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'Great save' a blessing for father, son hunters


Doug Gess saw the hole in his son's back just after the gun went off. An experienced deer hunter, he knew it was centered on the right lung.

He figured his only boy was going to die.

"I helped him up and said, 'We've got to get you to the hospital,'" he said of his 16-year-old son, Jesse. Father and son were preparing to hunt together on Nov. 6, the opening day of deer season when Doug Gess' gun discharged while he was loading it. The lead slug plowed through a box in the bed of a pickup truck, into the cab and through a seat, striking Jesse Gess as he sat waiting for his father in west-central Minnesota's rural Lac qui Parle County along the South Dakota border.

"He mentioned to me that he was feeling clammy, that he started seeing white," Gess said of the hurried rush to the hospital in Ortonville. "I just said 'Give me your hand. Jesse, you're gonna be all right.' "

Nearly three weeks later, Jesse Gess is all right. Despite a slug ripping through the teenager's lung, diaphragm and liver, he's home in Bloomington with his father to celebrate Thanksgiving. Both Jesse's father and the doctor who saved his life say it's more than something to be thankful for.

"This is one of the few great saves you get in your career as a surgeon," said Dr. Dennis Glatt, director of the trauma program at Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where Jesse was flown after initial treatment in Ortonville. "If that bullet had been a little further to one side or the other, he would have been dead instantly. That bullet is a deer killer, and he was shot at close range. That thing had a lot of killing power when it hit him."

Doug Gess is even more succinct.

"It's a miracle," he said with a laugh that conveyed joy and relief. "A miracle."

For several years Doug and Jesse Gess have deer hunted together. It's one of the ways Doug, a widower whose wife died of an aneurysm while pregnant with Jesse, bonds with his only child. Doug said he had loaded his gun the same way he had for years. He opened the hard plastic case, placed a shell in the open chamber and closed it. That's when the gun went off. He said everything happened so quickly, but he first remembers his son only saying "Ow!" and falling to his hands and knees a few moments later. Jesse doesn't recall the wound hurting, or the state of shock he was in as his father rushed him to the hospital. He speaks of the situation matter of factly but is reluctant to address its gravity, or just how close he came to not being around this Thanksgiving.

"I don't really feel like I got shot, it feels like something happened and I got home. I'm back to normal," he said. "The placement of the bullet was pretty lucky, I guess that's a miracle right there."

Glatt placed Jesse on a ventilator with a breathing tube, which likely saved his life. A liter of blood was pumped from his chest cavity, while he received four units of blood.

Although the wound was unique in that it affected his chest and abdomen, it missed his bowels, where major damage could have occurred. Although Glatt described his liver as "pulverized," it will heal quickly on its own. Jesse's "not out of the woods yet," Gess said. He will have to return to the hospital several times in the coming years, but he is expected to be fine.

"He's lucky to have survived," Glatt said.

Doug Gess agrees, calling the incident "a terrible accident." He said local authorities returned his gun shortly after the shooting and said no charges were likely to be filed.

Even so, said Capt. Mike Hammer, safety education coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Enforcement, what happened to Jesse Gess is an example of why it's important to always be in complete control of a firearm. Gun safety guidelines call for hunters to turn in a different direction and step away from fellow hunters while loading or unloading a firearm.

"That's the number one thing, keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction," Hammer said. "Bullets go through walls, car doors, and the back ends of pickup trucks."

On Thanksgiving Day, Doug Gess and his son will join extended family members for dinner. They'll count the good fortune of a sore 16-year-old among the things to be thankful for.

"You can't dwell on things that have happened." Doug said. "You've got to find some good things that have happened."

"It was just one of those unlucky, lucky things." said Jesse, who plans to return to classes at Jefferson High School in Bloomington Monday. Plans are also in the works for next year's deer season opener.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.