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Gunshot Wound Survivor: ‘There Is Life After an Injury Like This’

On Monday, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ doctors said that the congresswoman is “not out of the woods yet” but that her brain has not shown any more signs of swelling, and that doctors are “slightly more optimistic” about her chances for recovery with each passing day.

Many people have been surprised to learn that it is possible to survive a direct gunshot wound to the brain. CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote Monday that about one-third of patients with a gunshot wound to the head live long enough to make it to the hospital, and about half of those patients survive longer than 30 days. The Guardian explained the survival factors in play.

Every injury is unique, and not all victims survive with their brain function intact — but some do. One of them is Ian Stewart, a journalist who was shot twelve years ago today while covering the civil war in Sierra Leone for the Associated Press. Stewart later wrote a book about his experience, you can watch him talk about it here.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser spoke to Stewart Monday about his injury, recovery, and advice for Rep. Giffords and her family:

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ian Stewart, thank you so much for being with us. Why don’t we begin at the beginning, which ironically was 12 years ago today […] where were you and what happened?

IAN STEWART: Twelve years ago today I was working as a journalist for the Associated Press, and I was covering a civil war in Sierra Leone. Our car was traveling through downtown Freetown, the capital, which was under siege by a bunch of rebels. Our car got stopped at a rebel checkpoint, and these kids who were maybe 12 or 13 years old, one of them just reeled around and unloaded his AK-47 into the backseat of our car. My colleague was shot several times in the chest and head, and he was killed instantly. And I got one bullet that went right in the center of my forehead, and travelled down the midline, and thankfully stopped at the back of my skull and stayed there embedded for about 36 hours.

[…] It was a touch-and-go situation. We were airlifted from downtown Freetown, where we were shot, to the airport, which is just off the coast of the city. And then we got onto a flight which took us to Conakry, which is the capitol of Guinea. We got onto another flight, which evacuated me to Abidjan [Ivory Coast], which was my home base. I spent the night in a medical clinic in Abidjan, and then I was put on an air ambulance from Geneva. It flew me from Abidjan to London, where I finally underwent surgery.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How similar is Congresswoman Giffords’ injury to what happened to you?

IAN STEWART: Well this is the big thing that I think everyone needs to understand. The doctors, when you hear them, they’re saying it’s very hard to say what’s going to happen. And I think that’s very wise, because every brain injury is completely different. […] The trajectory of the bullet [that struck Rep. Giffords] I understand came from the back, and then came out through the front, close to her ear, which would have touched very different lobes and sections of the brain than affected me. So it’s very hard for me to compare the two.

[…] I think thankfully the blessing for the congresswoman is really the fact that she was able to receive medical attention very swiftly. What affected me more than the bullet really was swelling […] in my case it took 36 hours for me to get medical attention.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So after the initial treatment when they got you to London, then the long recovery process started?

IAN STEWART: That’s correct. When I arrived in London I was put in a sedated coma, which is very much what they’ve done with Congresswoman Giffords. And they kept me in that — that’s primarily to settle the brain down, allow all the swelling to calm down as much as it’s going to, and for the doctors to asses how much damage there is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So when did you begin the recovery process of learning to walk and talk and really start over?

IAN STEWART: It probably took a good two weeks before I could really get on my feet. And they tried to get that going as quickly as possible, because they want you to use as much memory as possible, to use your own body’s strength and memory of walking and all those normal functions that we take for granted.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in the beginning, once you came out of the coma, what were the kinds of things that you had to learn to do again?

IAN STEWART: […] From the beginning, you know, it’s everything. I mean, I was reduced down to infancy. I had no idea what had happened. I could not walk. I could not sit upright in the bed, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t feed myself. So everything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What was your awareness? I mean, did you know what had happened to you?

IAN STEWART: No. I was told day in and day out, and I would always ask what had happened. But by the next morning, it was lost on me. So I had to be told repeatedly what had happened.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How long did it take to get to where you are today, and how would you describe where you are today?

IAN STEWART: First off, Betty Ann, I think I’m very, very lucky. I mean, the damage that I encountered is very severe. And I’d like to make it really clear that — what the congresswoman has gone through is horrific. But at the same time, I think, after listening to the doctors, the prognosis is better than mine was. So hopefully, she’ll be encountering a very solid recovery. My prognosis was a 20 percent chance of surviving.

[…] Today, I was up and running — well, not running, I’m still waiting to run. But I was up and on my feet and moving around. Within a year to a year and a half, I was fully functional. I wrote a memoir about my experience within the first two years of my shooting. Down the road, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve gone back to graduate school and I’m doing my doctorate now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you still have any deficits — any physical deficits?

IAN STEWART: Yes I do. I walk with a very pronounced limp, and my left arm is, for the most part, functionless […] I get tired very easily. And this is something that, you know, I have been hoping to get in touch with the congresswoman. I want to be able to impart whatever knowledge I have of this experience [with her]. It’s a scary thing. It’s really frightening, because you don’t know what’s happening to your own body.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: If you could give her and her family a piece of advice after being through what you’ve been through, what would you tell them?

IAN STEWART: Be patient. It sounds trite, and there are a lot of pieces of advice to give, but be patient. It’s a long road, and it’s a scary road. And one of the things that I think people are not going to think of right off the bat, and it took me a long time to recognize, was the emotional impact.

There are scars from being shot in the head that are just […] it’s going to take a long time to reconcile those. The physical scars — they may fully heal, they may not, it’s hard to say. But the emotional scars are going to take a lot of work to get past.

[…]I think the biggest one is really just understanding of what you’ve been robbed of and coming to terms with that, and trying to make peace with that. Because one thing I went through for a long time was anger. And that’s not going to get you anywhere. I mean, you’ve been robbed of something and you need to just say, okay, this has happened and I need to move on. Because your anger will drain you of all the energy you need to recover.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And where do you think you are today both physically and emotionally? Are you in a good place?

IAN STEWART: I’m in a very good place. I’ve, since my injury, married and have children, and am very, very happy with my life. Life has gone on. It’s different, I mean, I cannot run — I mentioned off the cuff that I ran sometimes. But I don’t “run” — I’m much slower than I used to be, I don’t have the physical abilities that I used to have. But, you know, I’m happy. I found a kind of peace that I never had before. And so I’m in a very good place.

[…] I don’t mean to give false hope, but I think the main thing is to hold on to whatever hope you can find. Because there is life after an injury like this. You just have to keep persevering.

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