ROSWEL, NM (KCBD) – It was in January, 2014, when Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico was thrown into the national spotlight.
Life changed forever for the students there when a 12-year-old pulled a sawed-off shotgun from his backpack.
The flag was up and school was about to start.
When the shotgun blast was heard, Nathaniel Tavarez thought it was a bomb.
Some doctors in Lubbock also remember that day because of what they saw in the UMC Emergency Center.
dr Thomas McGill, a pediatric surgeon, says, “It was the worst possible nightmare to get the call there’s been a shooting, a school shooting. He came with multiple holes in his face.”
dr Tiva Kasermsri, a Pediatric Intensivist, picks it up from there, describing Nathaniel’s injury after the shotgun blast: “He came in shock.” dr Kerrie Pinkney, also a Pediatric Intensivist, said. “The gunshot pellets were not only in his face and eyes and chest, but also in his brain.”
dr Mcgill adds, “Major kudos to everyone in Roswell who took care of him there.”
dr Tiva explains how difficult that was, since part of his face was not even there anymore.
So, the first miracle was just that Nathaniel made it by air ambulance to Lubbock.
Meanwhile, Facebook sounded the alarm and parents rushed to the campus in Roswell. Soon, everyone knew that a 7th 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,” Nathaniel’s mom, Donna said.
That’s all they could do as their son was rushed by helicopter to Lubbock. They drove in a daze.
The immediate concern when Nathaniel arrived at UMC was to save the heart, which was struggling from so much internal bleeding.
When Alfred got there, he says it was disheartening to wait outside the emergency center and just watch the doors swing open and closed.
“I couldn’t see him,” he said. “I was just waiting. And at one point, there were five doctors in that 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 would end in the emergency room. He’s not supposed to be alive with this. You don’t live through this.”
The cat scan images of Nathaniel’s injury show hundreds of white dots in his head, neck and chest.
dr Quattromani said, “You can’t dig these out. You’d do more damage. This is the worst I’ve ever seen, other than at war. We’ve seen soldiers come back from war and if there’s a shotgun blast or a shrapnel blast, that’s what it looks like. This is a war injury.”
Another view looks at the depth of a single pellet. “There’s one right in the middle of his brain,” he says.
“And look at this – multiple pellets are clustered together. This entire cluster is inside the orbit – the left eye.”
dr Kelley Mitchell is the ophthalmologist who has operated on Nathaniel to help save some vision.
Nathaniel says, “In my left eye, if you shine a really bright light in it, I can just see a little dot out of the corner of my eye.” But that’s a significant improvement.
Nathaniel’s left eye was so damaged that it formed a cataract to cover and protect what was left, which is why it appears cloudy and partly closed.
dr Mitchell explains, “It’s a different eye with a different structure now. Bright lights affect it differently.”
And since the right eye was also severely injured, both eyes were swollen shut for a month after the shooting. Now, with a very strong contact lens in the right eye and powerful glasses, Nathaniel has some vision on the right side, something Dr. Mitchell calls miraculous.
In another room at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, there is a reunion no one expected.
dr Muhitten Belirgen enters the clinic room where Nathaniel and his family are waiting, and immediately, there are hugs all around. dr Belirgen is the Pediatric Neurosurgeon whose first priority after the shooting was to relieve the swelling in Nathaniel’s brain.
He said, “Maybe even minutes later, he wouldn’t have made it – very urgent.”
Today, you can still see the scar line where 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 that bone flap and put it back into the original place.”
Amazingly the flap goes back into Nathaniel’s skull, using the same scar-line, with screws to keep it in place.
“The progress he is making is amazing,” Dr. Belirgen says and smiles. “He is a miracle, a total miracle.”
Back home in Roswell, Nathaniel was home-schooled last spring with some help from his big sister, Ashley.
His vision is so poor, it breaks your heart to watch him do his homework with his head turned sideways and his right eye just inches away from his textbook so that he can focus.
Nathaniel is learning to make the best of his new normal, because doctors say the pellets will always be too numerous and too dangerous remove.
But that’s not stopping 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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