ROSWEL, NM (KCBD) – It was January 2014 when Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico saw the national spotlight.
The life of the students there changed forever when a 12-year-old pulled a sawed-off shotgun from his backpack.
The flag was hoisted and school could begin.
When the shotgun explosion was heard, Nathaniel Tavarez mistook it for a bomb.
Some doctors in Lubbock also remember that day based on what they saw at the UMC Emergency Center.
Dr. Thomas McGill, a pediatric surgeon, says, “It was the worst nightmare to get the call that there was a shooting, a shooting at school. It came with multiple holes in his face.”
Dr. Tiva Kasermsri, a pediatric intensive care doctor, picks it up from there and describes Nathaniel’s injury after the shotgun explosion: “He came in shock.” Dr. Kerrie Pinkney, also a pediatric intensive care practitioner, said. “The pellets were not only in his face, eyes and chest, but also in his brain.”
Dr. Mcgill adds, “Kudos to everyone in Roswell who looked after him there.”
Dr. Tiva explains how difficult it was because part of his face was no longer there.
So the first miracle was that Nathaniel made it to Lubbock by ambulance.
Meanwhile, Facebook raised the alarm and the parents rushed to the Roswell campus. Soon everyone knew that a seventh grader had pulled a sawed-off shotgun from his backpack and fired three random shots in the school gym.
“We just prayed and prayed and prayed,” said Donna, Nathaniel’s mother.
That’s all they could do when their son was flown to Lubbock by helicopter. They drove stunned.
The immediate concern when Nathaniel arrived at UMC was to save the heart that was struggling with so much internal bleeding.
When Alfred got there, he said it was daunting to wait outside the emergency room and just watch the doors open and close.
“I couldn’t see him,” he said. “I was just waiting. And at some point five doctors were in this operating room at the same time. “
Dr. Frank Quattromani is a pediatric radiologist who remembers that day in the emergency room.
He said, “I honestly thought it was going to end up in the emergency room. He shouldn’t live with it. You won’t survive this.”
The cat scan images of Nathaniel’s injury show hundreds of white dots on his head, neck and chest.
Dr. Quattromani said, “You can’t dig them up. You would do more damage. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, except in a war explosion or shrapnel explosion, that’s what it looks like. This is a war injury. “
Another view looks at the depth of a single pellet. “There’s someone in the middle of his brain,” he says.
“And look at this – several pellets are clumped together. This whole bunch is in orbit – the left eye.”
Dr. Kelley Mitchell is the ophthalmologist who operated on Nathaniel to save eyesight.
Nathaniel says, “If you throw a really bright light into my left eye, I can only see a small point out of the corner of my eye.” But that’s a definite improvement.
Nathaniel’s left eye was so damaged that it formed a cataract to cover and protect the remains, causing it to appear cloudy and partially closed.
Dr. Mitchell explains, “It’s a different eye now, with a different structure. Bright light affects it differently.”
And since the right eye was also badly injured, both eyes were swollen shut for a month after the shooting. Now, with a very strong contact lens in his right eye and strong glasses, Nathaniel has some vision on his right side, something that Dr. Mitchell called a miracle.
There’s a reunion in another room at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center that nobody expected.
Dr. Muhitten Belirgen enters the clinic room where Nathaniel and his family are waiting, and immediately everyone is hugged. Dr. Belirgen is the pediatric neurosurgeon whose top priority after the shooting was to relieve the swelling in Nathaniel’s brain.
He said, “Maybe even minutes later he couldn’t have made it – very urgently.”
You can still see the scar line on which Dr. Belirgen cut into Nathaniel’s skull to remove and store a section of bone while the brain relaxed.
He explains, “After two weeks we took this flap of bone and put it back in its original place.”
Amazingly, the flap goes back into Nathaniel’s skull using the same scar line, with screws to hold it in place.
“The progress he’s making is amazing,” says Dr. Beliegen and smiles. “He’s a miracle, a total miracle.”
At home in Roswell, Nathaniel received home schooling with the help of older sister Ashley last spring.
His eyesight is so bad that it is heartbreaking to watch him do his homework with his head turned to one side and his right eye just inches from his textbook so he can focus.
Nathaniel learns to make the most of his new normal as doctors say the pellets will always be too numerous and too dangerous to remove.
But that doesn’t stop Nathaniel from just enjoying life.
And when you see him dancing with his doctors, they are quick to tell you that his positive attitude is very good medicine.
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