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The Day I Almost Died (Episode #5): A Bullet in the Head

January 5, 2017

{This is a series of stories about the times I nearly died}

When I was fourteen I was shot in the face with a.22 caliber revolver. It was a neat little, double action, five shot gambler’s vest style pistol. It was shiny nickel-plate with pearl handle grips and had about a two and a half inch barrel. It could hold Shorts or Longs, but not .22 Long Rifle cartridges. There was just one Short in it that day. Check the ‘official’ police report if you want to know the details (I’m sticking with that story; have nothing else to say about it).

From point-blank range the 37 grain, copper jacketed, lead slug went straight in the tip of my nose. It punched a hole, like a paper puncher, just above my right nostril. It then went along the sinus passage, penetrated the back of it and passed through soft tissue below the skull and next to the jaw hinge. In Health Class I used a pencil and the skull we passed around to trace its path—no bones, no nothing. I was just lucky, I guess.

Blood gushed out of my nose and there was a buzzing in my ears. Besides feeling like I’d been punched in the face, smelling the acrid gunpowder and having a burning sensation in my sinuses, there was a dull ache in the back of my neck. That’s where the bullet ended up; about half an inch to the right of my spine and an inch from coming on through. If it had been a Long or Long Rifle, it probably would have gone right out the back.

Naturally, I panicked. I was in The Cell, which is what my Grammy called the little room on the second floor at the front of her house above the vestibule. For a while, before he was too crippled to go upstairs, my Grandpop’s bed was in there. She called it Toby’s Cell, or just The Cell, because it was only as big as a jail cell. It was the outdoor gear room by the time I was shot. There was a little roll-up desk, chests with hunting cloths in them and a gun cabinet. The pistol was in there, on a shelf behind the shotguns and rifles.

I heard my grand mother and Aunt Joanie downstairs, getting home from the store, just before I was shot. I ran down the hall past the attic door and the door to the other bedroom while holding my hand over my bleeding nose. At the top of the stairs, right by the leaded, stained glass window, I hollered, “Call a doctor! I’ve been shot! . . . Did you hear me? Call the doctor!”

“Yes! I heard you,” Aunt Joanie hollered back.

My grandmother didn’t believe her at first. “I heard the shot!” Joanie insisted.

I was feeling kind of light headed by then. I remembered my Boy Scout First Aid training about shock and fainting. I laid down on the floor right at the top of the steps and put my feet up on the wall below the stained glass window. I wondered, though. Putting my feet up would put more blood to my head so I didn’t pass out, but it would make me bleed to death quicker. My nose was more clogged up than bleeding by then, and there wasn’t much blood running down my throat anymore, so I decided I’d rather stay awake for it, see what happened. The ache in my neck was worse, though.

Stanley Moyer was our family doctor. I guess my great-grand parents had his father for their doctor, too. My mom told me that old Doc Moyer told his son (my Doc Moyer) to always take care of the Hinkels because they had put him through medical school—spent a lot of money on the doctor, I guess. I was half Hinkel, so they called him. He lived up on Juniper Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets so I didn’t know how long it would be till he got there.

After Grammy called my mom, she came up the stairs and had to step over me. I remember seeing up her dress when she did. She always kept talking when she was excited. Well, not talking exactly; saying things like “Oh my,” “My goodness,” or just making sighing or ‘put, put’ sounds with her lips. She got me a wash cloth from the upstairs bathroom for my nose (the bleeding had pretty much stopped, but I had to breathe through my mouth), and a towel to put under my neck when I told her it ached.

Luckily, our family friend Jon Roberts was at our house when it happened. My mom had ‘spells’ a lot of times for no good reason, so when she heard I’d been shot in the head, she freaked out. She ran into her room, Jon said, and flopped on her bed, alternating between slobbery sobs and frantic shrieks. Jon called my Dad and quick drove up to my grandmother’s house. She lived at 26 Penrose Street. We were two blocks down at 120 North Penrose. There's no car bridge on Penrose, though, so Jon had to drive up Forest to Ambler then down Erie back to Penrose to get there. He arrived before Doctor Moyer and I was glad to see him. I actually felt okay by then; figured I wasn’t going to die after all.

When he finally got there, Doctor Moyer sat on the top step next to me. He asked me questions then felt the back of my neck. I guess the main shock was over because, by then, I was clear headed and felt scared, I may have even cried a little. He told me to not move and went back downstairs to call an ambulance. They didn’t have 911 back then, so he called the hospital.

While I waited, I stared up at the stained glass window. I noticed how the designs and colors, though they were close, weren’t exactly the same all the way around. Only the bottom pane was still stained glass, though. Once, my brother Dan and I were batting a softball around in the side yard between Grammy’s and Ross King’s house. Dan whacked it in the air and it smashed out the other one. Everybody was really mad. They replaced it with a frosty glass one so all I could see through it while I was laying there was misty light.

I hardly remember them getting me down the stairs and into the ambulance. It wasn’t easy. Jon and Dr. Moyer had to help. They strapped me down and packed pillows next to my head. Jon rode with me in the back. He’d called my dad again before we left. He'd meet us at Grand View, in Sellersville. Quakertown Hospital didn’t want to handle a head shooting case so they sent me down there where they had more equipment. Grammy made Joanie walk down Penrose to our house to see if my mom was okay (it was long after they put the footbridge in so she didn’t have to go around). I guess my mom was okay, but I didn’t see her for a couple of days.

At Grand View, they had a bunch of people there to carefully lift me off the stretcher and onto the x-ray table. They seemed more nervous and excited than I was. Two nurses held my head and neck so it wouldn’t move when they slid me over. Besides taking the x-rays, they didn’t do anything else, didn’t even take off my shoes. Jon had to stay in the waiting room, but soon my dad came in. I might have cried a little then, too.

A couple of doctors talked to my dad right in front of me. They didn’t like the look of the x-ray, but were finally convinced I’d actually been shot and had a bullet in my head. They thought it was better to run me up to Allentown Hospital where they had a neurosurgeon on staff. They did take my shoes off—very gingerly—but left me in my regular clothes for the ride up 309. My dad followed us in the car. I was convinced I wasn’t going to die, by then, and remember making some quip or joke that make the guy in the back of the ambulance laugh.

It was the same deal at Allentown. They left me lying on the hard x-ray table with sand bags packed in next to my head for what seemed like forever. My mom must have called them, because my Great-Aunt Eleanor Meck and her husband Bill and son Harry (who was the only one of them who could drive), showed up at the ER waiting room. She was my Grandpop’s sister and a Hinkel, so Dr Moyer was her doctor, too. She told my dad that she was sure I’d be okay because, “That boy could survive a train wreck.”

“They look like they’ve just been through a train wreck, themselves,” my dad joked. The Mecks were an interesting trio.

I was scared again. I told my dad that I didn’t like the idea of someone cutting around inside of my head. I figured that was what was going to happen so, I was sort of stunned when the neurosurgeon barged into the room and told me to sit up. Nobody had let me move, even a twitch, for a couple of hours by then. When I sat up blood ran out of my right nostril and stained my shirt. It was dark, stale blood, not fresh, and there was already blood stains on my shirt, so it didn't matter. The doctor felt around the achy spot in my neck real hard. He put the x-ray up on a lighted screen and showed it to us.

“I’d do more damage trying to remove it than it will do just staying where it is. We’ll keep him in the hospital for observation and see how it is in a few days,” he said.

Back then, a stay in the hospital, even a big one like Allentown General, was nothing like it is today. I didn’t have an IV, there was no tube in my nose or oxygen clip on my finger. There weren’t any wires hooked up to me or a ‘beeping’ machine next to my bed. I was in an open space children’s ward where there were three or four beds on either side of the room. We were across from another ‘room’ just like it. Most of the beds were filled. It was pretty late by then, so it was dark and most of the patients were asleep.

I didn’t sleep well. Every time I tried to relax, I’d relive in my mind that instant when the gun went off. I cringed and tensed up. Every so often the nurse would come to my bed and wake me up to take my temperature (if I started to get a fever they would give me antibiotics). Naturally, my sinuses swelled up a little and I couldn’t breathe through my nose after a while. When she told me she’d have to check my temperature rectally if I couldn’t breathe through my nose, I told her I was okay. I’d take a breath through my mouth and hold it as long as I could before breathing again and got away with using the oral thermometer.

I was in the hospital for three or four days. The first day a Quakertown police officer showed up. He sat on a chair next to my bed for a pretty long time asking questions. I could tell he didn’t believe me some of the time, but he eventually filled out his report and left (and we’re sticking with that story). I wasn’t allowed out of bed until I saw the neurosurgeon later that afternoon, then I could walk around if I wanted to.

Most of the other kids there were sicker than me, even though a gunshot wound in the head sounds pretty bad. One guy was my age and lived in Copley (I didn’t know where it was). Nobody was sure what was wrong with him. Another little girl looked terrible and was dying from cancer. It made my dad feel bad and he brought her a stuffed animal one day and spent more time visiting her than he did me.

The most memorable thing that happened during my stay at Allentown Hospital (as far as I was concerned) is that I fell in love with one of my nurses. Phyllis Fo-- was her name. It’s sort of embarrassing now that I look back on it, but I had a serious, almost debilitating crush on her. I’m sure she knew it, too. We became pen pals afterwards, exchanging letters for a couple of years. I remember guessing her age and calculating how old she’d be before it wouldn’t be ridiculous for me to go on a date with her. I figured she’d be about 33 when I was 18. It depressed me. At the time, I had no clue that it might be am appealing proposal for a lot of 33 year old, unmarried women.

When I went back to school, I got a lot of questions and ribbing from my ninth grade classmates, but there were pretty much no other repercussions from being shot in the face with a .22 and walking around with a bullet in my head. I had no physical restrictions after a month or so, participated in sports including football and track. A girlfriend’s mother did try to make her breakup with me over it once. She said the bullet could move at any time, press on my brain and make me go crazy. She knew my family and said half of them were crazy already (just a couple of them, like the Mecks, were). We finally broke up for other reasons which I don’t want to talk about.

Eventually, I almost forgot about the bullet in my head . . . until I was in my fifties and had to get an MRI, anyway. I didn’t see how it was any different than my gold crowns and old silver fillings. It’s made of lead and copper after all—not iron—but it spooked everybody at St. Luke’s. I had to get x-rays first (the bullet's right where it was, way back then), and have a special evaluation before they’d put me in the machine. I guess they thought I’d sparkle and crackle like aluminum foil in a microwave. I didn’t.

I’ll tell you the rest of the story about me and Nurse Phyllis later.

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