasn't going to make it through the night. They said she had only a 1 percent chance of survival.

Barezinsky, then 17, had scored a 3 on the Glasgow coma scale, the worst possible number. Her mother, stepmother and father called in their local parish priest to perform last rites. He arrived around 2 a.m.

But sometime after 3 a.m., something altogether miraculous happened. Barezinsky squeezed her stepmother's hand.

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