Joe Barnhart, Shooting Survivor
It certainly wasn’t the first time the Trauma team at The University of Tennessee Medical Center received a call to jump into action, but it was a memorable Sunday nonetheless. Many Knoxville area residents as well as others in the nation were shocked when a gunman walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN, and opened fire on the congregation that sat happily watching a play. The incident imposed great tragedy on one family in particular that tried to protect each other as many of its members were shot by the 12-gauge shotgun. Of the nine victims, five are part of Joe Barnhart’s family, including Barnhart, his daughter, brother, sister-in-law and a close family friend. Just three rounds were enough to bring devastation to Barnhart’s family and the rest of the church members. One year later, the family reflects on the incident as they all still continue to heal.
Barnhart, then 76 and retired, was a religion and philosophy professor at the University of North Texas before moving to Knoxville for its beauty just a year before the harrowing incident. On July 27, 2008, Barnhart and his family traveled across town to attend The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church – the family usually attends the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Farragut. His 14-year-old granddaughter, Tori, was in the play, “Annie Jr.,” that was put on by children from the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church and Sequoyah Hills Church. A bright, sunny day, the play had just begun and Barnhart sat proudly watching Tori on the stage. Only a few minutes into the play, Barnhart saw the actors’ reactions as they spied the gunman in the back of the church. He couldn’t figure out why they made the shocked faces they did but they were “looking in the corner to the left,” he explains. “I heard the first shot go past my head, and I really didn’t hear the second or third shot. I just saw Linda on the floor in blood.”
Long-time friend and Barnhart’s researcher for more than 40 years, Linda Kraeger, 61, was a part of Barnhart’s family. His children and grandchildren cherished her and still call her “aunt.” She had moved to Knoxville to help Barnhart and his wife, Maryann, raise their grandchildren, Tori and Chloe, then 6. Now, he saw her lying face down in blood on the floor. As he bent down to assist Linda, Barnhart was shot in the back of the neck and left shoulder. “All I could think of was ‘who will take care of my grandkids,’” he recalls. “Linda was on her face. I realized I was shot, and I couldn’t see my wife. I had to assume she got down.” Maryann, who sat between Barnhart and Linda, had dropped to the ground and was not wounded.
He never heard the other shots, but his other family members did. Daughter, Linda Chavez, was shot in the head and then hands while protecting her face. Barnhart’s brother, Jack, and sister-in-law, Betty, also were wounded.
After the third shot, church members bravely wrestled the gunman to the ground. The church members held him on the ground until help arrived. Many people were running out and several remained on the ground waiting for a sign that it was safe to move outside.
“I remember being down on my face,” Barnhart says. “I fell on my hip. I couldn’t breathe, and someone loosened my tie. I didn’t wait very long before help was there. The ambulance ride also was quick.”
Only a few minutes from The University of Tennessee Medical Center, Barnhart and the other victims were quickly taken to the Emergency Department at the medical center and then rushed to the trauma center, the only Level I trauma center in the region.
Meanwhile the Emergency Department and Trauma bay at The University of Tennessee Medical Center received a call that there were gun shot victims on their way. As usual, the medical teams diligently prepared for incoming patients. “Stretchers were made ready, spaces were set aside for victims and areas secured for family and media, medical supplies were flowing from Omnicell to the bays and anything else that was needed,” explains Dr. Brian Daley, trauma surgeon at the medical center. “The care was what is expected from the seasoned team.”
Since the number of victims was unclear at the time as well as the extent of the injuries, the entire team rallied around to do a quick inventory of supplies and equipment as well as prepare other staff members. “We huddled to discuss the order of RNs assigned to trauma patients,” reports Jessica Fischer, charge nurse in the Emergency Department. “We also decided which staff would remain on the Emergent side to facilitate the other patients that required care and calls went out to the nursing supervisor, members of the trauma team, surgery and even the blood bank.” Each patient was efficiently evaluated by the trauma team, resuscitation performed as necessary and then they each were taken to the CT scan. Full trauma scans were performed to assist with the final diagnosis, she adds.
In less than 90 minutes, all victims were treated and moved quickly to the intensive care unit, surgery or other care areas. “It is when things are at the worst when the system needs to be at its best,” Daley says. “When tragedies happen, University of Tennessee Medical Center Emergency Department and Trauma Services are at their best.” Greg McKendry, 60, died at the scene from his injuries. Kraeger died later that night. Those wounded included Tammy Sommers, 38; Joe Barnhart, 77; brother, Jack Barnhart, 70; Jack Barnhart’s wife, Betty Barnhart, 71; Linda Chavez, 42; and John Worth Jr., 68.
Now, approaching the anniversary of the tragedy, Barnhart’s rehabilitation is complete. Although he still has pellets in his lungs, the surgeons do not want to risk additional trauma to his body and, therefore, he will not have them removed. He has breathing problems now and has trouble doing the physical work he used to perform, but he feels good. “I was most worried about my daughter who spent a few days in a coma,” Barnhart explains. “I realized during my treatment that nurses are incredible people. They had all of the specialists working together for my treatment. The staff really listened to our needs and maintained great communication with the family, particularly since so many of us were affected.”
The staff easily recollects the events of that day. “Ninety minutes, that was it, and the staff continued with the rest of their shifts,” Fischer says. “Unable to stop, reflect and dwell on what just happened, because that’s what we do. We still had to provide care for the almost 200 patients that also would need care that day. When I remember that day, I focus on the amazing teamwork. Every person was essential to how seamlessly this event went.”
Seven victims returned home within 10 days of the incident. After several surgeries, Chavez still undergoes rehabilitation and continues rebuilding the damage to the language area of her brain. She has not recovered the vision in her right eye and is awaiting further surgery to remove the more than 40 pellets that remain in her hands.
With the anniversary approaching, Barnhart reflects on the state of his family, their loss and the community outreach from people of all faiths. He bows his head, shakes it slowly back and forth and says, “I am lucky to be alive.”