After taking turns with her shooting beer bottles with a pellet gun in the backyard of a local fraternity hangout in Miami last month, 21-year-old Florida International student Gabriel Mendigutia dared his 19-year-old girlfriend to do as Pat Benatar suggested in her biggest hit:
Hit me with your best shot. Fire away.
Whereupon she did.
Playing Steve-O to her boyfriend’s Johnny Knoxville in something straight out of “Jackass,’’ Ally Castro took the pellet gun, walked about 30 feet away, pointed the gun at his torso, closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger.
Mendigutia immediately dropped to his knees and clutched his chest as the pellet tore through his heart and into a muscle in his back. It took the anatomical anomaly of unusual heart structure to save a brash dare from potentially turning into an involuntary manslaughter charge.
“I dared her, but I didn’t expect her to actually do it,’’ Mendigutia told TODAY.com. “When the doctors told me how lucky I was, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I certainly could’ve died. I definitely got a second chance.’’
‘I couldn’t believe it’
The pointed lead bullet caused a blockage in the main artery to his heart, but as a result of Mendigutia’s unusual heart anatomy, blood was still able to flow through the opposite side of the artery to the injured area.
Thirty minutes after being airlifted to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital following Castro’s 911 call, Mendigutia was operated on by a cardiac team that saved his life. Dr. Nicholas Namias, Jackson Ryder trauma department director and one of the surgeons who operated on him, said he had never seen a right coronary artery like that since beginning his professional career in 1989.
“It's hard to give the absolute prize, but this is up there,” Namias told TODAY.com. “When I was told it was his girlfriend that did it, I thought she would probably soon be an ex-girlfriend, so when I saw her at his bedside later, I couldn’t believe it.’’
The couple are still together after embodying a Bon Jovi song (“Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame / You give love a bad name”), and Castro is not expected to face any charges because it was ruled an accidental shooting. They are able to laugh about it in a gallows-humor way, but they also want to get a serious message across: Horseplay and guns — even pellet guns — are a potentially deadly combination.
“Guns and dares do not mix,’’ Castro said. “Don’t play with guns and do not underestimate the power of a pellet gun or any kind of gun. You never know what can happen.’’
“I broke the No. 1 rule of never pointing a gun at anyone, and I learned that gun safety is not something to joke around about,’’ Mendigutia said. “It was just stupid.’’
A dare gone wrong
Mendigutia had been hanging out and drinking beers at what his father termed an “unofficial frat house’’ when he and Castro decided to line up bottles on a fence and shoot them with a pellet gun. Castro was firing through one bottle after another when she started teasing her boyfriend of six months that she had better aim.
“He said, ‘If your aim is so good, shoot me then,’ ’’ Castro said. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to shoot you.’ He kept saying, ‘Shoot me, shoot me,’ and I wouldn’t do it. Then I said, ‘The only way I will shoot you is if you dare me. Then you know I won’t resist. So he said, ‘Fine, shoot me. I dare you.’ ’’
Castro said she grew up in a family of all boys, and didn’t want to be labeled a weak girl who would back down from a challenge. The next thing they knew, Mendigutia had a pea-sized hole on the left side of his chest and the clock was ticking on his life.
“I guess the magic words were ‘I dare you,’ and something clicked,’’ said Felix Mendigutia, Gabriel’s father.
Mendigutia immediately fell to his knees and groaned, grabbing at his chest and gasping for air.
“My initial reaction was heat, and it felt like the wind got knocked out of me,’’ he said. “I got shot, but I didn’t know how bad it was and that it was through my heart and through my lungs.’’
“As I saw him saying, ‘I can’t breathe’ and he started coughing and throwing up, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ ’’ Castro said. “It was seriously the stupidest act I have ever done in my life.’’
Castro frantically borrowed a cell phone to call 911. She put Mendigutia’s head in her lap and held his hair as he vomited and coughed up blood until the police and an ambulance arrived.
“These pellet guns apparently can do some damage,’’ Namias said. “It was shocking.’’
As Mendigutia was taken away to be airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Castro was detained by police. Soon she was in the back of a squad car, praying for her boyfriend.
“The whole time I was in the cop car, I was thinking that I needed to be prepared for whatever could happen,’’ she told TODAY.com. “Even now I do not forgive myself for what happened. I was thinking that if anything really bad happens, I’m ready to go to jail.’’
A special heart
Jackson Ryder is the only trauma center in Miami-Dade County, which Namias said gave him the resources to assemble a cardiac team in a half hour. The group ended up saving Mendigutia’s life.
He was admitted with cardiac tamponade, meaning that the space between his myocardium (heart muscle) and pericardium (outer covering of the heart) was filling with blood. Namias said that what would have happened in most cases was a heart attack, but Mendigutia’s abnormal heart structure prevented it.
Namias explained that the average right coronary artery that goes around the back of the heart usually goes to the bottom of the heart and ends — but Mendigutia’s wrapped around and connected to the left side, which allowed his heart to draw blood from the other direction while being obstructed on one side.
Namias had seen many things in a career that included being the trauma attendant during the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But this was new. “I have not seen somebody who had a blockage of this artery yet managed to have blood flow from the heart supply the other side of the heart,’’ the surgeon told TODAY.com.
“I was shocked to find out I had extra veins like that,’’ Mendigutia said. “I was really lucky.’’
Meanwhile, as Mendigutia was undergoing surgery, Castro had finally gotten in touch with his parents.
“Ally calls saying, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’’ Felix Mendigutia said. “I said, ‘About what?’ She said, ‘I’m the one who shot him.’ I was really stunned. I really didn’t know what to say.
“When she came into the OR, I know that she felt awkward seeing the parents of the guy she just shot, but we really had no animosity toward her. We understood that it was a dumb thing that they did and we told them that, but we also realized it was an accident.’’
The family had everyone from Facebook friends to their former pastor praying for Gabriel's recovery. Once it appeared he would be fine, Castro’s next anxiety was how her boyfriend would react to the shooting.
“I was terrified because I thought he was going to be really mad and not want to be with me anymore,’’ she said.
More Tales of Survival
Upon awaking around 7 a.m., Mendigutia asked for some Gatorade and his cell phone. He texted his girlfriend a joking message asking her whether she bought the new car she had planned on purchasing before the incident, and that settled her nerves.
“I was mad at her, but I couldn’t be that mad at her because I told her to do it,’’ he said.
He then asked her to use his phone take his picture in his hospital bed, with a fresh scar stretching from the bottom his neck to his lower pelvic area. Within seconds, it was his new profile photo on Facebook. While some might not want anyone to know about a dumb incident that nearly took their life, Mendigutia went public immediately.
“I just wanted everybody to know I was OK,’’ he said.
Since the incident and the resulting publicity, Castro said her Facebook page has been bombarded by strangers calling her “an idiot’’ and saying they wished charges had been pressed against her. Mendigutia said he has received some of that on his page, but mainly it has been good wishes.
As far as his health goes, Mendigutia has been sleeping a lot and may have to take medication normally prescribed to heart attack victims, according to his father. The pellet still remains inside him because it would have been more dangerous to try to remove it.
The couple also has a new nickname bestowed on them by Mendigutia’s parents.
“We call them ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ ’’ Felix Mendigutia said. “He was dumb enough to say, ‘Shoot at me,’ and she was dumb enough to shoot, so I don’t know which one was the dumbest one. Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.’’
“Now because everything is OK, we laugh about it, but at the moment it was going on, it was not something to be taken lightly,’’ Castro said. “We’re still happy and together. We’re both thinking that now we at least have a cool story to share.’’
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