HOUSTON — For a year now, the lives of Nick Tullier’s parents and fiancée have revolved in a close orbit around the hospital rooms the East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy has inhabited.
They've accompanied him through every hour of his days, through surgeries and therapy, celebrating the small, daily strides toward the things once so simply done: a spoken word, a nod of the head, a squeeze of the hand.
They traded shifts watching over him as doctors in Baton Rouge worked to save his life. When Nick flew last November to a Houston rehabilitation hospital, they followed.
His parents have beaten a regular path from their parked motor home to the Houston hospital, devoting most of their waking hours to their son.
“For months, I knew every streetlight, I knew its timing and everything on the direct road down South Main to get here,” James Tullier says, sitting in a small meeting room at TIRR Memorial Hermann, as his wife, Mary, rested back at the RV. “Other roads? No, not so much.”
Days for Danielle McNicoll, Nick’s fiancée, now mirror his, starting at 7 a.m. in the hospital room they share. They begin the day with medicine, food and getting dressed. Hours of therapy follow, unless interrupted by periodic bouts of infection, reminders of the damage three bullets can do to human flesh.
More exercises follow in the evenings, this time Danielle running Nick back through the workout in the room. A hair stylist by training — they met when Nick was one of her salon’s “most ornery clients … because he’s very, very picky about his hair” — Danielle's now learning the tricks of the nursing trade, changing his bandages, cleaning and dressing a still-open exit wound just below his rib cage.
“We fit some movie time in there,” says Danielle, sitting next to Nick, James looking on. “Then we start all over the next day.”
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During good weeks not hampered by infected wounds or surgery, Nick’s therapy sessions make up grueling hours of battle to win a bit more control over his limbs, to relax spastic muscles, to relearn command over his throat, mouth and vocal chords. Danielle, James, Mary — at least one by his side at all times, sleeping in shifts — offer encouragement, commands, jokes, cheers.
The victories might seem trivial to those who don’t know just how far Nick has come or what each signifies. Each movement of his hand, however slight, marks a step toward pressing a button or nudging a joystick, which means perhaps navigating a power wheelchair or clicking on a computer, all of it suggesting new possibilities for his future.
With contraptions including a robotic suit and a special harness hooked to a ceiling track, a physical therapist can lead Nick through an experience like walking.
Through long weeks of treatment in Baton Rouge, doctors believed Nick remained unconscious, unaware of the world around him as the medical staff battled to stabilize alarming swings in his condition. The gunshots through Nick’s head, shoulder and gut did significant damage, tearing hole in his intestines, lodging bullet fragments in his brain stem.
Doctors in Houston quickly determined Nick was fully conscious, aware of his surroundings but unable to speak. Within days of Nick’s arrival, they’d managed to rig a communication system: a subtle nod of the head back for “no,” a turn to the right for yes. Nick remembers being shot, James says, and recalls the ambulance ride to the hospital.
“Nick said that he saw God, he saw angels,” James says. “He remembers being in the hospital, looking down on surgeons operating on him, on his body.”
Since the killing of Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald and Montrell Jackson and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola in July 2016, the officers' families have displayed strength in public and delivered messages about their heroes -- each in their own, unique ways...
In recent months, James and Danielle say, they’ve noticed Nick’s simple charm shining through as he stretches the boundaries of his badly damaged body.
“He’ll play thumb war, he’ll squeeze my hand really tight and start laughing about it,” Danielle says. “Whenever Nick starts smiling and he starts laughing, it makes things a lot easier.”
He’ll let out a cackle at jokes — his father harbors a prankster’s mischievousness — or grin at the applause for each new accomplishment during his therapy sessions. When Nick’s two teenaged sons visit, James says, his eyes will light up as he tracks them around the room.
In laughs and grins, doctors see suggestions of happiness, welcome signs after violent trauma and slow recovery. For Nick’s family, it’s also provided relief after months of worried bedside vigils.
“It took us a while to get back to humor in life,” says James.
For a man whose wounds doctors for weeks feared fatal — physicians at Our Lady of the Lake warned his parents four times in the hours and days after the shooting that death was imminent — the progress is remarkable. Dr. Sunil Kothari, one of Nick’s doctors in Houston, says therapists hope to work toward swallowing and forming words in the coming months. The deputy may talk again, Kothari says, and be able to control his own mobility.
His father calls it a miracle — confirmation of the power of prayer to pull his son through the grimmest moments — and says the chance to communicate with him, despite all the limitations, gives James confidence in the future.
“The damage he received, he shouldn’t have survived, but he did,” James says, wearing a gray polo shirt with the words ‘Pray for Nick’ over his heart. “How does that affect your faith? It makes you realize what’s true in life.”
“We’re not fooling ourselves. We know Nick, he’s going to have issues the rest of his life. But what will he achieve? That limit is up to Nick and God.”
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Around 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning last July, Deputy Nick Tullier met a colleague, Sgt. Bruce Simmons, for breakfast at Frank’s Restaurant on Airline Highway. Like other officers in Baton Rouge, both were pulling through an exhausting stretch of work following protests over fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, during a struggle with two white city policemen 12 days earlier.
As the two deputies sipped coffee, they heard Deputy Brad Garafola distress calls over the radio — “Shots fired, officer down! Shots fired, officer down!” — from near the B-Quik convenience store down the road.
Simmons and Tullier left the restaurant and sped toward the unfolding ambush. Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald, 41, and Montrell Jackson, 32, already lay mortally wounded as the deputies left breakfast. Before they arrived, Garafola, 45, would also be dead after a fierce shootout with the gunman, 29-year-old Gavin Long.
Tullier and Simmons pulled into the Fitness Expo parking lot, where Long had left his rental car. As Tullier checked out the car, Long opened fire from the woods just to the north. Tullier was hit in the stomach, knocking him to the ground, then again in the head and shoulder after he’d climbed inside his vehicle for cover.
Simmons, who could hear the gunfire but couldn’t spot the shooter, was hit once in the left arm with a bullet.
“81’s hit, 82’s hit,” Simmons radioed, referring to his and Tullier’s call numbers.
Long, an ex-Marine from Kansas City, Missouri, who’d spouted growing rage toward police in online posts, was killed by Baton Rouge SWAT officers.
Fellow officers rushed Tullier to a waiting ambulance and on to the hospital. In emergency surgery, his heart stopped four times. The deputy somehow pulled through — then continued to outlast dire forecasts from physicians.
His parents, urgently told by their son's captain at the Sheriff’s Office to get to the hospital, began a constant vigil over their son that continued through months of treatment in Baton Rouge.
Just before the family left Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge for the journey to the rehabilitation hospital in Houston, James Tullier says one of the doctors stopped his wife, Mary, in a hallway. “I understand now. It never was in my hands,” he told her.
When Nick first arrived in Houston, Danielle says, his muscles were locked up, limbs stiff and hands clenched. He had to ride in freight elevators because his legs wouldn’t bend. The medical staff at TIRR Memorial Hermann expected to find Nick in a vegetative state, says Kothari, one of his doctors.
Although everyone around him is quick to rattle off the progress he’s made — his body is looser, his eyes track more smoothly and he’s even mouthed a word, “hello” — all acknowledge how perilously long and uncertain Nick’s recovery remains.
Major health concerns remain. This past Wednesday, surgeons removed a blockage in his large intestine and two fistulas — small holes in his intestines likely left by the gunshots — during a major procedure that also cleaned out his wounds and scar tissue. A high fever and a seizure followed surgery, though his father, in the daily Facebook updates he’s posted for months, reported improvements over the rest of the week.
James says he hopes his son’s latest procedure might stop the chronic infections around the exit wound and finally allow it to heal. The swings in health mean lost hours of therapy, further delays on of the future they’re praying for.
For James, Mary and Danielle, daily life is also contingent on Nick’s health.
James Tullier was at his son’s side when the Amite River burst its banks in August and began rising toward the family home in Denham Springs.
James left the hospital only after one of Nick’s two brothers repeatedly called to relay predictions of record-shattering floods, first urging his father to move vehicles, then begging him to come back as water levels kept rising. The family’s house, as well as those of both of Nick’s brothers, ended up submerged in several feet of water.
James managed to save little except a few bags of clothes, their three Chihuahuas and an RV he’d intended to sell off. James and Mary have called the RV home ever since, parking it for months outside Our Lady of the Lake before driving it to Houston when Nick moved.
The insurance company is still haggling over their claims, James says, and someone calls every month to pester him for a list of possessions swept away or soaked to ruin by the waters. One of these days, Tullier’s father says, he’ll get it squared away.
But like so many other daily concerns that once filled life, the house — “home,” James is quick to add, “is wherever Nick’s at” — is no longer a priority.
He can count on one hand the number of times he’s gone back to Baton Rouge, James says, and though they’ve spent the last eight months in Houston, he knows little of the surrounding city except a nearby Wal-Mart, the H-E-B supermarket and a couple other stores.
Lately, he’s taken to intentionally missing turns on the way to shop, waiting for his car’s navigation system to adjust and guide him on a different route.
“I want to try to get more acclimated to the lay of the land here than I am,” James says, “But direct needs don’t take me out of my normal path.”
But there are no plans to stray too far, even just for a break.
“When Nick’s able to take a vacation, we’ll take a vacation,” James says. The Tulliers, James says, are a family of “Disney fanatics.”
James says his wife, who raised their three sons as a stay-at-home mom, has been to Disney World nearly 70 times, many of those with Nick. Just like the canned line from champions at the Super Bowl, James says, that’s exactly where they’ll be going when Nick’s able.
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