Traumatic Brain Injury and the Road to Recovery after Surviving Gunshots to the Head

Physician studying a patient's brain scans

Richard Tucker is a 53-year-old former convenience store clerk with a shocking story to share about the time he survived an armed robbery. There’s only one thing…he can’t remember it.

Tucker was shot twice in the head and survived, after being transported to HCA Healthcare-affiliate Orange Park Medical Center, which less than a year ago earned a Level II trauma designation, allowing its caregivers to provide timely treatment to the most critical patients in the community.

“It’s one of the things I can say I’m thankful for – that I don’t remember anything about the incident, Tucker said, as he was undergoing acute rehabilitation at Orange Park Medical. “I really would like to believe that people are mostly good.”

As serious as it sounds – and believe us, it was – Tucker’s gunshot wounds to the head were mild compared to what Orange Park Trauma Neurosurgeon Dr. Elizabeth Viarbo has seen.

“He was fortunate in the fact that it was a low-velocity, low-caliber weapon that resulted in very little direct brain injury,” Dr. Viarbo said. “We relieved the rise in pressure around the brain due to the blows to the head, and his remaining clinical course consisted of rehabilitation consistent with the blast injuries.”

Tucker, who now lives with bullet fragments in his brain, is one of roughly 1.7 million Americans who have experienced a traumatic brain injury, or TBI – the leading cause of death for people age 45 and younger in the United States. Effects of TBI can include impaired thinking or memory, movement, vision, hearing or emotional functioning (e.g., personality changes, depression), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Two low caliber bullets to the head to this kind gentleman, and it’s remarkable the cognitive recovery that he’s had,” said Dr. Travis von Tobel, interim medical director of rehabilitation for Orange Park Medical. “The area of the brain that was hit focuses on reading and writing, so he has deficiencies in those areas right now, but he can go on to have a pretty good life.”

The former high school science teacher and radio disc jockey’s quick recovery is nothing short of a miracle to the untrained eye. While he’s still piecing together the details of his life before the incident, after less than a month in acute rehab, Tucker relearned how to tie his shoes, walk, bathe and do most of the things he would do in his daily life.

“As far as language and communication, I haven’t had any real issues,” Tucker said, “but reading sentences and remembering details of stories – that can be tricky.”

“I know I am making fewer and fewer mistakes, but it can be really frustrating because I used to be a teacher,” he said. “I do understand that it’s because I have a brain injury and my brain is working through different pathways now.”

If that’s the worst thing that has happened, Tucker will take it. He has a future. That he knows too well.

“Recovering from a gunshot wound was not something I ever thought I would have to do, but here I am,” he said. “There are people who have had brain injuries that are much more affected than I am. Still, I would tell anyone going through a TBI to take advantage of the tools you have for therapy.”

Tucker, who has been released from the new inpatient rehab at our Orange Park Medical Center, remains thankful for the care he’s received.

“I’m not going to keep looking back at what happened,” he said. “I’m looking at the things I can do to move forward.”

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Richard Tucker was shot on January 4, 2017. He recovered at Orange Park Medical Center, a member of HCA Healthcare’s South Atlantic Division, after undergoing surgery on his brain and 20 days of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology in the hospital’s inpatient rehabilitation center. Orange Park Medical provided rehabilitation services for free.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

Recent articles