The rare recovery of a 3-year-old who shot himself in the head

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MIAMI — When 3-year-old Darnal Mundy II grabbed a gun in his home and accidentally shot himself in the head, his parents thought he wouldn’t survive. Today, after weeks of intensive therapy, Darnal is talking, walking and slowly regaining control of the right side of his body.

His bright eyes and curiosity about the world around him are what you would expect from a thriving child his age. But the small wheelchair that holds his body and the scars on his head and face are constant reminders of the morning he nearly lost his life.

“One nurse told me she’s been here for 18 years. She said she’s hardly seen children ever survive a gunshot wound to the head,” said Dorphise Jean, Darnal’s mother.

‘My baby, my baby’

Jean still vividly remembers the horror of August 4, 2015. She was startled out of sleep by the sound of a gunshot inside her bedroom.

“What I heard was a bang and I didn’t feel him under me,” said Jean. “So I already automatically know it was him.”

Somehow Darnal had gotten out of his parents’ bed, climbed a chair in front of his dad’s dresser, opened the top drawer, grabbed a gun and shot himself in the face.

“I just saw him laying on the ground, and then his dad jumped out of bed, and I just kept saying, ‘My baby, my baby’,” recalled Jean. Darnal’s father placed his hand on the back of his son’s head, applying pressure. “I didn’t know where the bullet went through,” said Jean. She grabbed her cell phone and keys and drove as fast as she could to Holtz Children’s Hospital while Darnal’s father held the boy.

“My son was crying. Throughout the whole experience he was crying,” said Jean. “I just kept talking to him while driving.”

Working against the odds

“He had a gunshot wound to the center of his head and the bullet had exited in the back left side,” said Dr. Sarah Jernigan, a University of Miami pediatric neurosurgeon at Holtz who operated on Darnal. “His CAT scan showed a large blood clot and swelling in the brain.”

Doctors surgically removed the left side of Darnal’s skull to allow for swelling and to protect the part of the brain that was untouched by the bullet. “When I walked out of surgery and talked to his mom, I was able to tell his mom and dad that he was alive, but I wasn’t sure what kind of recovery he would make,” said Jernigan.

Jean said the doctors warned her things would get worse before they got better. And they did. Darnal spent three weeks in a coma, and when he woke up, he was barely responsive.

“He was not able to talk, he was not walking. He wasn’t even able to sit up by himself,” said Dr. Seema Khurana, director of pediatric rehabilitation at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital where Darnal was transferred three weeks after the shooting. “He was basically being fed by a tube and he had a (tracheotomy) in place.”

At the rehabilitation hospital, Darnal receives at least three hours of therapy every day. He has learned how to breathe on his own again and slowly started talking and walking, despite having weakness on the right side of his body. His feeding tube has also been removed. His progress seems like a miracle.

“It is very unusual, but like we all say, that’s why we love working with little kids, because the amount of recovery that they have — nobody else has that type of recovery,” said Khurana.

Going home

This week, more than three months after the shooting, Darnal is going home. Jean said they still keep a gun in the house for personal protection, but they’re making sure it is locked up in a safe, out of Darnal’s reach.

The rambunctious boy will be celebrating his 4th birthday on Saturday and the doctors who are helping Darnal heal have high hopes for his future. “He’s going to continue to make progress and … he’s going to be something very important in life because he’s here with us today,” said Khurana.