Young woman shot in the head while driving in her car saved by Jackson South’s trauma team

By: Krysten Brenlla

Ashley Rodriguez, 22, was living her dream. She was studying psychology at Florida International University, with goals of one day becoming a psychiatrist.

However, in the blink of an eye, Rodriguez’s dreams were shattered.

On June 13, 2022, Rodriguez was driving home from work after her regular shift at Sushi Sake in Cutler Bay. She usually arrived home at the same time every night – but on that day, she never made it there, and her parents could not get in touch with her.

“Her schedule always started at 5 p.m. and ended at 10:30 p.m., and she was usually home by 11 p.m. We called and texted her, but she wasn’t answering – this wasn’t like her,” said Sadia Rodriguez, Ashley’s mother. “We had her location on our phone, and it said she was just two minutes away from home, so her dad went over to the location to check on her – that’s when our world changed.”

When her parents arrived at the location, they only found Rodriguez’s car. Emergency medical services already rushed her to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson South.

Upon arrival to Jackson South, the trauma team assessed Rodriguez and found that she did not get into a car accident – she was shot in the head while driving.

“The bullet went through the car’s left side of the headrest, and entered through the right side of the back of her head,” said Connor Berger, MD, a UHealth – University of Miami Health System neurosurgery trauma fellow at Ryder Trauma. “It hit her bone, deflected down, and rested on the inside of her jaw – if she was delayed just 5 to 10 minutes, she would not have made it.”

The emergency room physicians and surgical trauma team were immediately activated to stabilize her. Initially, Rodriguez was moving and talking.

However, within a few minutes, she began to experience difficulty breathing, and upon further inspection, her caregivers found that she was herniating brain matter. The Ryder Trauma team called Dr. Berger, and he started her on saline and mannitol, which helped to lower the pressure in the head and swelling in her brain.

“I don’t remember anything about this day,” Rodriguez said. “All I remember is going to work and fixing my hair – that’s it.”

Rodriguez was rushed to emergency surgery, where Ian Cote, MD, FRCSC, chief of neurosurgery at Jackson South Medical Center, and Dr. Berger, got to work.

“We needed to relieve the swelling from Ashley’s brainstem, a consequence of the massive energy that was transmitted by the bullet to her cerebellum,” Dr. Cote said. “We had to remove a large piece of the back of her skull, evacuate large blood clots and bone fragments, and reconstruct the lining of her brain with the help of sutures and cadaver skin. This was life-saving for Ashley; without this surgery, she wouldn’t have made it through the night.”

After the procedure, Dr. Berger and Jackson South’s intensive care unit (ICU) team closely monitored Rodriguez to ensure her brain would not swell again.

However, after just five days, Rodriguez experienced delayed cerebral edema, a severe form of swelling in parts of her brain, as well as blood clots.

“I just remember being very scared and afraid that the worst would happen,” Sadia Rodriguez said. “Most people with these injuries don’t make it – we were devastated, questioning why this happened, and hoping for the best.”

Rodriguez was rushed back to the operating room, where Dr. Cote and Dr. Berger performed a second life-saving operation.

“Ashley’s brain was swelling in other important areas as a result of additional severe injuries to crucial deep veins,” Dr. Cote explained. “The second surgery involved removing another large piece of skull from the side of her head, and enlarging the space for her brain to continue to heal.”

“She’s an incredibly strong person who fought off the terrible odds stacked against her,” Dr. Cote said.

After her surgeries, Rodriguez spent 46 days in the hospital. The first two weeks post-surgery were critical; machines supported her breathing and blood pressure, and medications were controlling the swelling in her brain.

On day 25, Rodriguez hit a major milestone – she started to move her feet and upper extremities upon command, which let the neurosurgical and intensive care teams know she was still able to respond.

“Ashley is famous in Jackson South’s ICU floor, and her mom is a super human,” Dr. Berger said. “Her family was always by her side, and ultimately ensured Ashley’s perseverance.”

Rodriguez was discharged on July 31, but she needed intense rehabilitation therapy to relearn how to walk and talk again.

After just a month of rehabilitation therapy, she started moving her right arm and kicking her legs.

“The first week of being in therapy, Ashley started to move her right arm,” Sadia Rodriguez said. “That was a big milestone because they told us that her right side would be the most challenging to get back.”

After two months of speech therapy, she started to speak again.

“Therapy was really hard because I couldn’t do much,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to get better, and I learned a lot – how to speak, how to walk a little bit, and how to eat. I think it went really well.”

Rodriguez is still undergoing physical, occupational, and speech therapy every week, pushing for a strong recovery. She cannot walk on her own yet, but can get around with the help of a walker. Rodriguez can also move in her bed and change positions, eat on her own, brush her own teeth, and dress herself.

“She can finally hug us, and it feels absolutely amazing,” Sadia Rodriguez said. “It’s a miracle to think that we’re still here, that she’s gaining weight, and that she’s communicating with us.”

For the future, Rodriguez wishes to live an independent life again. She hopes to one day go back to school to finish her psychology degree, while helping others who are suffering from traumatic brain injuries along the way.

“We are immensely grateful to everyone who cared for Ashley at Jackson South,” Sadia Rodriguez said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here – they became our family.”

Ian Cote, MD

Neurological Surgery