ROCHESTER, Minn. — Patrick and Jessica Zeigler have traveled a long and harrowing road together these last four years.
On the day he was shot in a mass shooting at Fort Hood near five years ago, Zeigler's wounds — including a bullet wound to the skull — were instantly considered by medics as placing him beyond any possibility of recovery. He was assigned a number — No. 14 —indicating what little chance medics attached to his survival.
But in one of those expectation-defying moments that have characterized his recovery so far, Zeigler struck up a conversation with the medic.
"She started laughing and crying, and said, 'I have to save him,'" Jessica said in an earlier story.
Twenty percent of his brain was removed and a metal plate the size of a baseball is now part of his skull. The first year of his recovery was simply fighting for his life. After that, it was relearning the basics and starting over from scratch, like walking and dressing himself. Initially paralyzed on the left side, Zeigler had to learn how to do everything with his right hand.
Then there was the process of coming to terms with such a senseless and indiscriminate act of violence. Jessica said that when she went to the military trial for shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and saw him for the first time in person, her reaction to him was not what she had expected.
Unlike the menacing portraits of him on television, Hasan didn't look evil. She was later to told by Hasan's cousin, Nader Hasan, that growing up, Hasan was called Homer Simpson because he was this "dopey, nerdy guy."
"I think the first thing I felt was probably some sympathy for him, which is surprising," Jessica said. "A lot of the families told me that, too. They'd go in there and think they're about to see this really evil person. And instead you see this shell of a man hunched over. He was very polite in court. He wasn't mean. He didn't have any outbursts."
Dinner with cousin
Jessica said the day she and Patrick sat down for dinner with Nader Hasan was an uplifting, life-affirming moment that neither could have imagined.
Shortly after the shooting, Nader Hasan went public with his denunciation of violence fueled by extremist ideology. He launched a nonprofit dedicated to speaking out against violence in the name of Islam. But the news reports about his efforts generated an outburst of searingly negative online commentary from readers. There were threats against Nader and his family.
"It just made me sick," Jessica said. "Here's this man trying to do such a wonderful thing that our country needs since 9/11, and he and his wife and his children are at risk."
Jessica said she sent Nader an email telling him how much she admired his efforts. She told him that as someone whose "family was personally affected" by the shooting, she supported his work. That email led to more correspondence, then to phone calls. Then one day, Patrick and Jessica were able to arrange a dinner with Nader during Patrick's visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
"I didn't expect Patrick to go with me," Jessica said. "It was something that I had sort of done on my own, and I wasn't sure how he felt. But right away, he said, 'I'd love to go.' It was probably one of the most amazing things that I've ever witnessed, because they both took this huge leap of faith.
"There was definitely this moment of how is this going to turn out," Jessica added. "Right away, we all hugged and embraced and there were tears. It was really a beautiful dinner."
These days, Patrick thinks about getting on with life, of bringing more normalcy to his days, and possibly having a career. In September 2012, the Zeiglers moved to Rochester. The move brought Jessica, a Mayo High School graduate, closer to her parents and Patrick closer to Mayo Clinic. Another consideration was the extensive veterans community in the area, which have warmly supported the family and embraced Patrick as one of their own.
Connects with vets
Although not a student at RCTC, he was made an honorary veterans club member at the first meeting he attended. Harry Kerr, an RCTC instructor and a club adviser, said Patrick and his service dog, Ranger, will drop by the college's Veterans Resource Center, where 25 to 30 vets stop by each day. It's a place where Patrick can hang out with other vets, some who have served multiple tours overseas, some who suffered combat wounds and earned purple hearts.
"He comes in there, and he can hang out or just be there and talk to guys about other stuff, but I think it's a place where he feels he belongs," Kerr said.
Kerr said Patrick is a respected member who is accepted for who he is.
"That's what many of them are looking for: Just to be taken for who they are," Kerr said. "One of the veterans put it: 'Since I've come back, I think people look at me like I'm damaged goods.' And here, nobody looks at anybody that way. It's just mutual respect."
In addition to working with veterans organization, Patrick plans on doing some public speaking. He will speak at the Cpl. Curtis M. Swenson Memorial Golf Benefit on May 31. He also set to make some remarks at the Heros' Ride that starts at Rochester Harley-Davidson on July 19.
"I think he's gaining confidence and comfortable with who he is and who he's becoming," Kerr said. "I think by being at school, he gets more comfortable with school. So, I think he's looking toward the future."
And if the progress and recovery made by Patrick over the last four years has an element of the miraculous about it, there is also the realization, from both Patrick and Jessica, that the recovery is ongoing.
"The fact that Patrick lost more than 20 percent of his brain means something on a day to day basis," Jessica said. "It means something in our relationship. How he can function with people, how he can function with his child hits hard. It's really, really, really hard."
And so they persevere. Patrick said that while he knows there are obstacles to overcome, he wants to move on with life.
"Eventually, I want to get to that point. Everyday, I go to work, she goes to work — just like a normal couple. And so that's the goal," Patrick said.