His doctor says most people wouldn’t have survived, but Lance Cpl. John McClellan, 20, is defying the odds.
A week ago, the 2004 Hickman High School graduate was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to be treated for a bullet wound to the head. The shot came from an AK-47 while he was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Echo Company in Haditha, Iraq.
By Wednesday, McClellan was talking to his parents, Connie and Carl McClellan of Columbia, and his sister, Jane McClellan of Chicago.
Connie McClellan said her son was fully cognizant of the activity surrounding him in the Intensive Care Unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 people with the type of injury that John sustained would be dead,” she said, quoting her son’s doctor at the medical center, neurosurgeon Rocco Armonda. “I am so humbled. (Armonda) said, though, that he is still not out of the woods in the area of brain swelling. They have to watch him very closely.”
She said that her son told her he does not remember being hit. The McClellans must regularly remind him of the sniper attack, that he is safe in a hospital outside of Washington, D.C., and that he is being treated by some of the Navy’s best doctors.
McClellan’s vocal chords are swollen and, at least right now, only one of the two is working, his mother said.
“He does have that Marlon Brando ‘Godfather’ kind of voice because that one vocal chord hasn’t kicked in yet, so it’s kind of a loud whisper,” she said.
Doctors removed McClellan’s breathing tube Tuesday, giving his swallowing muscles a chance to work again. That allowed medical staff to lower his sedatives, making him more aware of his surroundings and responsive to doctors and family, his mother said.
While exuberant with her son’s continuous improvement, Connie McClellan knows her son’s condition remains serious.
“Do understand,” she said, “we aren’t looking for him to be 100 percent anytime soon. It’s going to take physical therapy and possibly speech therapy, it’s hard to say. But the prognosis for achieving that is great.”
She said that doctors told her family that the bullet may have severed the nerve that controls the left side of McClellan’s face. He cannot fully close his left eye and his smile is one-sided. One solution might be a nerve transplant, in which a nerve from McClellan’s ankle would be inserted in his face.
On Tuesday, Tom Leuther, the pastor of the McClellans’ church, Family Worship Center in Columbia, surprised the family by flying to Washington for the day to meet them for lunch.
“It meant everything,” Connie McClellan said. In her almost daily e-mails to friends and family, McClellan’s mother has asked them to join her in praying for her son.
Here in Columbia, the McClellans’ friends are holding down the fort.
Sam Boyce has been mowing and watering the McClellans’ grass and taking care of things at their house while they are in Washington with their son. He said his wife, Tammy Boyce, has helped build community support for the McClellan family. The concern and compassion from the community has been overwhelming, he said.
“Sometimes bad things bring out the best in people,” Sam Boyce said. “I can tell you that the close friends of the McClellans have taken this as hard as if it was their own child. It’s really touched home very closely. (Johnny is) loyal to everything: family, friends, work, you name it.”
In an interview Wednesday, Boyce remembered how McClellan and his father, Carl, would shoot clay pigeons together. Both are good “wing shots,” he said.
Susie Edwards, McClellan’s godmother and Connie McClellan’s colleague at the Winter-Dent & Co. insurance agency, is staying at the McClellans’ home while the family is away. Her own two sons, Zack, 16, and Cody, 13, grew up with McClellan.
“Both of my children look up to John because they both want to join the military and follow in John’s footsteps,” Edwards said.
McClellan will likely remain in the ICU for at least another week, his mother said. After that, he will be moved to another floor at the medical center and eventually to another hospital, likely James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla., she said.