Author Question: Gunshot Wound to the Chest

Virginia Asks:

I’m putting the final touches on a romantic suspense novel in which my hero is shot. The most important part of this is that he has to continue to function until he saves the day, then falls and has to be treated. The wound cannot be bad enough that he can’t pass the physical and qualify to become an FBI agent within a few weeks.

My fit male character (34 years old) is in a shootout. He’s shot with a 9mm handgun but the bullet ricochets, grazes his chest, and fractures a rib. He doesn’t notice initially. He begins to feel some pain after about five minutes. Then feels woozy and has a head rush. I want him to fall after the action is over, but be able to talk a little with some struggling.

He’s far from a hospital when he’s shot, but a military medic is there with his kit. The hero can be medevaced to a hospital on a military helicopter. What would the medic do in the field? I don’t want the bullet to penetrate the chest wall, but would the medic check for pneumothorax and if so how?

What would happen at the hospital? How long would he be hospitalized?

I’ve read and re-read about pneumothorax and hemopneumothorax, but think that might require too much recovery time and be too much for him to qualify and be able to pass the physical. I’ve done some research on pulmonary contusion but am a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities of the use of continuous positive airway pressure and high-frequency chest wall oscillation. And the long term recovery.

Since I really don’t know what would be best as a gunshot wound that my hero can recover from and pass a physical in a few weeks, I really need some guidance and specific information that can easily be explained in a romantic suspense novel. I’m hoping this “bullet grazes the rib” scenario is workable. If not, what should I consider instead?

Jordyn Says:

Thanks so much for sending me your question, Virginia.

I think the simplest thing to do is to have the bullet graze his chest. It could potentially hit the rib, break it, and ricochet away. Leaving a nasty gash with a broken rib underlying but nothing else injured. Generally, a fractured rib will heal in 4-6 weeks so he will have pain and limited movement until then. The worst pain will probably be in the first 1-2 weeks and then should taper off after that.

As far as the military medic assisting off duty. I think it’s fine if he has a small first aid kit that he could dress the wound with. He likely would not be carrying an oxygen tank, etc. So the dressing to control bleeding is necessary. Lots of emergency medical types might have a small kit in their car (I do), but not an oxygen tank or a way to deliver oxygen to the patient.

The military medic could check for a pneumothorax by listening to your hero’s breath sounds. Clear and equal breath sounds bilaterally generally indicate no pneumo (though a small one could still be present). It will hurt to take deep breaths if his rib is fractured.

If he’s transported by a military medevac then they could start oxygen, an IV, and give some IV fluids. Place him on a monitor to keep tabs on his heart rate, breathing, oxygen levels, and blood pressure.

In the hospital, he’ll get chest and belly films and possibly a CT of his chest and abdomen. If it seems like a fairly benign wound, the wound could just be irrigated with a lot of saline and sutured closed. He needs an updated tetanus shot if he hasn’t had one in over five years.

If his breathing is good and he suffers just one cracked rib, there is likely not enough injury criteria for him to be admitted into the hospital. He’d likely be observed in the ER for several hours to make sure everything is okay. He’d be sent home with a short course of narcotics (like three days) and instructed to take over the counter pain relievers to help with the pain as well. He should have limited activity but not be bedridden. He’d be encouraged to take deep breaths (usually at every commercial break if watching TV) to prevent lung complications because patients don’t like to breathe deep when they have a cracked rib.

Hope this helps and good luck with your story!

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