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Fourteen months later -- wounded trooper, wife reflect

December 07, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

As a boy, R.J. "Bobby" Elswick was fascinated by green men. Not the little kind that descend in spaceships, but the bigger ones who drive police cruisers: West Virginia State Police troopers, who wear green uniforms.

Bobby was wearing his own green uniform, carrying a shotgun, standing along a gravel road in Hedgesville, W.Va., discussing a possible hostage situation on the night of Oct. 10, 2002. It was dark and rainy, with no moon in sight.

Bobby doesn't remember what happened that night - he doesn't remember seeing a man walk toward him and three other troopers. He doesn't remember the man raising a rifle and firing a bullet that fragmented when it hit Bobby's head just above his left ear. Pieces of the bullet remain lodged in Bobby's brain to this day.

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Bobby's skull shattered. His determination, strength and sheer will to live were not so easily broken.

The shooting


Terri Elswick, Bobby's wife, was not one to worry.

"I never really thought about it, the danger. It was just a job," she said.

Terri was shopping with friends and three children - not her own; she and Bobby do not have children - on the night of the shooting. What she didn't know was that her friend's husband, Sgt. Eric Burnett, was trying to call her. After the trip, when Terri called Burnett's wife to commiserate over the agonies of shopping with three children, Kara Burnett panicked and hung up on her. By then, Burnett's wife had found out what happened.

Terri would find out when her doorbell rang around 9 p.m. that Thursday night. It was Sgt. Dean Olack's wife. Although it seemed a little late for a visit, Terri invited her in.

"She looked at me and she said, 'Bobby's been in an accident,'" Terri said. Terri quickly changed from her pajamas and ran back down her steps. "She said, 'Bobby's been shot.'"

While heading to City Hospital, Terri called her husband's parents, who lived several hours away in the southern part of the state. Even though she did not yet know Bobby had been shot in the head, she failed in her effort to stay calm while talking to his parents. Several state troopers across the state relayed Bobby's parents to the area that night. Bobby's parents since have moved here.

When Terri arrived at the hospital, Eric Burnett - Bobby's best friend - grabbed her and told her the severity of the injury. He told her that he never left Bobby's side.

As Terri rounded the corner of her husband's hospital room, she first spotted his feet. He was jerking around in the bed, she said.

Terri and Burnett rode in an ambulance to Washington County Hospital. Maybe, since he's being taken to another hospital, the injury is not too bad, Terri remembers thinking at that time.

Hope flickered for a bit when a doctor approached Terri.

"The doctor said, 'This is bad. Do you know that he may die?'" she recalled.

Surgery commenced. Bobby's face was masked by tubes. His head started to swell.

By the fourth day, the pressure on Bobby's head was getting worse. Doctors told Terri that even if her husband pulled through, he never would walk or talk again.

Everyone was called to the hospital's chapel. One person, though, was missing.

"I didn't go. I wouldn't go," Terri said.

Bobby probably would not make it through the night, Terri was told. A decision on whether to end life support would need to be made.

"I said I was not going to give up or listen to negative stuff," Terri said. She crawled into her husband's hospital bed and slept there all night.

The next morning, Bobby coughed.

"I ran out to the nurses and said, 'He coughed. He coughed!'"

It was just a reflex, they replied.

When she returned, Bobby moved his left index finger.

"Then I knew he was going to be OK," Terri said. Doctors confirmed that the outlook seemed better, although a week passed before the pressure in Bobby's head lessened.

Bobby remembers nothing of the shooting and little of its immediate aftermath. He has foggy memories of doctors, nurses and ambulances. His first real memory is flying to Atlanta, where he underwent extensive rehabilitation before returning home on Valentine's Day.

"I never did know what happened," Bobby said. "I still don't."

Undeterred


As long as he keeps making progress, Bobby will continue with therapy. He currently spends five days a week with a speech therapist, occupational therapy experts and doing cognitive exercises. A foot problem allowed him to take a month off from physical therapy. When Terri said those therapy sessions will begin again soon, Bobby turned to her with an agonized look.

"He didn't know that," she said.

Bobby, 32, also works with tutors on his reading, writing and math skills.

Sitting in the couple's finished basement recently, Bobby apologized a couple of times when he needed a question repeated. He became sheepish once when he lost track of what he was saying.

That self-awareness is remarkable, considering doctors first said that even if Bobby lived, he would be 98 percent brain-dead.

It was Terri's turn to become a trouper.

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