Dec. 10, 2001 -- Donald Morehouse awoke from routine bypass surgery last month only to learn he had brought back more from the Korean War than just a medal — he had survived being shot through the heart, and no one knew it until now.
The 70-year-old veteran from Pennsylvania had been treated during the war for a bullet wound to the chest. But during a recent procedure, doctors made a startling discovery — evidence that Morehouse had been shot through the heart nearly a half century before.
"We had what we're calling a collective jaw drop," says Dr. James McClurken, lead surgeon and chief of thoracic surgery at Abington Memorial Hospital in Abington, Pa. "It was really a 'Holy smokes!' kind of agreement."
McClurken and his team found calcified scars from an entry wound from a .29-caliber bullet in Morehouse's left atrium, the upper chamber of the heart, and an exit wound in the right atrium. The bullet appears to have entered through his left shoulder and pierced his heart.
"I was astounded, I couldn't believe it," recalls Morehouse, "[McClurken] told me, 'We found a bullet wound — it went in one side of your heart and came out the other,' and I said well that's sure news to me because when I was wounded they told me it was close to the heart and I thought I was being treated for a lung problem — I had absolutely no idea that happened."
‘It’s Really a Miracle’
The former infantryman was shot seven times during a Korean War ambush on his 25th Infantry Division unit in June of 1953. Six shots were deflected by his bulletproof jacket. After being shot, Morehouse says he traveled close to three miles on foot before he was taken to a field hospital.
Doctors who initially cared for Morehouse told him he was lucky — the bullet, which Morehouse still keeps, had hit his shoulder, but missed his heart. The slug was found lodged in his right side against his bulletproof jacket and was removed by military surgeons.
Morehouse, a retired drug and alcohol coordinator for the Pennsylvania United Auto Workers Union, was presented the Purple Heart for Military Merit for his service in Korea.
For 48 years, Morehouse says he had no symptoms from is injury — he is an avid golfer and walks his dog three times a day. He notes that last week's bypass is not related to his injury.
"Most people who sustained an injury like this would not be with us for more than 2 or 3 minutes. It's amazing he was able to walk three miles to a M.A.S.H. hospital," says McClurken, "It's really a miracle."
Rare, But Possible
So how can someone survive a bullet through the heart? Experts say these events are rare but not impossible.
Dr. McClurken contacted a number of heart surgeons to see if they had ever seen a case like Morehouse's — they hadn't. He believes Morehouse may have lived because the holes were very small, and had only pierced the low-pressure chambers of the heart.
"The heart sits in a sack so, fortunately, if you don't have a big blast, you just get a cut. You get some fluid collecting around the heart, the clot forms on the outside and it scars and heals," explains Dr. Eugene Grossi, associate professor of surgery at New York University School of Medicine in New York, "Sometimes blood on the outside will clot and prevent the blood from leaking in between the heart sack."
Morehouse is reportedly feeling strong and recuperating after his bypass. He's looking forward to getting back out on the golf corse and shooting a couple of rounds.