February 11, 2019

He was shot 16 times—and survived. Here's his miraculous, harrowing medical journey.

Daily Briefing

    Dustin Theoharis was shot 16 times by police in 2012 and miraculously survived. Now, seven years later, he's still reeling with the mental and physical toll the incident has taken on him, Ciara O'Rourke writes for The Atlantic.

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    The incident

    On Feb. 11, 2012, police entered a house in Auburn, Washington, where Theoharis was renting a room, O'Rourke writes. Two officers entered Theoharis' room, where he was sleeping.

    O'Rourke writes that "[c]onflicting accounts make the next several seconds fuzzy." Kristopher Rongen, one of the officers involved in the shooting, says he entered the room and loudly announced, "Police, police, show your hands," and Theoharis did not follow his orders. Rongen says he then asked Theoharis if he had any guns, and Theoharis replied that he had three "right here," as he moved to sweep the floor with his hand. It was at that point, according to Rongen, that he and the other officer, Aaron Thompson, opened fire on Theoharis, fearing he was reaching for a gun.

    But Theoharis says he didn't have any guns and that he was startled to discover two police officers standing at the end of his bed, O'Rourke writes. Theoharis says the police asked him for identification, so he began reaching for his wallet—which is when they started shooting.

    Theoharis was shot 16 times in both of his legs, both of his arms, his shoulder, his abdomen, his jaw, and his back, O'Rourke writes.

    A year-long recovery—and a life forever changed

    It took about a year for Theoharis to recover, as much as possible, from his injuries. Initially, he needed a tube to breath and couldn't talk, O'Rourke writes. He underwent several surgeries to remove the bullets from his body and ultimately had to relearn how to walk.

    Theoharis also lost coordination in one of his hands, making him unable to return to his job as a refrigeration mechanic, O'Rourke writes. However, a legal settlement of $5.5 million with the King County Sherriff's office helped Theoharis financially, according to O'Rourke.

    Seven years later, Theoharis is still living with the toll the shooting took on him—both physically and mentally, O'Rourke writes.

    Theoharis said he no longer goes wakeboarding or water skiing because he's too afraid he might wipe out and hit his face on the water, which could aggravate pain he feels in his jaw. He also avoids moving heavy objects and has difficulty running because it hurts his joints. He sometimes rides an exercise bike instead.

    How is it possible to survive being shot 16 times?

    According to Eileen Bulger, a surgery professor at the University of Washington and the trauma chief at Harborview Medical Center, it's fortunate that Theoharis is able to do anything at all. "You can be shot once and die, or you can be shot multiple times and live," she said, adding, "It very much depends on where the bullets go and how much damage is caused in the path of the bullet." Even if you survive being shot, your life can still be shortened because of nerve damage, bowel obstructions, or a variety of other complications, O'Rourke writes.

    But ironically, being shot may have helped extend Theoharis' life, O'Rourke writes. Theoharis was misusing opioids before he was shot but, after his release from the hospital, he started treatment for his opioid use disorder and attended multiple 12-step meetings each day. "I just wanted to live a happy frickin' life," he said, adding, "I get another chance."

    Despite that upbeat demeanor, the shooting has taken a mental toll on Theoharis, O'Rourke writes. Theoharis said he tries not to think about the shooting, but he does have "some issues" with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Theoharis said he's sometimes scared by loud noises and at times he startles easily. He added that, although he enjoys shooting targets at the gun range, being around other people with guns makes him uncomfortable.

    Brad Stolbach, a trauma psychologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, said it's no surprise Theoharis has some form of PTSD. Research has shown that people who are shot for any reason are "very, very, highly likely" to meet the criteria for PTSD, Stolbach said.

    Stolbach added that individuals shot by someone who is supposed to protect them, like a parent or a police officer, can be especially likely to develop PTSD. "Any kind of trauma can mess up your trust in the world and in the people around you and in your own safety," he said, adding, "But when someone in a position of trust and authority is the perpetrator of the harm, then that is absolutely going to affect how you experience people in positions of trust and authority."

    Police officers often experience psychological trauma after a shooting as well, according to Diana Falkenbach, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "[I]f you make a horrific mistake that … almost ends someone's life, you can imagine how difficult it would be to go into a situation again and again," she said.

    Theoharis said he doesn't have any hard feelings towards the officers that shot him. He said Rongen and Thompson made a "huge mistake" but that they "were doing their job, and [he] think[s] it's a job a lot of people wouldn't want to do" (O'Rourke, The Atlantic, 2/7).

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