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Published: Wednesday, 12/26/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

University of Toledo medical student perseveres after October shooting, plans for future

BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Halley Briglia, in a neck brace to help her recover, is interviewing for residency programs. Halley Briglia, in a neck brace to help her recover, is interviewing for residency programs.
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Everyone would have understood if Halley Briglia, a University of Toledo medical student, wanted to slow down or postpone her studies after being shot on the way to a hospital shift.

Instead, Ms. Briglia found resilience amid tragedy.

The Oct. 24 robbery-turned-shooting left her with multiple fractures in her jaw, a shattered right thumb, and a neck injury. The attack occurred as she made her way to Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, where she was on rotation.

The gunman also could have taken her future.

But in the months since the sudden and violent attack, gratitude trumped despair. Ms. Briglia, 28, is recovering from her injuries, interviewing for neurology residency programs, and preparing to graduate in June.

“I just feel lucky and thankful, and that’s the overwhelming emotion ... grateful that I’m still here,” she said. “A couple people that I’ve run into ... have said, ‘God must have big plans for you.’ I kind of think that, yeah, hopefully I am going to survive this and go on to help a lot of other people through my career.”

Ms. Briglia, in a Christmas Eve telephone interview from her hometown of Erie, Pa., recounted the challenges she’s faced recently and expressed her gratitude for friends, family, community, and medical school faculty, staff, and fellow students who have supported her.

Starting her final year at the University of Toledo’s college of medicine, the former Medical College of Ohio, Ms. Briglia took on sub-internships at several hospitals. She began a rotation Oct. 7 in St. Louis. Just before 6 a.m. on Oct. 24, she left her apartment for another long shift.

She noticed a man walking on the other side of the street but thought he was headed to work too. He approached with a gun, and Ms. Briglia told him to take whatever he wanted. She somehow ended up on the ground, and he pointed the gun at her head, fired once, and ran off.

“I was screaming for help, for somebody to come out of my apartments and help me,” she said.

The quick-thinking medical student figured she was going to start losing blood and wrapped a cardigan around her face. She returned to the apartment complex and pushed buzzers for all of the units. A resident called 911.

“It was totally just survival mode — what can I do to not die right now,” she said.

She was conscious when paramedics arrived, and she relayed her medical information. Once in the ambulance, Ms. Briglia said, she blacked out. Her next memory is waking up in the hospital and asking how long she had been there. The answer: five days.

She spent days with a breathing tube down her throat. The bullet had lodged in her vertebrae but did not injure her spinal cord. Friends, family, and medical school officials traveled to St. Louis to be at her bedside. Supporters decorated her room, brought gifts, and shared encouraging words and offers of help.

She underwent several surgeries, including a procedure to retrieve the bullet and operations on her thumb and jaw, and was discharged in early November. With her jaw wired shut and her hand injury making everyday tasks difficult, Ms. Briglia returned to Pennsylvania. Her father, Mike Briglia, helped as she recovered, and she quickly embarked on an intense interview schedule for residency programs.

Ms. Briglia and her boyfriend, a fellow University of Toledo medical student, have tackled the interview process together. She did the first couple of interviews with her jaw still wired shut, and she still must constantly wear a brace to support her neck.

She’s undergone another procedure on her thumb and will have a follow-up to determine if additional work is needed on her jaw and to examine her neck. Ms. Briglia said she’s not in pain, and the injuries do not impair her ability to work or pursue her medical studies. She’s made a trip to the West Coast for a round of interviews and plans to do more in January. She’s determined not to let the shooting deter her from starting her residency this summer.

“I never even really considered waiting until next year,” Ms. Briglia said, adding that she didn’t want to allow her attacker to mess up her life even more.

Joseph Newman, 25, of St. Louis is charged with assault, robbery, and two counts of armed criminal action, St. Louis police have said. A police spokesman did not return calls for comment on Monday. Ms. Briglia said she is prepared to testify if the case goes to trial and wonders why the attacker fired at her after she willingly gave up her possessions.

“I can’t make sense of what happened,” she said.

She’s sure, however, the shooting will help her connect with future patients, anticipate their fears, and provide good care.

“I think that it will make me a much better doctor,” she said.

Mr. Briglia said he watched with pride as his daughter overcame the obstacles of the last several months. He praised her calm thinking at the scene and her “positive attitude” since. His daughter has always been capable and independent, he said, but when tested to this extreme she responded impressively.

“I know a couple of people have described her as the luckiest unlucky person they know … she just feels incredibly fortunate,” he said.

Ms. Briglia said she’s touched by the support she received, an outpouring of kindness that bolstered her belief in the good in people.

“Even though this tragic, terrible thing happened to me — that might make you discouraged with mankind. That’s not how I feel at all ... my faith in mankind is even stronger,” she said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.

 



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