They Survived Mass Shootings. Now They Are Living With Bullets Inside Them.
Doctors routinely leave bullets or bullet fragments inside the bodies of those who survive gunshot wounds. We asked four survivors of mass shootings what that is like.
On an otherwise ordinary winter morning nearly eight years ago, Mary Reed was standing in a long line with her teenage daughter outside a Tucson supermarket to meet Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, when a gunman approached the crowd and opened fire. Ms. Reed shielded her daughter with her own body, moments before a 9 mm bullet tore through her, hit a rib and darted toward her spine.
Ms. Reed was among 19 people shot, six fatally, on that day in January 2011, in that year’s worst mass shooting. As a survivor, she joined about 100,000 others who are wounded by gunfire every year. And with two bullets still lodged in her back, she’s also a member of a distinct group of Americans: those who live with the metal inside them.
“I was an evidence locker,” Ms. Reed, 59, said. The bullets have permanently damaged a bundle of nerves associated with her right leg and foot, and she said she has extensive numbness.
Every bullet is different. Some, like a 9 mm, may remain fully intact inside the body. Others, like a .223 caliber fired from a semiautomatic weapon, explode on impact, leaving pieces throughout.
Doctors have generally considered it safer to leave the metal inside bodies, unless they caused an infection or were stuck in a major organ, artery or joint. To dig the metal out risked causing extensive bleeding and scarring, and potentially damaging muscles and tissues.
But new research has raised questions about this assumption. A study published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that bullets and their fragments can be a significant, yet often undiagnosed, cause of lead poisoning.
There are no federal statistics on the number of people living with bullets inside them, but in interviews, four victims of mass shootings discussed what the bullets have come to symbolize: a proud survival, a traumatic reminder, a fearful memory, a politicized turning point.
Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.