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Originally published March 13, 2012 at 6:06 PM | Page modified March 13, 2012 at 10:06 PM

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5 surgeries help girl shot at school slowly recover from major injuries

Amina Kocer-Bowman, 8, critically injured by a single bullet from a gun a third-grade classmate carried to school in his backpack, is off a ventilator and is improving slowly. Avoiding infection is the main concern now, doctors at Harborview Medical Center say.

Seattle Times health reporter

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Amina Kocer-Bowman, critically injured by a single bullet from a gun that a third-grade classmate carried to school in his backpack, has undergone five surgeries, losing her gallbladder, part of her small intestine and a major vein.

Her elbow, shattered by the .45-caliber bullet that slammed through her tiny body, has been patched together with a large metal plate. The bullet remains lodged near her spine but isn't affecting her ability to move.

The 8-year-old, surrounded by stuffed animals sent by friends, family and strangers, slept peacefully Tuesday in the intensive-care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Her father, John Bowman, was by her side, as he and Amina's mother have been since she was airlifted from Bremerton on Feb. 22.

"It's every parent's worst fear," Bowman said. His first question, when he heard she'd been shot: What kind of bullet was it? Having served in the Navy in Iraq, he knew the damage such a large bullet was likely to do. "My heart just sank."

Now he is encouraged, he said. Amina has been upgraded to serious condition. She was taken off a ventilator last weekend, and she's talking and watching TV. She's even learned to use the call button, her father said. "Every day we have her ... it's a blessing."

But it's hard when she asks for water, he said. He can't give it to her.

Because Amina doesn't have a working small intestine, she can eat and drink only through a feeding tube in her abdomen.

The injuries caused by the bullet were serious, said Dr. Eileen Bulger, her surgeon at Harborview, the repair is still dicey and the tissues will take time — perhaps weeks or months — to heal.

Bulger, a University of Washington professor of surgery and medical director for Harborview's Emergency Department, said the bullet came ominously close to taking Amina's life.

She lost 30 units of blood, Bulger said — her entire blood volume.

"There were a couple of times, especially during the first operation, where we thought we might lose her on the table," Bulger said. "She came very close to death with this injury she had."

On Tuesday, Bulger reviewed in detail the bullet's trajectory and the 15 to 16 hours of surgeries needed to repair its damage. The bullet smashed through Amina's elbow, and then into the middle of her body, ripping into her liver, then her gallbladder, slicing through her small intestine and pulverizing the large vein that takes blood back up from her legs — the largest vein in the body.

"This is a dangerous area because there's a lot of important real estate," Bulger said. "It's been a rocky time for her."

Compared to other gunshot wounds she's seen, Amina's injuries were "about as serious as it gets," Bulger said.

In several places, the bullet narrowly missed destroying internal structures that would have instantly paralyzed or killed her.

Bulger said children are more resilient than adults. For example, surgeons had to permanently tie off the large vein — the major cause of Amina's blood loss. Her young body eventually will build new routes for the blood, reducing the swelling in her legs.

Infection now is the big worry, Bulger said, since Amina's small intestine is still leaking in one spot, although doctors are hopeful it will heal up. If everything goes well, Amina may leave intensive care soon.

Her father said she likely misses school most of all. Nominated for the "gifted" program at Armin Jahr Elementary School, Amina, who likes to go by "Mina," loves school, including math, he said. She marks her calendar with a frowny face on days when there's no school.

The 9-year-old classmate who brought the gun to school found it at the home his mother shares with her boyfriend.

In a plea agreement, the boy pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a gun, bringing a dangerous weapon to school and reckless endangerment.

He was sentenced March 6 to one year of probation, with conditions, including writing a letter of apology to Amina and her family.

The boy also agreed to testify against his mother and her boyfriend.

The boy's mother, Jamie Lee Chaffin, and her boyfriend, Douglas L. Bauer, were charged Tuesday with third-degree assault, a felony.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249

or costrom@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @costrom

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