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In Aurora, A Bullet's Uncommon Path Saves A Young Composer's Life

Composer and violinist Petra Anderson, who was critically injured in the Aurora shooting.
Randall Gee
courtesy of Petra Anderson
Composer and violinist Petra Anderson, who was critically injured in the Aurora shooting.

Petra Anderson is a gifted 22-year-old composer and violinist who was critically injured in the movie theater shootings last Friday in Aurora, Colo. She was shot four times. Three shotgun pellets landed in her arm and a fourth nearly killed her.

That fourth shot went in through Anderson's nose and rode up the back of her cranium. Not only did she survive her injury, but according to her family and friends, she is on her way to a full recovery — thanks to a previously undiagnosed congenital anomaly. Instead of hitting her brain, the bullet traveled instead along a tiny extra tube of fluid. That defect channeled the bullet away from inflicting severe brain injury.

A blog post written by the family's pastor describes the process: "The buckshot ... enters her brain from the exact point of this defect. Like a marble through a small tube, the defect channels the bullet from Petra's nose through her brain. It turns slightly several times, and comes to rest at the rear of her brain. And in the process, the bullet misses all the vital areas of the brain. In many ways, it almost misses the brain itself. Like a giant BB though a straw created in Petra's brain before she was born, it follows the route of the defect. It is channeled in the least harmful way."

Update (July 26, 3:25 PM): Our colleague Mark Memmott over at The Two-Way, as well as two Deceptive Cadence readers in the comments section below, alerted us to an NBC News interview with Dr. Michael Rauzzino, the neurosurgeon at The Medical Center of Aurora who operated on Anderson. He says that there was no physical anomaly in Anderson's brain — but the bullet's trajectory was incredibly unusual. NBC quotes Rauzzino as saying:

"'It would be hard to create a path similar to this where it goes all the way from the front to the back and misses every single blood vessel, doesn't bother any of the major structures, and leaves her able to talk and move everything and not be paralyzed or dead,' [Rauzzino] added. 'Never in my entire career have I seen a case where a bullet has traversed the entire brain like this and not caused severe damage or death.'"

The Aurora shooting came at a particularly difficult juncture for Anderson's family. According to a website set up by Anderson's family and friends, Anderson's mother, Kim, who has previously battled breast cancer, learned that the cancer has returned and has now spread to her liver, bones and lungs. The family has started a campaign to raise money to cover the daughter's and mother's mounting medical bills and support other survivors of the Aurora tragedy.

Incredibly, much of Anderson's recent work has been concerned with the experiences of combat veterans. In 2010, she wrote a piece called Heroes' Salute: A Musical Tribute to Veterans, an ambitious piece for instruments and voices incorporating texts from soldiers' correspondence as well as the memoirs of a counterterrorism agent.

Anderson spent the summer of 2011 in Maine studying composition at a summer program held at Bowdoin College. Among her instructors was composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel. "Petra is a talented young composer whose music shows a penchant for both the lyrical and the experimental," Bermel writes to us. "Her recent orchestral work Dual Reflections reveals a daring Ivesian spirit; throughout the piece she explores the piano's natural resonance, extending it into the orchestral realm." More than that, Bermel describes her as a delightful presence. "Petra is curious, alert, open-minded, self-critical and very creative," he continues. "I am proud of her and of course looking forward to seeing and hearing what she writes next!"

According to her pastor, Anderson has begun talking again, though her road to recovery will include more surgeries and perhaps facial reconstruction. On Sunday, she walked her first steps.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.