Resisting the Label of Victim, but Forever Scarred by a Mass Shooting

Matt Mika’s days are full of the reminders of his new limits after he was wounded last summer in a mass shooting at a practice of the Republican congressional baseball team.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Exactly a month after Matt Mika was shot while practicing for a baseball game, he drove with his father to the field here where he once lay dying, his face yellowing, then graying, his eyes lifeless.

A lobbyist and longtime coach of the Republican congressional baseball team, Mr. Mika was one of four people shot outside the nation’s capital on a sunny morning in June. A gunman upset over President Trump’s election fired at least 70 rounds at the team as it practiced ahead of its annual charity game against the Democrats.

Mr. Mika wanted to show his father what it looked like.

Standing near pavement stained by the cleaning solution used to wash away the gunman’s blood, Mr. Mika, 39, pointed to the spot by first base where he had chatted with another coach before the shots started. He told his father, Joe, how long it took him to notice the flash of the rifle’s muzzle before he turned to run, sprinting through a gate behind the first-base dugout.

As he fled, Mr. Mika was shot in his chest, millimeters from his heart, and in his left arm, severing his median nerve. He collapsed onto a patch of dirt, his life slipping away.

But thanks to an improbable series of events — the particular path of a bullet, a specially trained paramedic, the protection of the Capitol Police — he lived.

Interviews over months with Mr. Mika, his teammates, paramedics, surgeons and loved ones paint a portrait of an unexpected survival and recovery that defied the expectations of every medical expert he encountered on the day of the attack.

He has since sought to escape the attention showered on the victims of high-profile shootings in the United States, trying to resist the feeling that his identity is solely that of a survivor.

Yet nearly every hour brings a reminder of what Mr. Mika can no longer do.

After he was shot, almost everything went right. Everything had to.

Of the four victims, Mr. Mika was labeled the most severe case for paramedics: a “red.”

Chad Shade, a paramedic of 14 years for the Alexandria Fire Department, found Mr. Mika. He could see his heart inside of a sucking chest wound the size of a fist.

Armed with a set of military-grade response skills unusual for a paramedic, Mr. Shade rapidly applied HyFin occlusive chest seals, commonly used by medics in war, to block airflow into Mr. Mika’s body.

Mr. Shade said Mr. Mika wore the expression of his most dire patients: “They just have that look of impending doom. And they will look at you, and they go, ‘I’m going to die, aren’t I?’

“Other than the fact that he was awake, you could have said: ‘This dude is dead.’ The fact that he was not was remarkable,” Mr. Shade said.

Mr. Mika did not have time to wait for a rescue helicopter. During the 15-minute ambulance ride to George Washington University Hospital in Washington, Mr. Shade, who studies medical journals in his free time, functioned as something akin to a trauma surgeon on the go. Paramedics increasingly play that role to give victims of shots from assault rifles a chance to live.

He borrowed another technique from the battlefield, injecting an IV medication called tranexamic acid, which helped Mr. Mika’s blood to clot. He inserted three-inch needles in Mr. Mika’s chest walls to let air escape. Mr. Shade also helped reinflate Mr. Mika’s lungs, which had collapsed as the bullet that penetrated his chest exploded into fragments inside him.

Fading into a state of shock in the ambulance, Mr. Mika talked quietly to himself, trying to communicate with his mother, who died of breast cancer a decade ago. He turned to Mr. Shade and asked him to recount the scene to his father and his girlfriend, Kristi Boswell, in case the moments were his last.

Mr. Shade, who had raced to the scene with another paramedic just after completing a 24-hour shift, remembers tearing up after dropping off Mr. Mika, his voice cracking as he tried to explain over the phone to Mr. Mika’s father how dire the wounds were.

After Mr. Mika arrived at the hospital, surgery began within minutes. Dr. Libby Schroeder, a trauma surgeon, spent two hours closing holes in his chest to restore lung function and sewing together tissue torn apart by the shrapnel still inside Mr. Mika.

She knew he had a chance: His heart was untouched.

By the afternoon, Mr. Mika was fit enough to be interviewed by the Capitol Police and the F.B.I. He could not talk, so he drew maps of the scene.

Two days later, Dr. Schroeder embarked on another round of surgery, unsure of what to expect. She had given his body time to heal, but knew that his condition could have grown worse had his tissue material deteriorated. She drew up eight contingency plans.

When she opened his chest, she felt a rush of relief: The tissue had healed more completely than she had anticipated. She was able to skip the operation.

“I’ve told Matt many times he’s one of the luckiest people I know,” Dr. Schroeder said.

Even with the optimistic prognosis, months passed before Mr. Mika could feel his body healing. As time wore on, he started to feel more alone with his pain.

He turned to other victims of mass shootings, trying to make sense of what his new life looked like. After he received a call from Kristina Anderson, who was shot three times in her French class during the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, they became fast friends, counseling each other on their recoveries over the phone.

Soon after, Mr. Mika got in touch with Nick Robone, who was shot in the chest at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas in October. Mr. Robone has in turn contacted victims of November’s mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Mr. Mika and Mr. Robone have talked on the phone about the anonymity they craved after receiving so much attention as victims of high-profile shootings.

“I don’t want to be known as Nick Robone, the survivor of Route 91,” Mr. Robone said.

For Mr. Mika, old acquaintances have stopped and pointed at him when he walks through the hallways of the Capitol. They are, he believes, unsure how to react, whether to ask about Mr. Mika’s recovery or assume he has somehow moved on.

“It gets old when people say you look good,” he said.

Along with Mr. Robone and Ms. Anderson, he has become so accustomed to friends’ checking in after mass shootings that Mr. Mika sent the other two a text message the day of the shooting in Sutherland Springs: “Here we go again.”

The victims of June’s congressional baseball shooting continue to see and counsel one another. Mr. Mika met privately in August with Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority whip, who was gravely wounded. The two compared scars and discussed the small triumphs of their therapy programs.

“His wife and my girlfriend yell at us because we’re doing too much,” Mr. Mika said with a laugh. “We’re all trying to get back to some kind of routine, back to what life could be like now.”

He struck up another unlikely friendship. Jayson Werth, a Washington Nationals outfielder, visited Mr. Mika in the hospital and came away shaken.

“The baseball field is a sanctuary. That should be a safe place, whether you play it in the sandlot or in high school or college or in the minor leagues,” said Mr. Werth, who regularly exchanges texts with Mr. Mika and meets him for lunch. “I just have a hard time wrapping my head around it.”

Mr. Mika’s days are now a mix of rehabilitation and slowly increasing work hours. He has talked to Ms. Anderson about the loneliness and isolation that set in half a year, or perhaps nine months, after a shooting, as friends and relatives expect victims to be settling back into their rhythms.

“I look better than I feel,” Mr. Mika said. “You may look great, but you actually don’t know how people feel.”

At night, he feels the bullet fragments moving around in his chest. He sleeps on his back to relieve pressure on his chest and left arm.

He has no feeling in his left hand, so he cannot wear ties or cuff links to work. One afternoon, as he tried to replace a leaky pipe in his bathroom, he realized he could not screw in the pipe without feeling in his hand. He vacuums incessantly, using the pushing motion to strengthen his wrist. He hopes to regain feeling within a year.

On some days, shrapnel pops out of his chest, and he will send a photo of it to Dr. Schroeder to mark the absurdity.

When he returns to his home on Capitol Hill around 5:30 or 6 p.m. on weekdays, he is lonely and restless. Instead of the hockey, basketball and softball games he once played four nights a week, he has nurtured new habits, such as reading short stories about World War II heroes and watching Ken Burns’s documentary “The Vietnam War.”

When Mr. Mika travels for his job at Tyson Foods, he grows anxious that people he encounters want him to recount his trauma. He would rather they not know.

“I want to get back to some type of routine in life,” Mr. Mika said, “and not have this incident define who I am.”

The plainest reminders of Mr. Mika’s past life take on outsize meaning, like when he returned to the Potbelly sandwich shop near his office late in the summer and the staff remembered his usual order: salami, roast beef, turkey and ham.

He sees physical therapists in downtown Washington for hours at a time, his gunshot wounds in plain view of other patients nursing back and shoulder injuries. He talks to a therapist and consults his girlfriend’s preacher.

“We still have moments where we’re like, ‘You got shot!’” Ms. Boswell said. “There’s a lot of pain behind the smile. I had many a meltdown.”

Joe Mika remembers tying his son’s shoes, changing his bandages and clothing for him in the weeks after the shooting, helping him live his life in reverse.

“I don’t think my wife and I will ever stop worrying about him,” he said.

While he readjusted to home life over the summer, even a walk around the block would tire him. On his first jog after June’s shooting, he began to tear up midway through.

“It eats me up inside,” Mr. Mika said of his new confines.

When he is in a crowd, his thoughts drift to what it took for him to be there.

He tries to avoid thinking about the gunman, believing that may grant him a kind of ownership of his life.

“I’m angry this person has taken away my ability to be normal,” he said.

This peaceful pocket of suburban Washington still bears the scars of June’s shooting. Bullet holes pockmark the fencing and storage units that ring the field, and the first-base dugout where members of Congress ducked for cover. New grass has grown over the stretch of the outfield where Mr. Scalise staggered.

Mr. Mika visits once a month, hoping to make sense of what happened to him. He stands on the patch of dirt where he collapsed. He calls these trips his best therapy.

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