Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
HOUSTON (AP) — Doctors didn't expect Nick Tullier to survive after a gunman shot him in the head, stomach and shoulder during an ambush that killed three other law enforcement officers last summer in Louisiana's capital city.
A year later, the 42-year-old sheriff's deputy is still defying the odds and the grim prognosis issued after the July 17 attack.
Tullier's doctors initially feared he would die within hours. Later, they warned his family that brain damage could leave him in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. After months in a Baton Rouge hospital, Tullier was conscious when he was transferred in November to a Houston rehabilitation hospital, but his arms and legs appeared to be paralyzed.
Today, the father of two sons can nod his head to answer questions with a yes or no. Grueling physical therapy has helped restore some movement in his limbs. He can smile and even laugh. And he recently spoke his first word since the shooting, an utterance that sounded like "hello."
"He's got a very, very long road ahead of him, but he hasn't given up," said his father, James. "He's going to fight."
James Tullier posts daily Facebook updates on his son's condition from TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital, where he and Nick's mother, Mary, and fiancee, Danielle McNicoll, take turns watching over him. They moved here with him from Baton Rouge and will stay here as long as he does.
"Wherever Nick is at, that's where our home is," his father said. "Nick is our world right now."
On the Sunday morning of the shooting, Tullier was working the day shift for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office. Less than two weeks had passed since a white Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man. Racial tensions in the city were still simmering.
Tullier and another deputy were eating breakfast when they heard a radio call about an armed man near a convenience store about a mile away. Gavin Long, a 29-year-old black military veteran from Kansas City, Missouri, had already fatally wounded two Baton Rouge police officers and a sheriff's deputy by the time Tullier and Sgt. Bruce Simmons arrived, according to a district attorney's report .
Once on the scene, Tullier checked on an empty rental car, unaware it was the gunman's. He was walking back to his patrol vehicle when Long shot him in the stomach from nearby woods. Long shot him twice more after he climbed into his vehicle .
The gunman also wounded Simmons before tactical officers showed up and killed the attacker, who left behind a note calling his actions a "necessary evil" so he could inflict "destruction" on police officers.
When Tullier came to Houston eight months ago, his legs were frozen in an extended position. His arms were locked into his chest, his fingers curled up tight.
The therapy is painful. At the start of one recent session, occupational therapist Ashley Broadwater asked him, "You ready to work today?"
McNicoll, who often assists during the therapy, crouched behind him and held his forehead as he pushed a table toward Broadwater.
"Think about working those arms. Push it out as far as you can," the therapist said.
McNicoll tapped her fiance's arms to encourage him as she and Broadwater counted to 10.
Later in the session, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" blared over a cassette recorder as he slowly moved his left hand to push a red button that started and stopped the music.
McNicoll said her fiance has come a long way. It used to take a couple of people to hold him upright on a mat or at the edge of a bed.
"And now some days, for the most part, he can hold himself up," she said.
McNicoll sometimes sees a look in his eyes that suggests he wants to say something. He tries to mouth words, but can't vocalize them. His doctors have not ruled out the possibility that, someday, speaking could be his primary form of communication again.
Dr. Sunil Kothari, one of the doctors at the Houston hospital, said Tullier's cognitive abilities have "outstripped" his physical abilities.
"There's more that he wants to do, knows in some sense how to do, and just can't execute because of his neuromuscular and other impairments," he said.
Walking without assistance also remains a possibility down the line, his doctor said.
Since the shooting, Tullier has had more than 15 surgeries, including one this week. In a Facebook post late Wednesday, James Tulllier said his son had surgery on his abdomen and a surgeon was "pleased with the results." However, Nick had a seizure after the surgery and was in severe pain, his father wrote.
James Tullier said the family used to talk to doctors outside his hospital room. Now they discuss his son's care in his presence.
"He wants to know, and he wants to be involved in decisions," he said.
Tullier's father declined to discuss the shooting. Attorneys recently filed a federal lawsuit on his son's behalf against Black Lives Matter and several leaders of the movement. The suit accuses the activists of inciting violence that led to Long's deadly attack.
The shooting was not the only tragedy for Tullier's family last summer. Homes belonging to James Tullier and his other two sons were wrecked by catastrophic flooding from an August storm that dumped as much as 2 feet of rain on parts of southeast Louisiana.
James Tullier's oldest son is nearly finished rebuilding, but his middle son is far from done. James and Mary Tullier are still at odds with their insurance company.
"We're not the only ones that way," James Tullier said.
He finds comfort in seeing other patients at the Houston hospital capable of laughing despite their misfortune.
"They've got the right to hate life. They've got the right to complain," he said. "And they don't."
Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.