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Focusing on the Future: Shooting Survivor Works Toward Recovery

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas --

Under the watchful eye of his physical therapist, a patient slowly worked a weighted towel across the floor by turning his left ankle. This was just one of several exercises he performed during his rehabilitation appointment at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center here.

“This actually feels pretty good,” David Colbath said as he worked diligently to strengthen his ankle.

Seeing him now, it’s hard to believe Colbath was shot eight times a little over three months ago on a peaceful Sunday morning in a small country church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That day, a lone gunman took the lives of 26 people and forever changed the lives of 20 others who were wounded by the gunfire.

Colbath is one of eight people who were brought to Brooke Army Medical Center with multiple gunshot wounds Nov. 5, 2017. The 56-year-old was shot in the right arm, calf, ankle and several times in his backside. “God didn’t do this,” he said. “Evil came into our church, and evil through the devil did this.”

Before coming to BAMC, Colbath had never been in a hospital. After spending three and a half weeks in the hospital and undergoing five surgeries to repair his wounds, he said, he is grateful to be alive.

BAMC surgeons repaired Colbath’s right arm using a vein from his leg to reconstruct one of two blood vessels in his forearm to restore blood flow to his hand. Following the reconstruction by the vascular team, an orthopedic surgical team performed nerve reconstruction in the same area and rotated muscle over the vascular and nerve reconstruction to prevent infection and allow his arm to heal.

“I think our trauma team and all the trauma support services performed exceptionally well,” said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Brandon Propper, vascular surgeon and program director for general surgery. “We were able to get into the operating room very quickly and re-establish vascular flow in a timely fashion to give him the best chance of limb salvage.”

Thankful for Treatment

Colbath is thankful for the treatment he has received at BAMC. “I think BAMC is the greatest trauma center in the world,” he said.

BAMC is the Defense Department’s only Level 1 trauma center and is one of two Level 1 trauma centers in San Antonio. Alongside University Health System, BAMC administers lifesaving care to more than 4,000 trauma patients each year, from an area that stretches across 22 counties in Southwest Texas and encompasses 2.2 million people. Of the over 4,000 trauma patients admitted each year, 85 percent are community members without military affiliation.

“Within the first week I was at BAMC, I started to realize the true sweetness of every doctor, every nurse, every practitioner, whoever they were -- they were truly good people coming to help me,” Colbath said. “I can’t remember all of their names, but they were truly sweet, good people.”

Colbath’s injuries are slowly healing, but he still experiences pain from the physical wounds inflicted that day. “I want to focus on my recovery now; what happened in the church is in the past,” he said.

As part of his recovery, Colbath is working with physical and occupational therapists at the Center for the Intrepid two to five days a week to regain movement and strength in his arm, hands and ankles. The CFI team is using a combination of therapeutic exercises including high-intensity interval training, strengthening, cardio and balance to help Colbath return to his previous level of functioning.

“I’m a driven man, and the staff here are driven people,” Colbath said.

“We have a wonderful clinical team here at the CFI,” agreed physical therapist Oluwasegun Olomojobi. “We all work together in making sure he is able to reach his functional goals.”

Colbath said he already has noticed a tremendous increase in the use of his hands in the short time said he has worked the CFI staff. “Three weeks ago, I couldn’t get down on the ground and get back up without crawling to something to get up,” he added. ”Now I can get down and back up on my own, and I’m happy about that.”

Impressive Progress

Olomojobi said he’s been impressed with Colbath’s progress. “He has improved tremendously since his first day here at the CFI,” he said. “He is fully integrated into all that the CFI offers and gives a 110 percent effort every visit. We’ve seen improvements in virtually all areas of his rehab care.”

As part of his rehab, Colbath, an avid hunter, is working with Scott Fitzgerald, the firearms training simulator instructor, to learn how to shoot left-handed. Fitzgerald is helping Colbath with his hand/eye coordination and physical stance as he gets used to using his left hand to squeeze the trigger. He also showed Colbath different ways of loading and chambering the gun, as well as new techniques for sighting the target. “I’ve been hunting since I was 6 years old,” Colbath said. “But this is all new to me.”

“We are taking the muscle memory he already has and changing it from a right-hand dominancy to a left-hand dominancy,” Fitzgerald explained. “It’s going to take time for that to feel more normal, but he moves very well doing it.”

Fitzgerald said he has noticed a marked improvement since Colbath began using his left hand as his dominant hand when shooting.

“A loud noise still scares me,” Colbath admitted, explaining that a few weeks earlier, he was at a party and a balloon popped. “I nearly had a cow, it scared me so much,” he said. “So, I’m not ready to shoot a live gun yet. But I want to prepare myself for it, though.”

Colbath said he’s fully committed to his recovery.

“I don’t want to leave anything on the table,” he said. “I want to be as well as God will let me. I want to say that I went to the [Center for the Intrepid] and we did everything possible. … I want to know that I made every effort to be as well as I can be.”