Saving Brains from Bullets

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Class of ’95 | On the morning of January 8, G. Michael Lemole Jr. M’95 was at a Tucson-area golf course, finishing up a lesson with his son. Then his cellphone rang. It was the University of Arizona Medical Center.

“What they basically said was, ‘Congresswoman Giffords has been shot, as have a lot of people,’” recounts Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the medical center. “And my response to that was, ‘I’ll be in.’ Even though I had a partner who was on call, this would be the kind of scenario where they need all hands on deck.”

Indeed they did. Twelve people, including US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were wounded, and another six were dead, victims of a demented young man with a Glock. On the way to the medical center, Lemole heard a radio news report that Giffords had died. He speed-dialed a resident and found that she was still alive.

When he arrived, he immediately got to work, performing what he calls “basic brain surgery” on Giffords: a decompressive craniectomy, in which part of the skull is removed to allow the swelling to expand without squeezing healthy tissue.

“It’s not the most complex surgery,” he says. “I do the complex surgery in my real life. That’s the skull-base surgery. But this, any well-trained neurosurgeon can carry out the procedures we did.”

Fortunately for Giffords, the bullet had passed through the left side of her brain, and did not cross hemispheres or the lower parts of the brain that control critical function. Still, as Lemole told the assembled reporters in the early days: “With this kind of injury—a penetrating injury to the skull—the chance of survival, let alone recovery, is abysmal. She has no right to look as good as she does. We’re hopeful and we just all have to be extremely patient.”

Less than two weeks later, he did get to do the skull-base surgery, removing bone fragments from Giffords’ eye. He acknowledges that “probably fewer neurosurgeons would be comfortable with that.”

Lemole downplays the stressfulness of the surgery.

“There’s always a little bit [of adrenaline] before any major procedure,” he says. “But once you’re in the moment, you don’t experience that anymore. You’re in the moment; you’re reacting and acting, pro-acting, whatever the case may be; and usually somewhere in the procedure—when you sort of realize that the end, and particularly a good end, is a foregone conclusion—you start to get that elation.”

The day after we spoke with Lemole, Giffords was transferred to the Texas Medical Center in Houston for rehabilitation, astonishing many observers with the pace of her recovery. 

“You know, she surprises us every day, and we’re really happy about that,” says Lemole. “But I do caution everyone not to let their speculations run rampant. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

Lemole became an instant celebrity in the wake of the shootings, appearing beside trauma surgeon Peter Rhee and offering quiet, calm assessments of Giffords’ status; he was hailed as one of the “heroes” of the tragedy by President Barack Obama. The sudden spotlight has been a mixed blessing, he acknowledges.

“The downside is that it does distract from my real life, and the regular work we do on a daily basis here,” he admits. “But the good news is that it gives Tucson and University Medical Center a national stage. We were doing this great work anyway, and it’s good to get the word out there. And while it’s been a little more work for me to go to those media interviews and make myself available, anything that I can do to help get that word out and let the world know what we’re able to do down here, the better it is for Tucson and the area.”

He disagrees with the notion that Tucson’s reputation took a hit with the shooting. 

“You have nut jobs in every major city—and small cities too—in this country. If you look at the statistics for Tucson, we’re below the national average—certainly for violent crimes. Maybe a little higher for larceny and those sorts of things, but I think Tucson compares favorably with any major city of its size throughout the country.”

Lemole says he would “rather not inject” himself into the debate on gun control that, inevitably, flared up in the wake of the shooting.

“You know, when we go into surgery we like to be as cool-headed as possible,” he explains. “If you’re going to talk about something as significant as gun control in America—and it’s an issue that’s very, very close to Americans’ hearts—then it should be a dispassionate and logical and reasoned debate. It should not be on the heels of such a horrible disaster, when we’re not even sure that there’s an association there.”—S.H.

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