Operating on a Friend at Gunpoint

Dr. Alex Eastman
Faculty Trauma Surgeon, UT Southwestern/Parkland Memorial Hospital

ToughestCase1_AlexEastman Dr. Alex Eastman photography by Adam Fish

I almost didn’t go out with the SWAT team that morning, because I had a long operative day scheduled. I’m a trauma surgeon at Parkland, but I’m also a reserve police officer on the Dallas SWAT team. On that morning in October 2007, I thought, Maybe I’ll let my partner on the team, Dr. Jeff Metzger, take care of the call. Looking back, I’m glad I went.

The house we went to was on Hollywood Avenue in Oak Cliff. It was small and rundown, typical of the houses we often serve narcotics warrants in. The guy we were after had been trafficking methamphetamines and had been violent in the past. But it was really his girlfriend who pulled the trigger.

The shooting happened right at 6 am, when it was still chilly and pitch black outside. My partner and I were standing in the front yard, while other members of the team were already in the house. I actually never heard the shot because it happened deep inside the home, but what I did hear was someone over the police radio yelling, “Officer down! Officer down!”

Then I saw two officers dragging another officer away from the house and near some bushes. When we got to him, he was lying on his back, staring up at the sky. His eyes looked blank. I initially thought he had been hit in the face with a tool. But when he started to exhale, a huge rush of blood came out of his mouth.

He had been shot in the right side of his neck, near his Adam’s apple. The bullet had bounced off the front of his spine and out his left shoulder.
Police officers often say that when you’re in a shooting, you get this tunnel vision. If you can imagine, this was a crazy environment. People are breaking windows and screaming at each other, but you just totally block that other stimulus out. I remember seeing nothing but his neck.

This was a very different environment than when I’m in an operating room where I have light and help. We ended up having to put a tube in his throat with the lights on the end of police rifles serving as operating lights. Basically, we were operating at gunpoint, and that’s crazy.

Normally, when you put a tube in a patient, you first look down his mouth, find his vocal cords, and pass a tube through him. But that’s a problem when blood is welling up in his mouth, and you don’t have suction. So I had to cut a hole in his windpipe to restore his airway, and all I had was a knife, a tube, and a lot of pressure to make that happen.

I cut the hole in his anterior neck, which is 3 or 4 centimeters up from the chest bone, to put in the tube. It took all of a minute and a half to do, but it was a minute and a half that changed our lives.

We see people get hit in the face all the time, but we don’t see someone get shot in the neck every night. Even though you’re a police officer or a doctor and you think you’re ready to take care of things, you’re never used to seeing your friend get shot. This was a guy I hung out with. I knew his family. I knew his kids. Emotionally, I think that’s as big as it gets.

Once we restored his airway, I put an IV in to give him a little medicine to try to make sure he didn’t remember any of this. They took him to Methodist Hospital, where he recovered from his acute injuries, and then he did his rehabilitation at University Hospital–Zale Lipshy.

After about a year of recovery, he came back to work for the police department, but now he’s retired. I don’t see him as often, but I talk to him all the time. I have a bond with him that will last forever.

—As told to Katherine Lagomarsino