Fred Gutierrez realized it immediately. Something had gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
This wasn’t heaven. This wasn’t what he expected to wake up to after he unlocked the handcuffs that secured the doors of his gun cabinet, pulled out his Ruger and fired a .38-caliber bullet into his brain.
He had expected to wake up in paradise, freed from the hopelessness and despair that led him to try to take his own life. But there was nothing heavenly about the host of voices buzzing in his ear. He heard someone say “coroner,” a word he could not recall ever coming across in the New Testament.
No, Fred Gutierrez was alive, which was the last thing he wanted to be.
No one expected Rich O’Brien to live, either. A former would-be tour pro, O’Brien had seen his dream dissolve – along with most of his money. He was working as a caddie at the Kiawah Island Club when he took a turn – literally – for the worst.
Standing on the back of a golf cart that was being driven to the clubhouse, O’Brien lost his grip when the cart made a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill. His head hit the cart path, hard. He was airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina Trauma Center, where doctors assessed the damage: four skull fractures and four spinal fractures.
Both men miraculously survived. But their recoveries would be long and painful. And neither could say he was truly healed until fate, divine providence – whatever you want to call it – brought them together and showed them the way.
The way to the golf course.
How can anyone survive shooting themselves in the head? According to Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and reported by the website LiveScience.com, a person’s chances of surviving such a trauma to the brain depend on the areas of the brain that are struck, the velocity of the bullet and whether the bullet exits the brain. Exiting the brain is good. So is a slower bullet. As far as a bullet being deflected, that can happen when the bullet hits the skull. Or a shooter’s hand can flinch upon firing, sending the bullet on a diagonal trajectory that gives the appearance of being deflected.
Gutierrez, a devout Christian, contends that the bullet missed all the vital parts of his brain because it was deflected away by “the hand of God,” and the report from the emergency room notes that the bullet entered through the side of his head and exited through the top.
Gutierrez knows many will doubt him, even mock him. He doesn’t care. The doubters weren’t there. They didn’t see what he saw – the Devil, but with Gutierrez’s face. They didn’t feel what he felt – the comfort of Jesus Christ guiding him through the darkness.
“I’ve had people tell me there’s no such thing as heaven and hell,” said Gutierrez, 63. “Well, then you’re telling me that there is no God. If there’s no God, why am I still here?”
When the medical helicopter landed at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego and was met by a trauma team, it was far from certain that Gutierrez would live. He was given a transfusion to replace the nearly two liters of blood he had lost – enough to fill a large soda bottle. Once his blood pressure – initially a precarious 88 over 55 – had risen sufficiently, he was wheeled into the operating room.
Neurosurgeon Jean Wickersham removed bullet and bone fragments and patched the wounds in Gutierrez’s skull. Gutierrez was then transferred to the surgical intensive care unit and listed in critical condition.
Wickersham dictated her report for a medical transcriptionist: “The first two days will be crucial with regard to the patient’s outcome. But at best I do not expect him to be able to move his left side. This is going to require rehabilitation if he survives the injury.”
Five days later, Gutierrez was transferred to a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Diego, where he would be prepared for physical, occupational and speech therapy.
In other words, he was to be taught how to take care of himself with a paralyzed left side.
When (Gutierrez) decided to end his life, he had a choice of two guns. He rejected his Smith & Wesson .357 because its hollow-point bullets would have made a much bigger mess for those who had to clean up.
Gutierrez, a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War era, was determined not to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He bristled when he overheard a therapist telling a family member that he would never walk again. Gripping a parallel bar with his right hand, he used momentum to swing his paralyzed left leg forward. But when he tried to push off of that leg, it buckled and he fell. It wasn’t until he was fitted for an AFO – ankle and foot orthotic, a sort of plastic brace for his foot and lower leg – that his leg became stabilized enough that he could stand and haltingly walk on it. For his first walk, he paid a visit to the therapist who doubted him.
Gutierrez was released from rehab in September 1996, but life wasn’t through throwing obstacles in his path. Removed from a structured environment, he allowed many of those obstacles to accumulate.
His physical condition deteriorated. He began experiencing severe pain.
Meanwhile, his marriage, which had been stressed for years before his suicide attempt, finally was disintegrating.
The happiest years of Gutierrez’s life had been spent in South Carolina from ages 9 to 16. He lived with an aunt, Santana Leonti, and her husband. Gutierrez and Leonti were so close, he called her “Mom.” More than 40 years later, Leonti took him in again, buying him a plane ticket so he could come “home.”
Hers was going to be tough love, though. Refusing to let him just lie around the house, she took him for a five-mile walk every afternoon when she came home from work.
His strength and endurance improved. He found a job and saved enough money to buy a used car. He joined the Summerbrook Community Church and did volunteer work. He served meals at a homeless shelter and joined the church’s prison ministry team. While working at the Charleston Air Force base, he met a woman who shared his Christian beliefs. Now divorced from his second wife, he married Jan. His life was finally on an upward path.
And then into his life came a man who appeared as down and out as Gutierrez ever was.
Fred Gutierrez, meet Rich O’Brien.
The smell of morphine coming from O’Brien was unmistakable and nearly overpowering. Ironically, O’Brien couldn’t smell it at all – his accident had robbed him of his sense of smell. As Gutierrez greeted him, he couldn’t help but notice that O’Brien’s right arm was in a sling. He was in obvious pain and could barely walk.
O’Brien’s broken body offered no clues to suggest he had spent his career in golf, first as a college player who aspired to become a tour pro, then as a college coach, a head pro, a marketing executive and finally as a caddie at a high-end golf club.
It was in that last job that he had his near-fatal accident. In the early stages of his recovery, when his survival was very much in question, he had a near-death experience similar to Gutierrez’s. Only instead of Christ guiding him through the darkness, his guide appeared to be a doctor, who told him, “You will be OK. It will take a year, but you will be OK.” After hearing this, O’Brien realized suddenly he could move his fingers and toes.
O’Brien was soon transferred to a rehab hospital, where his story continued to unfold like Gutierrez’s. Trying to understand the meaning of his experience, he concluded that a heavenly force had saved him. The “doctor” he saw, he was convinced, was an angel.
One morning he awoke with an urge to find a church and express his gratitude. The Summerbrook Community Church was only a half-mile walk, but he was barely able to stagger into the front door. He was greeted by a man whose presence seemed to radiate inner peace.
As O’Brien continued to recover, the church became a bigger part of his life. He introduced the pastor, Brian Burton, to golf. Burton became hooked, playing a couple of rounds a week, always walking. The exercise helped him slim down and Gutierrez, who had gained a lot of weight since getting out of the hospital, noticed. He started to think he could do the same.
Learning of Gutierrez’s desire to take up the game, church member Paul Ballow custom-built him a set of clubs. With extra-light shafts and heavy clubheads to promote a smooth, pendulum-like swing, they were designed for a one-handed swinger.
As every beginner knows, golf can be an intimidating game. It requires a certain level of hand-eye coordination as well as a familiarity with an unwritten manual of “etiquette,” rules whose purpose can be summed up by the phrase, “Don’t inconvenience other players.”
Now, imagine how much more intimidating it would be for a novice who is paralyzed on one side, who has to do everything one-handed and one-legged.
Gutierrez’s personality only added to the pressure. He is unfailingly polite and considerate of others. When he decided to end his life, he had a choice of two guns. He rejected his Smith & Wesson .357 because its hollow-point bullets would have made a much bigger mess for those who had to clean up.
With trepidation about getting in anyone’s way doing battle with his determination to use golf to better his health, determination prevailed. He made his first foray onto the course, Miler Country Club, a 95-year-old course that measured just longer than 6,000 yards from the tips in Summerville, S.C., just outside of Charleston. Unfortunately Gutierrez’s incomplete knowledge of the game’s protocols tripped him up. When a siren started blaring, he didn’t realize it was a lightning warning and he was supposed to return to the clubhouse. A club employee sent out to fetch him explained all this and, no doubt unaware of Gutierrez’s sensitivity, called him a “dumbass.” His accompanying laugh suggested it was meant as a joke, but Gutierrez didn’t join in the laughter.
Doggedly, Gutierrez tried playing another round. But this time a wrong turn while trying to walk from one hole to the next earned him another visit from the same club employee and another ill-considered “dumbass” remark.
Feeling humiliated, Gutierrez put his clubs away. Perhaps this game just wasn’t for him.
O’Brien would have none of it. He invited Gutierrez to be his partner in the club’s member-guest tournament. The experience revived Gutierrez’s desire to improve and to become accepted by the other golfers. He wanted to become good enough to join a group of seniors who played regularly. He admired their skill and their camaraderie, but he was still intimidated.
“I was scared,” he said.
What he didn’t know was that many at the club already admired him.
“You were kind of in a shell,” Bo Blanton, the course superintendent and a member of the family that owns the club, told him later. “You were afraid you didn’t fit in. Yet there were seniors who were just itching to play with you.”
Group member Tim Martin put it simply: “Everybody,” he said, “has accepted Fred as Fred.”
Gutierrez and O’Brien not only survived, they have thrived. Gutierrez won a world championship in his division of the ParaLong Drive Cup, a long-drive championship for those with physical challenges. A 14-handicap, he also had a top-10 finish last summer in the inaugural United States Disabled Golf Open. O’Brien regained a plus-1 handicap thanks to putting in an estimated 12,000 hours of work to overcome his extensive injuries. He also was crowned a world champion in the ParaLong Drive Cup, winning the Traumatic Brain Injury division.
Yet on-course achievements aren’t what the duo are most proud of. It is the effect that they have had on others that gives them the most satisfaction.
A 2014 article about the two by this author came to the attention of Scott Kmiec, a PGA of America senior director who oversees the PGA Reach program. He commissioned Gutierrez and O’Brien to champion the PGA Hope (Help Our Patriots Everywhere) program in Charleston. Starting with clinics for a group of five veterans, the Charleston Hope program garnered widespread attention and spawned similar efforts in other areas of the country.
Locally, the veterans program became so popular as a therapy to combat post-traumatic stress disorder, participation grew to more than 125.
PGA Hope Charleston was profiled in CBS Sports’ 2017 Road to the PGA Championship preview show. That exposure helped lead to the expansion of the Hope program to about 80 chapters serving 2,000 veterans nationwide.
“One of the central themes of our PGA Hope Charleston program has been the power of golf therapy to improve the quality of life of those with injuries, illnesses or challenges,” O’Brien said. “Another key theme has been the healing power of mentorship. Charleston and the surrounding Low Country community has also become the model of what a community can do when it goes all-in for adaptive and veteran golf therapy programs.”
All because two men helped each other survive.
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