‘She’s still here:’ 15-year-old recovering from gunshot wound to face
FARGO — As the muted light of a cloudy day filtered into her hospital room, 15-year-old Page Stearns sat cross-legged on a couch, ready to go home. She was looking forward to returning, as much as possible, to a regular life — something she hasn’t had since a .22-caliber bullet struck her in the face more than three weeks ago.
“I think it will be better to be with my friends because then I won’t be thinking about it as much,” the ninth-grader said Tuesday. “They’ll be helping me through it.”
Wearing a neck brace, she spoke with the help of a device on her windpipe. Her soft, steady voice was a testament of her recovery.
“People don’t live through stuff like this,” said her mother, Kandi Stearns. “It’s amazing every day that she’s still here.”
The shooting happened early April 18 outside Williston near where Page lives. The shooter was her 12-year-old ex-boyfriend, she said.
He’s been cited with reckless endangerment, and his case is pending in juvenile court, said Sgt. Caleb Fry of the Williams County Sheriff’s Department. Because the boy is not 14 years old, there’s no chance he’ll be tried as an adult. Authorities have not released his name.
Fry couldn’t discuss the boy’s version of events, but the sergeant said investigators have concluded the shooting was a preventable accident. “It wasn’t maliciously done,” Fry said.
Page and her mom disagree. “After I’ve heard her story of it, you know, and how it happened, it’s not an accident at all,” her mother said.
By Page’s telling, she left her house after her mom fell asleep and met up with her ex-boyfriend and another boy. Her ex-boyfriend was driving his father’s pickup truck. As all three of them rode in the truck, Page and her ex-boyfriend argued about him driving without a permit.
“He said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll shoot you,’ and I thought he was joking because, like, he was one of my good friends and I trusted him,” she said. “Then he pulled out the gun and then cocked it back and then held it to my face and shot me.”
After he fired the shot from the handgun, the truck went into the ditch on U.S. Highway 2 and Page was thrown toward the dashboard.
“Everything went in slow motion, and my head was, like, vibrating from the bullet,” she said. “I was laying there, and I couldn’t move my arms, so I was pretty much paralyzed for like five minutes, and I kept asking him why he did it, and I was telling him to call 911, but he didn’t.”
She eventually regained the use of her arms and managed to call her current boyfriend’s dad, who called 911. She was flown to Minot, where she was placed in an intensive care unit.
Kandi Stearns, 33, said the bullet entered her daughter’s mouth, knocked out some of her teeth, went through her tongue, out her throat and became lodged between two vertebrae.
On April 22, Page underwent surgery to have the bullet removed. Much of it was taken out, but a fragment close to a main artery was left behind. “It’s too dangerous to touch,” her mother said of the fragment.
Last week, Page and her mom came to Sanford Hospital in Fargo for physical therapy, and by Tuesday, they had been cleared to go home. Page still has a feeding tube, but within three months, she may be able to eat normally again, her mother said.
Throughout Page’s life, she’ll likely have trouble swallowing and she’ll be at an increased risk for a stroke. She won’t be able to ride four-wheelers or do other activities that might jerk her neck. Her future also includes more surgeries to repair her teeth and tongue, according to her mother.
Along with Page’s physical injuries, which sometimes leave her in intense pain, she continues to recover from the emotional wound of having someone she trusted cause her so much harm.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” said her aunt, Danita Busse. “She wakes up with nightmares screaming.”
Still, Page said she feels lucky to have survived the shooting without any paralysis.
“There are so many risks that could have and should have happened and didn’t,” her mother said. “She’s a walking miracle.”