By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
The shots rang out at about 9:30 the night of Nov. 5.
That’s what Angel McNeil heard just as she got off the phone with her sister. It’s not the first time she’s heard gunshots in her Westside Indianapolis neighborhood, but usually they’re off in the distance.
These sounded like they were right outside her apartment.
She raced up the stairs to the bedroom where her children, Jaiden, 10, and Bri’Alle, 6, had been sleeping only minutes earlier.
“God told me to check on my babies,” she said. “I turned the light on and said, ‘Jaiden and Bri, are you OK?’ That’s when Bri took her arm out of her onesie and said, ‘Mommy, it hurts, it hurts,’ and I saw drywall debris on the floor.”
In that moment, McNeil couldn’t quite process what had happened or how badly her children might be injured. She frantically dialed 911 while she checked on Jaiden, who is disabled, and Bri. Jaiden was not hurt, but his sister had been hit. Bri clung to her mom, trying to follow her down the stairs.
“I’m talking to the paramedics and I tell her, ‘Bri, just stay right there. Mommy’s going to get help.’ ”
McNeil didn’t know if an intruder was inside her home, so she was praying fiercely as she went down the stairs.
“I asked God that if someone’s in the house, please don’t let them shoot me cause if I get shot, then all of us are gonna die.”
She let a neighbor in the front door while she went back upstairs to check on her daughter.
“I couldn’t find her. I’m looking in my room, and I see blood everywhere from the hallway to her room, then I see her slumped over in the bed, her eyes rolling in the back of her head. I’m telling her, ‘Hold on, baby. You’re beautiful, you’re so strong.’
The little girl, who by then was bleeding heavily, whispered to her mom, “You’re stronger, Mommy.”
The next several minutes were a blur of activity as police, paramedics and neighbors rushed in to help. At one point, McNeil remembers dropping to her knees in the front yard and screaming into the night.
RACE TO RILEY
Pediatric surgeon Dr. Brian Gray was on duty at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health that Thursday night in November when he heard that a young gunshot victim was being rushed to Riley.
His heart sank at the news that yet another innocent child had suffered serious injury due to gun violence.
“She was sleeping in her bed … when a gun went off outside her house, and the bullet went through the wall of her home into the room where she was sleeping,” the surgeon said. “She sustained a severe gunshot wound through no fault of her own or anyone in her family.”
The bullet tore through her small body, entering her left side and exiting through her right upper abdomen and right forearm. She suffered injuries to one kidney, her adrenal glands, pancreas, large and small intestines, stomach, liver and one lung.
And yet she was lucky.
The fact that this first-grader was still alive when she arrived at the hospital is a testament to her strength and to the team of medical workers who responded to the call for help – from the paramedics on the scene to the Riley emergency department staff to the team of nurses, anesthesiologists and surgeons, including Dr. Gray and pediatric surgery fellow Dr. Eric Groh.
Dr. Gray estimates that less than 30 minutes elapsed from the time EMS arrived on the scene of the shooting to the time Bri’Alle went into surgery. The worst injury was to her liver, which resulted in massive bleeding, he said. Once they controlled the bleeding, her condition stabilized.
“Our goal with someone who has suffered a gunshot or penetrating injury to the abdomen is to do a controlled laparotomy, quickly control the damage and get them to the ICU as quickly as possible,” Dr. Gray said. “She was still in very critical condition but stable.”
Bri’Alle returned to the operating room two days later for more abdominal surgery, followed by plastic surgery to repair the muscles and skin in her right arm where the bullet inflicted its final assault as it left her body.
No arrests have been made in the shooting, but Dr. Gray said his young patient was “another victim of senseless gun violence that we’ve seen too many times before.”
HER SMILE IS BACK
Today, Bri’Alle is out of intensive care while still healing in the hospital. She is walking with support, but it may be another week or so before she is able to go home.
Dr. Gray marvels at her progress.
“Children heal better than adults,” he said. “She has a lot of spirit and she’s going to be fine. It’s just amazing how far she’s come, but that is a testament to her family and the team.”
Angel McNeil, who was studying to be a medical assistant when the shooting occurred and has now decided to start nursing school, has been by her daughter’s side every day since the shooting, calming the little girl’s fears while putting on a brave face in spite of her own anxiety.
The two are super close, said McNeil. “She likes to call me 24-7. She normally is attached to my hip.”
On the day of this interview, Bri, whose beaming smile belies the trauma she endured, was watching “Arthur” and working on some arts and crafts provided by Riley child life specialists and art therapists. A collection of stuffed animals stood guard in the window.
One of her biggest issues coming through this injury will be the mental toll it takes, Dr. Gray said, suggesting she is likely to suffer post-traumatic stress from the event and subsequent treatment.
“She was in her own home when this happened,” he said. “And she was in the ICU with a breathing tube for most of three weeks.”
Experiences like that leave lasting scars. But she has benefited from all of Riley’s services, not just the medical professionals, Dr. Gray said. And the support of her family has been key.
“Her mom has been strong this entire time,” he said. “She has worked well with all of us to help take care of Bri’Alle.”
This past week, McNeil has been juggling days at the hospital with a move. She is moving her family to a new apartment – someplace where they can create new, better memories. She looks forward to the day soon when she can take her baby girl to that new home.
“I just thank God that she’s still here with us. Her recovery has been amazing. I tell her all the time, ‘Baby, you are a trooper, you are a survivor, you’re the strongest little kid that I know.’
“The police officer who carried her out that night said if it had been anybody else, they probably never would have been able to survive it,” McNeil said.
“It was the worst night of my life, but she’s still here.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com