BRIDPORT — Peter Damone came within a whisker of losing his life, has his jaw held in place by a metal bar and is essentially confined to his home except for short walks and trips to the doctor.
But if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s one of the most fortunate men in the world.
“I came so close to being gone; you’ve got to feel lucky,” Damone, 76, said on Thursday during a visit on his back porch, where a stray bullet changed his world almost three months ago.
“I’m standing — how can you be mad?”
Aug. 13 was shaping up as a typical day at the Damone household off Bridport’s rural Swinton Road, which meanders through a sparsely populated neighborhood surrounded by sprawling farmland and some lofty tree stands.
Damone was grilling on his back porch, chatting on his cell phone.
In a split second, his life changed forever.
Damone suddenly felt a burning sensation pierce his left arm, then a veritable mule-kick to his jaw that sent him sprawling into a wooden storage box on the porch.
Stunned and bleeding, Damone quickly realized that he had taken a bullet — a large-caliber slug that had gone through the fleshy part of his arm and into his face, taking out about an inch of his jaw while at the same time piercing his tongue.
“I knew what it was, immediately,” Damone recalled.
His wife, Dorothy Damone, called 911. And as luck would have it, two of the Damones’ neighbors were inspecting hay in an adjacent farm field and quickly came to the injured man’s aid.
One of those neighbors, Danny Thomas, is a trained firefighter who took steps that undoubtedly helped save Damone’s life. He positioned Damone’s head on a pillow in a manner that would prevent blood from trickling down his throat and suffocating him.
Area ambulance squads were largely occupied at Addison County Fair & Field Days that day, but help arrived in short order. Also quickly on the scene were Vermont State Police officers, who located Tracy M. Stone target practicing on his property around four-tenths of a mile away. The investigation continues into whether the .45-caliber bullet that struck Damone’s face was fired by Stone, Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster said on Thursday.
Emergency responders rushed Damone to Porter Hospital, where physicians performed a tracheotomy to enhance his breathing, which had become labored.
Some hospital officials were amazed that Damone was still breathing at all, given what he had gone through. The bullet had severed an artery leading up to his tongue (causing it to swell like a balloon), and had lodged in his neck.
Yet here Damone was, beating the medical odds, after crossing paths with what he said was a “thousand-in-one-shot” that had soared randomly through the air, somehow skirting his porch overhang to hit him.
“The doctors were amazed; they didn’t know how the bullet could travel the way it did without killing me,” Damone said, noting one of his physicians dubbed him “the ‘luckiest, unlucky patient I have ever had.’”
Indeed, Damone was lucky enough to survive a six-day induced coma, during which he underwent multiple operations to piece together his jigsaw puzzle jaw.
“They took all the pieces of bone in my mouth and reconstructed it into the area where the bullet had gone through,” said Damone, who spent three weeks at Fletcher Allen Healthcare.
He continues to wear a metal brace on his face to hold in place the bone fragments meticulously assembled to reconstruct his jaw.
He undergoes continuous physical therapy and has been unable to chew solid food since the incident. He’s been on a steady diet of soups and any solids that can either be finely minced or obliterated in a blender.
“I lost 25 pounds in the hospital,” said Damone, who has since gained about 14 of them back and now tips the scales at around 145.
“It’s been tough on Dottie,” He said of his wife. “But she keeps stuffing me with food.”
It’s also taken a financial toll on the couple, who have no children. Both are retired and have been living on Social Security and a small annuity. Peter Damone had supplemented the family income by doing occasional barn restoration projects, a passion he has been unable to revisit since sustaining his injury. The family is hoping Medicare and an AARP insurance policy will cover the extensive medical expenses. Damon’s upper teeth need to be replaced, and the couple does not have dental coverage. The Damones believe any kind of insurance settlement he might receive stemming from the incident will be largely dented by legal fees and medical coverage liabilities.
With that in mind, the Damones’ friends and neighbors are raising funds to help lighten the couple’s financial load.
Among them is Bruce Byers of Cornwall. He and his wife have known the Damones socially for several years.
“When I head about the incident, I couldn’t believe it,” said Byers, a contributor to the Pete Damone Fund. People interested in making a donation should send their checks c/o Bob Coffey, 1128 Swinton Road, Bridport, VT 05734.
“I think a lot of people in the community would like to be a part of his recovery,” Byers added.
“It’s very gracious of them,” Damone said of the effort, proudly adding “I don’t want to impose on anyone.”
Damone has yet to meet Stone, and suspects that’s because of the matter remains under investigation. But it is clear that of all the emotions he has experienced in the aftermath with his brush with death, anger isn’t one of them.
“I could get real upset, but the only people it would affect would be me and my wife,” Damone said. “Either you get mad and scream and holler, or you take it like it is.”
He believes his case should serve as a cautionary tale in the proper use of firearms.
“I have nothing against guns, so long as they are used as they are supposed to be used and people know how to handle them,” Damone said.
He refuses to dwell on his misfortunes, and is looking forward to some of the simple things in life — like returning to his grill next spring when he hopes to be cleared for some chewing.
What a meal that will be.
“It’s probably going to be a good filet,” Damone said with a smile, “or maybe salami on a hard roll with mustard.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]