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Quick action by fireman saved Teri Sutherland’s life

By Staff | Jul 30, 2009

Teri Sutherland was shot by her estranged boyfriend on April 15, 2007.

LAHAINA — Guardian angels come in all different shapes, colors and sizes, but more often than not, these warriors of mercy wear the uniforms of the police force, emergency medical technicians and firefighters of our communities.

And so it was on April 15, 2007, that Lahaina girl Teri Sutherland — wounded from ten gunshots fired by her estranged boyfriend — staggered into a Southern California Von’s supermarket entryway and collapsed to the floor.    

Bleeding profusely from a bullet hole in her neck and struggling to breathe, Sutherland thought to herself, “Okay God, I guess it’s time for me to die.”

But the Good Lord’s script for her went a different way.

Dora Barilla was among the shocked crowd of shoppers witnessing Sutherland’s struggle to live. As a nurse and wife of a fireman, Barilla knew that if the fallen woman did not receive help immediately, she would die. Barilla dashed out of the supermarket to inform her firefighter husband, Thomas Barilla, of the critical situation inside.

On March 15, 2005, the fire truck Thomas was driving was struck by a tour bus, and he was ejected from the cab. He suffered life-threatening head injuries and endured six months of intense recovery treatment, followed by several months of rehabilitation.

During this extended time in the hospital, not one day passed by without a family member or a fireman mate at his bedside.

He had been back to work for about a year when God tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Thomas Barilla, it’s time to pay it forward.”

Upon reaching the unconscious Sutherland’s side, Fireman Barilla knew she was in trouble, and his first responder’s instincts took over.

He found that she had a pulse but was barely breathing, if at all, and called for paper towels, scissors and an emergency medivac. He administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and pressed the paper towels over the wound to stem the bleeding.    

About five minutes had passed since the bullet pierced Sutherland’s throat, ripping through her vocal chords and shattering her voice box before lodging in the side of her neck.

A critical injury victim cannot be moved until being stabilized — a crucial factor in Teri Sutherland’s struggle for survival on that fateful day — and this is where the intervention of Thomas Barilla saved her life.

He kept her breathing and controlled the bleeding to the point where the medivac team — that landed their helicopter at a nearby park — was cleared to fly her to the hospital. He organized the paramedics, who had been delayed due to the felony crime situation, the police and the helicopter team for the transport.

Strangely enough, it was the ex-wife of the shooter who first gave Connie Sutherland, Teri’s mother, the thought that something was terribly wrong.

“She called me that morning and asked if Teri was all right and mentioned something about a shooting,” Connie explained last week. “I had a bad feeling in my gut, because I felt that this was not a good or productive relationship, and that it was obvious that she couldn’t get out of it. Teri had changed phone numbers, and the man had tried to break into her home on Saturday night, but the house was locked up. He shot her the next day.”

“Finally, we found out from the area code 911 number that Teri had been shot,” Connie continued. “We had trouble getting flights to California, because it was around spring break time, but thanks to Mark Ferrari, we were able to get on a plane to Salt Lake City, where we endured a six-hour layover, a shuttle flight to Palm Springs and then rented a car and drove two hours to the hospital. We got there on Monday evening, the day after Teri had been shot.”

It was the beginning of a difficult time for all involved — Teri, Connie, sister Leslie Hiraga, and brother Bob from Northern California, who was the first family member to get to Teri’s side.

Teri went into trauma surgery when she arrived at the hospital to patch her up and stop the bleeding, and on Monday, doctors operated to repair her vocal chords and shattered voice box, insert a feeding tube and perform a tracheotomy.

“She received great care from the doctors, but it was a constant battle to get information and to realize care for her,” said Connie. “It was a constant battle of the bureaucracy of the hospital and the insurance carriers. We had several frightening experiences as Teri was moved from floor-to-floor and hospital-to-hospital. Her care was always changing and downgraded, dictated by the insurance situation.”

“Most of the time, the doctors and nurses wouldn’t talk to us or let us know what was going on — they seemed to have a cavalier attitude. It was really hard. The doctors did tell us that our best hope would be that Teri would be able to breathe and swallow on her own but would never be able to speak again. Her voice box had been shattered into little egg shell pieces,” she added.

But Connie never gave up hope. Perhaps steeled by the loss of her husband, Chuck, to cancer in 2000, and the loss of her grandson to a tragic death after that, the love for her daughter and the resolve to take care of her never wavered.    

Matriarch Connie moved to California and stayed with Teri for six months, through the seven surgeries she endured and recovery.

Over that period of time, Connie saw a gradual improvement.

“She had seven surgeries over that time and saw many different specialists at the three hospitals she was in. She had a stint and keel in her throat with a feeding tube, but she could breathe on her own. She could also talk in a soft, scratchy voice,” Connie said.

True to her Lahaina grown form, Teri Sutherland’s concern was not for herself or her condition, but for the safety of her family. After losing consciousness at the crime scene, she awoke on Monday and feared for the lives of her family around her.

“I experienced the most fear when my family came to the hospital, but they had not yet caught him. Every time I woke up, I would ask my family — by writing on a pad — if they had caught him. I feared that if he hated me enough to try to kill me, that he would come to the hospital and try to kill my family as well. He turned himself in on April 18, but the police called my mom’s house on Maui and left a message, and we didn’t find out until April 19. This was the scariest time for me. Not even the thought of dying was as bad as losing all my family,” she said.

Teri hated every minute of being in the hospital for those three weeks.

“I felt like I was in prison, and I felt like they were keeping me in there longer than I needed to be there. The nights were really hard, very lonely times. But whenever anyone came in to see me, I would squeeze their hand really hard to let them know I was all right,” Teri said.

She was moved to the third hospital at the end of the second week, and it was discovered — in inspecting her dirty and bloody hair — that Teri had two surface wounds on her head. Doctors also discovered that the bullet that caused all the damage was still in her throat.

Sister Leslie brought in a laptop computer for Teri and set up an e-mail list of friends and family for her to contact and let them know what was going on.

“There were several people on the list from Maui, and the ‘Coconut Wireless’ did the rest in communicating what had happened to me,” said Teri.

“When I finally got out of there, I came back to my house with my mom, and April Lum had organized a potluck with some of my classmates. They even had a cake for me, took pictures, sent gifts and Hawaiian music. Honestly, these are people that I graduated with (from Lahainaluna High School) and would see sometimes, but not always. So, to receive a card might have been expected, but this outpouring of love was overpowering. I am so blessed,” Teri commented.

After turning himself in to the police on April 18, the man who shot Teri Sutherland was sent to jail. On Nov. 1, 2007, he died of an apparent heart attack. This was All Saint’s Day — Teri’s birthday.

Teri was relieved that she would not have to relive the whole horrifying incident in a trial.

Next week: Got to keep on growin’.