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Marine shot in Iowa City undergoes surgery, continues recovery in Chicago rehab hospital
Gabe Heefner has progressed ‘a lot,’ his father says
IOWA CITY — Lance Cpl. Gabe Heefner has “progressed a lot” since arriving two months ago at a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, his father said this week, after the Marine was shot in a bizarre incident last year while driving along an Iowa City street.
Nile Heefner told The Gazette his son’s progress had likely plateaued, but a cranioplasty surgery Thursday may “jumpstart his recovery.” Doctors have told the family that after an artificial skull plate is put in, there can be significant improvement in the patient — which is what they’re hoping for, Nile said.
The surgery was at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Gabe’s parents posted an update afterword that it was completed without complications. But his mother, Codi Heefner, wrote that Gabe was in “tremendous pain and was very agitated coming off the anesthesia.” The focus was to manage his pain and discomfort.
Last October, the 20-year-old Marine was shot in the head while driving on Highway 6 near Sycamore Street. Police said the round was fired by a man who was shooting a pellet gun at a squirrel in his yard, but missed and hit Gabe instead. Gabe crashed his car after being shot and was taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where this family said he was “fighting for his life.”
Gabe, the oldest of three children, was in town visiting his grandparents when he was injured. The Heefners moved to Missouri eight years after Gabe was born in Iowa City.
Iowa City resident Philip Olson is accused of violating city code by discharging a pellet gun within city limits. Iowa City police said that three days after the shooting, Olson came to the department to say he had heard about the incident and “admitted to shooting from inside his house at the squirrel and missing” at that time.
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness previously told The Gazette she wanted to charge Olson with reckless use of a firearm but a “loophole in the law” prevented the more serious charge. An air rifle or similar gun is not considered a firearm or dangerous weapon in Iowa, which makes it hard to prosecute, Lyness said.
A non-jury trial on the code violation for Olson, 69, is set for 10:30 a.m. Feb. 24 at the Johnson County Courthouse, records show. Olson has declined requests from The Gazette for an interview.
Family grateful for progress
Gabe spent about a month at the UIHC before being transported on Nov. 10 to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, a nationally ranked physical medicine and rehabilitation research hospital.
Some of the ways Gabe has progressed in the last two months include being able to eat regular food and walking with the help of a physical therapist. Nile said when Gabe got to the rehabilitation hospital, he wasn’t eating regular food and could barely stand.
“He's made a lot of progress in two months, which we're very grateful for,” Nile said.
Nile said his son’s progress had plateaued both in cognitive functioning and physical abilities. “We're still waiting for his left side to come along better,” Nile said. The metal pellet struck Gabe in the temple on his left side.
The pellet will remain in his brain for the rest of his life because it’s too dangerous to try to remove, Nile said. It’s unknown if there will be any repercussions or if it will impact Gabe’s recovery.
Because it’s a brain injury, Nile said, there are details that Gabe isn’t able to process. He doesn’t have the full understanding of why he’s at the hospital but seems “pretty content,” his father said.
“In a way, that's a blessing, but we definitely want him to have full understanding of things sooner than later,” Nile said. “We're hoping that the cranioplasty will just help his brain function more normally, and that he'll get back the things that he had before all of this.”
Gabe enjoys his parents visiting him, is polite to the nurses and staff and has a witty sense of humor that comes out every now and then, Nile said. “He laughs at things that are funny, and so it's just nice to see some of his personality, but we're hoping to see more of that in the future,” Nile added.
Posting updates and next steps
Since the beginning of Gabe’s injury, his parents have been posting daily updates about his condition and recovery to CaringBridge. There are dozens of comments on each post from people following along with Gabe’s recovery and praying for him.
Nile said it’s been therapeutic for him and his wife to write the updates and process what’s happening. The posts are a journal of Gabe’s recovery, which they hope he can read one day and appreciate how hard he’s worked.
"Codi and I would both say that the response that people have given us — the kind things they've written, the prayers, the encouragement — has really been a blessing to us,“ Nile said.
Gabe also gets letters and cards in the mail. Earlier this month, he got cards from two Iowa classrooms: a second-grade class in Eldora sent him cards and a kindergarten class in Atlantic drew him Christmas pictures.
“The nurses say he gets the most mail here,” Nile said. “He's been loved by many people, and it's been really sweet to see, really encouraging.”
Nile said he and his wife have talked about how to balance that positivity with the reality in the posts, because while Gabe has recovered a lot since October, he isn’t walking like he used to or having full conversations like he used to.
The next focus is for Gabe to recover from the cranioplasty surgery. How soon he can leave the AbilityLab will depend on his progress after the surgery. Nile said he and Codi have been having conversations about next steps and trying to find the best place for Gabe to continue his recovery.
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