Loyola student beats bullet's odds

Athlete's recovery from head wound called `remarkable'

April 06, 2001|By Tom Gutting | Tom Gutting,SUN STAFF

Seven weeks after he was shot in the head outside a Northeast Baltimore pub, a Loyola College basketball player has rebounded, returning to classes and working on his game, with hopes of a professional career overseas.

Only a nickel-sized bump and faint, semicircular scar on his head remind Michael Langley how close he came to having his dreams dashed.

Interviewed between classes recently, the 24-year-old senior sociology major said he recalls little about being shot. But doctors said he beat great odds by surviving and should recover fully on and off the court.

"The consensus [in the emergency room] was that he wasn't going to survive," said Gary Dix, the Sinai Hospital neurosurgeon who operated on Langley. In 10 days, he was out of the hospital.

"He showed remarkable improvement on a daily basis," Dix said. On a follow-up visit, Dix told Langley he wouldn't need rehabilitation. Within three weeks of the shooting, he was back in class.

"He did miraculously well," Dix said. "He doesn't seem to display any of the post-gunshot-wound side effects."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compiled data on gun-related injuries and deaths from hospital emergency rooms from 1993 to 1997, found that about a third of people die after they are shot, more than 35,000 a year in the past decade. The agency did not provide statistics on the survival of those who suffered head wounds.

In Langley's case, the bullet did something Dix had never seen: It ricocheted off Langley's skull, traveled under his skin along the side of his head and burrowed at the base of his head, inches from his spine.

Usually, Dix said, gunshot victims need months of rehabilitation and readjustment. "He's an extraordinarily fortunate young man who's beaten all the odds," he said.

Langley said he remembers sitting in Gator's Pub on NBA All-Star weekend, drinking with friends and talking hoops at the popular student hangout near the Senator Theatre on York Road.

"I remember just having such a great time," said Langley, who left behind a childhood in poverty in Southeast Washington, D.C., to become a popular walk-on basketball player at the North Baltimore college.

He recalls assisting a female acquaintance, who asked him to help her and a friend deflect the passes of a couple of would-be suitors.

He pointed the two young men to the dance floor, and one of them, whom Langley did not recognize, grew angry and defensive, Langley said. Later, Langley went to the bar's front door, looking for a friend, James Tallarico, 22, for last call.

That's when things get fuzzy.

Tallarico and others told him later that the young man with whom he had exchanged words came across East Belvedere Avenue and fired a small handgun (a .25-caliber gun was recovered at the scene) at close range at Langley's head, without saying a word.

"I don't remember a thing," Langley said in his first interview with The Sun since the shooting Feb. 11. Friends said that "it sounded like a cap gun, but then they saw the hole in my head," he said.

Langley underwent surgery at Sinai and was in critical condition for two days. Four days after the shooting, he woke up. The bullet had been removed.

Less than a month later, Langley returned to a full load of classes. Now, nearly two months after the shooting, he's focused on earning his degree and improving his game.

"Everything's been normal," he said at Primo's, a campus cafeteria. "The reception [since I came back to school] has been wild."

A routine has never felt better for the Ashburton resident, who escaped Washington's Anacostia neighborhood when he caught the eye of Joseph McPherson, then headmaster of the Heights School in Potomac, Montgomery County. McPherson took Langley into his Silver Spring home and became his legal guardian.

For two days after the shooting, doctors and relatives thought Langley might not live.

Paulette Stocks-Smith, Langley's mother, said, "I was just praying for the best. It's a full blessing ... [for him] to come through so miraculously."

Langley said he was more affected by the stabbing death of his father, Michael Langley Sr., in Washington two years ago. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "It's been with me.

"I look at it [the shooting] as an isolated incident," said Langley, who wore a sweat shirt with "Only the strong survive" printed on it. "Being from the inner city, I know how things can be when you have to [watch out for yourself] all the time. This isn't the same environment."

Langley, known as "Slang" around campus, has returned to Gator's twice since the shooting, once for a television interview and once to speak with a bouncer. He said he has no plans to return to the bar.

He expects to graduate in December and wants to play basketball in Ireland and Australia. He plans to pursue a master's degree in sociology eventually.

Langley, a 6-foot-1 guard, has regained nearly 25 of the 30 pounds he lost. Hearing in his left ear has nearly returned to normal, and his memory "is just a little fuzzy from right before the shooting," he said.

Two days after the shooting, Baltimore police arrested John William Fishback of Hampden, who is accused of being the gunman, and Jason Edward Hunt of Woodberry. Both are 16-year-olds with histories of run-ins with police. They were charged with attempted first-degree murder and using a handgun in the commission of a violent crime.

They will be tried as adults and are being held without bail at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center. Their arraignment is scheduled for June 21, and the trial is scheduled for September, said prosecutor Twila Driggins.

Langley said he doesn't harbor ill will toward the alleged perpetrators. "It doesn't really matter what happens to them as long as they're [in jail]. I don't want them out."

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