When you see someone take a headshot in film or television, you usually don’t question that they’re dead pretty much on the spot. With such a vital organ, the impact of a bullet should mean that even a round that, even if it doesn’t directly pass through the cerebellum (the area of the brain that controls basic involuntary life functions), it must inflict enough damage on the gray matter that it’s not survivable.
But there are there those anomalous cases where a person is unlucky enough to take a bullet to the head while still being lucky enough to survive and carry on. The Baltimore Sun estimated that less than five percent of people survive a shot to the head, and of them only about sixty percent fully recover. Some of their stories were inspiring. Others are simply tragic. There are even a few where the gunshot victim had a fairly blase attitude about it. All of them are unforgettable stories.
10. Malala Yousafzai is Undeterred from Advocating for Women’s Education by Taliban Bullet
In 2009, Malala Yousafzai became a blogger for the BBC when she was only eleven years old. She was in a uniquely qualified and dangerous position since she was living and seeking an education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, a location that had been under the control of the Taliban since 2009. As Biography.com reported, the danger of that for her was made all too real in 2012 when a hail of gunfire during an attack injured several girls with her, and sent a bullet through her skull and down along her spine. The wound also caused swelling in her brain, necessitating the removal of part of her skull. It was too advanced of an operation for local medical services, and she needed to be flown to a hospital in Birmingham, UK, as reported by The Telegraph.
Yousafzai’s statements after fully recovering from the shooting made her something of a modern icon. In 2014, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued commitment to education for women despite nearly dying a particularly horrible death. But in the public consciousness it was her appearances on television where she made the biggest impact. The most notable of these was when on The Daily Show, she said that she not only didn’t wish violence on the person who shot her, but that if she were confronted by him again, she would say that she would want education for his children. Even comedian Jon Stewart was left speechless by that.
9. Patrick Ireland Survives Shotgun Shrapnel Passing Through His Brain
On April 20, 1999, Patrick Ireland was a victim of one of the most famous mass-shootings in American history, the Columbine Shooting. One of the thirty-seven people shot during that tragedy, he would acquire a period of infamy himself as the “Boy in the Window” who, after taking a shot in the leg and brain, limped to a second story window, which he fell out of only to be caught by a SWAT team, according to NBC News. In Dave Cullen’s harrowing book on the event, Columbine, the shot that had passed through his brain made it so that Ireland was still lucid but had extreme difficulty speaking. Even saying his own name came with a stutter. The initial prognosis was that he would not survive the injury.
Still, Ireland not only survived but effectively fully recovered, save for a slight limp. After graduating, Christian Science Monitor reported that he went into the field of financial services. Cullen said that Ireland’s ability to cope with and move past the event was the most inspirational thing he saw related to the shooting.
8. Paul Kern Survives Headshot, Loses Ability to Sleep
During the first World War, Hungarian soldier Paul Kern served the Central Powers and was stationed on the Russian front. In 1915, a Russian soldier shot him in the right temple, driving a bullet through his frontal lobe and back out. Kern didn’t merely survive, but recovered quickly. After leaving the service, he got a job with the government and by all accounts functioned normally except for one thing: In the forty years following his injury until his passing in 1955, the Milwaukee Chronicle reported that Kern was not able to sleep. He sought extensive medical aid, tried numerous unsophisticated remedies, such as hypnotism and alcohol (alcohol in particular backfired by making him less sleepy than ever), and still had to content himself with just two hours of resting his eyes every night, according to National Geographic.
So what did a man in Hungary who needed only two hours of sleep do to pass the nights? Kern’s night time habits for awhile included going to cafes for his eight daily meals, reading, then walking to the poorer districts to socialize with his friends who were forced into lives of sleeping in doorways. It was an interesting contrast between someone who was afflicted in a anomalous way and people afflicted in one of the worst and most common ways, especially at the time.
7. Tammy Sexton Takes Bullet Through Forehead, Makes Tea
People in shock brought on by grievous bodily harm will often do things that seem bizarre to everyone else. One of the most famous moments in the classic film Saving Private Ryan is a soldier picking his own arm up from the beach as blithely as if he’s tying his shoes. And yet what Tammy Sexton of Jackson County, Mississippi did after she was shot seems so surreal and impossible it sounds like an incident from a particularly strange cartoon.
In 2009, Sexton’s husband, on probation for domestic abuse, entered their home, shot his wife in the center of her forehead, then killed himself. When police arrived, the Telegraph said they found that she had since made some tea after being shot, and offered them some. While it may seem as if she had been lobotomized to a degree, in fact she made a borderline miraculous full recovery.
6. Jacob Miller Spent Decades with Fragments in His Face
In 1863, Miller was a Union soldier during the American Civil War who, on September 19, 1863, had the rotten luck to be present at the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the deadliest battles of the war. Like Tammy Sexton, he was shot by a musket in the middle of his forehead and understandably, both his fellow troops and the enemy thought that he was dead. If they hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have been able to get away from the battlefield after the fighting ended, using his rifle as a crutch, eventually reaching a Union hospital.
Historybuff.com reports that after waiting nine months, the musket ball was finally removed from his forehead. Seventeen years after that, a chunk of lead fell out of his head. But even that wasn’t the end, for another one fell out of his head fourteen years after that. It hurt for him all that time. Ultimately, he survived the wound that really should have killed him by fifty-four years.
5. Richard Norris Survived Losing Half His Face to a Shotgun Shell
In 1997, for reasons he doesn’t remember according to a profile in GQ, 22 year-old Richard Norris accidentally discharged a shotgun shell into his face. He was at his home, and his mother was close enough to him that parts of his face hit her. Though he survived against long odds, effectively half of his visage was gone. Understandably, he had to have the mirrors taken out of his home and he wore a black mask when he went out.
Around a decade later, his mother found out about a cutting-edge doctor named Eduardo Rodriguez, who agreed to reconstruct her son’s face. It was a very new surgical procedure, with Norris being only the third person to undergo the surgery. It was a years-long process of grafting skin from other parts of Norris’s body to his face and from cadavers that involved over a dozen surgeries. The surgeries culminated in the most elaborate facial reconstruction in human history in an operation in 2012 that lasted 36 hours. In the end, Norris felt confident enough with his new face that after years living in his parent’s house barely socializing, he went out and found a significant other.
4. “Russian Terminator” is Unfazed by a Bullet to his Forehead
The details behind this video from Russia (which you can find in the link two sentences from now) are scanty, but the images certainly are memorable. Reportedly dating back to a clash between Russian armed forces and Chechen rebels in 2000, it features a very crude field surgery performed on an anonymous soldier. What’s been identified by Independent.co.uk as an AK-47 bullet is lodged in his forehead. One of his comrades comes and has to resort to prying it out with a pair of pliers.
What makes the video compelling, instead of merely uncomfortable to watch, was the soldier’s demeanor. Rather than showing any signs of being disturbed that he’s just been almost killed or in pain because a bullet is being pried out of his head, he seems so calm he might as well be receiving a haircut. But rather than seeming like someone in shock, he turns to the camera and grins in a very lucid manner, even smiling a couple times while his wound is squeezed to remove any potential shrapnel. He seems like a living embodiment of stereotypes about the toughness of Russian people.
3. Sergeant Alistair McKinney Survives Taliban Sniper Shot Directly Through his Brain
Even this soldier from the First Battalion Royal Irish Regiment couldn’t believe he’d survived his head injury after he emerged from a coma in 2005 at age 33. On a routine guard duty, he was hit by a Taliban sniper’s bullet that struck him above his right eye and exited his skull above his right ear. The Telegraph reported that they were told he had a 0.1% chance of surviving the wound. Sergeant Alistair McKinney was at least fortunate enough to not remember the sensation of the bullet hitting him, just standing there in Pakistan one second, and the next he was in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, UK (like Malala Yousafzai later would be).
McKinney’s recovery was not easy and straightforward like Paul Kern’s. He got multiple infections while in the hospital, including tuberculosis. He lost vision in the left side of both of his eyes. Three years after the shooting he was still in the care of his parents. McKinney still claimed that he wasn’t bitter. After all, he was very lucky to just be alive.
2. Petra Anderson Survives the Aurora Shooting Because of a Brain Abnormality
This woman was twenty-two years old in 2012 when she was sitting in the now-infamous Colorado theater for one of the other most famous mass shootings in American history. The gunman fired three shotgun pellets into her arm and one up her nose into her brain. The pellet would have torn through vital areas easily, but Anderson had an irregularity of the cerebrum that would prove an unlikely lifesaver.
As CNN reported, she had a small channel of fluid that ran through her brain that no one had any idea was there, because it was a completely benign aspect of her anatomy, which many people have. Instead of just being more grey matter that the projectile would tear through, the pellet moved through the brain without inflicting any severe damage. As a result, Anderson not only survived but fled the scene under her own power before going into intensive care for a week. After she recovered, Colorado Public Radio reported that she became a music composer.
1. Toddler Survives Self-Inflicted Gunshot to Head
Children getting their hands on guns and accidentally shooting themselves and others is surprisingly common. The Washington Post reports that in 2015, 265 children in America accidentally shot people. So it was not anomalous when three year-old Darnal Mundy shot himself in the head in Miami, Florida on August 4, 2015. What would have been anomalous would have been for him to survive, as one of the nurses told Darnal Mundy’s parents when he was brought in.
According to CNN, he shot himself in the middle of the face and the bullet exited out the left side of the back of his head. Like Yousafzai, a portion of his skull was removed because of the swelling. He fell into a coma for three weeks, but thankfully recovered enough that in three months he was able to return home. He was in a wheelchair while he regained the ability to reuse the right side of his body.
Dustin Koski is one of the proud authors of the only fantasy novel about fairies turning into monsters.