I had the distinct honor of interviewing a real-life law enforcement hero, Detective Mario Oliveira, who shared with me the survival story of the night he was shot and killed in the line of duty but survived.
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The night Detective Oliveira died
On November 2, 2010, Detective Mario Oliveira, a 13-year-veteran of the Sommerville Police Department, which is part of the Greater Boston area, was assigned to a plainclothes task force working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. His partner that night was ATF Special Agent Brian Higgins.
The two decided to start the shift by attempting to locate a gunrunner who was wanted on felony weapons violations and was on the run. As dusk was lowering its dark curtain over the city Brian and Mario spotted the target’s red Honda Accord parked on the street near his residence. They requested the assistance of Sommerville Police Department Lt. Joe McCain and Sergeant Jerry Reardon.
The gun battle
When the gunrunner exited the residence, he walked nonchalantly down a driveway with a backpack hanging lazily over one shoulder and slid into the Honda’s driver’s seat. Mario, with his badge displayed around his neck, approached on foot as SA Higgins drove up and “bumper locked” the Honda, preventing his escape. Mario informed the gunrunner he was under arrest, but as he took hold of him a struggle ensued. The felon shouted, “Shoot me! Shoot me!”
Mario could not see a gun, so he physically tried to pull the arrestee from the vehicle with one hand, while covering him with his Sig Sauer .40 caliber with the other. Special Agent Higgins ran up to the passenger side of the Accord and Mario glanced up at him momentarily over the roof of the vehicle and as he looked back down a series of flashes coupled with explosions came in quick succession.
Six shots hit Mario, who was not wearing his vest. Mario fell backward onto the pavement and tried to get back up but said, “It felt like an elephant was on my chest.”
In an instant, Special Agent Higgins grabbed the back of Mario’s collar and dragged him to relative safety behind a car, after which Higgins joined Reardon and McCain, who were returning fire in earnest.
From his vantage point, Mario could see the suspect peeking out from the Honda, firing at the other officers, who were returning his fire. Mario urgently wanted to get into the fight and raised his firearm up, but nothing happened, except his arm made a strange “bumping sound.” Although the pain had not yet hit him, he knew one of the gunrunner’s rounds had clearly disabled Mario’s arm.
As suddenly as the gunfight started, quiet returned to the residential street. The gunrunner would run guns no more.
Life on the edge and beyond
Even though the gunfight was over, the battle for Mario’s life had just begun. Mario started to have thoughts of his little boy at home and fishing with his dad and realized that these were end-of-life thoughts. He noticed he was bleeding badly and hyper-ventilating, so he consciously decided to live, as he deliberately slowed his breathing and put pressure on his wounds.
Lieutenant McCain knelt next to Mario and the wounded Detective Oliveira pleaded, “Don’t let me die. I need to get home to my son!”
Lieutenant McCain told him, “You’re not going to die. You are going to be OK,” but at the time, seeing the serious nature of Mario’s wounds, McCain thought he was telling Mario a lie.
The gunrunner had done his worst, firing his 9mm semi-automatic handgun rounds at point blank range one round into Mario’s arm, two into his chest and three into Mario’s stomach.
The battle to save Mario
The fight to save Detective Oliveira’s life in the emergency room was frenzied and at times panicked in appearance to Mario, but at one point Mario shared, “I closed my eyes, and they were gone. I felt someone. I saw the silhouette of a nurse, dressed in white, short stocky with her hair pulled back in a bun. She lifted my head up and began to massage my head.”
There was a heavenly calm about the nurse’s demeanor. She just held his head and caressed it gently telling him again and again, “You are going to be OK.” This calmed Mario immensely.
Suddenly he realized he was being frantically wheeled by gurney through the hallway as his doctor shouted, “Third floor, OR 26! Third floor, OR 26!” over and over again.
In stark contrast the older nurse continued to calm Mario, repeating tenderly, “You are going to be OK.”
Once in the operating room, Mario told the nurse, “I am so tired. Just let me die.”
The nurse knowingly said as she caressed his head, “You are going to be OK. You are not going to die tonight.”
Once again, everything went black.
Mario wakes up alive
Mario woke up a day and a half later in the intensive care unit.
Dr. David King, the man who saved him, was there and declared, “You are a lucky man.” The doctor went on to explain Mario had clinically died three times, but the doctor was able to bring him back by opening him up and manually massaging his heart after Mario’s heart had stopped for 3 1/2 minutes.
Amazed and now glad to be alive, Mario asked if he could meet the nurse who was with him throughout his ordeal. Detective Oliveira described the older nurse, whose hair was in a bun, but the doctor said he knew of no such nurse being present. Mario elaborated by explaining how she was right there by his side when the doctor rolled the gurney down the hallway shouting, “Third floor OR 26! Third floor OR 26!!”
The doctor, now bewildered, explained to Mario he that could not have seen that because Mario was in cardiac arrest for 3 1/2 minutes at that time. The doctor reiterated as well that there was no stocky older nurse with her hair in a bun.
Mario’s mother, who was in the ICU at that very moment dropped to the floor sobbing. Mario felt she must be overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation.
The nurse identified
After Mario was released from the hospital and had returned home to recuperate, his mother and father came to visit him.
His mother sat across from him as she described the night she had received a phone call at home and the voice on the line told her that Mario had been shot. The person intimated that the wounds were serious and Mario might not survive. She said she went down on her knees and prayed to God and her sainted mother, Mario’s grandmother, that Mario might live.
As she told the story she held a framed picture tightly to her heart like a person who has found one precious piece of personal property in the rubble of their home after a tornado. With that said, she got up, crossed the room and showed Mario the precious framed photo she held.
Mario had never seen it before. It was the photo of that nurse with the calming voice and the healing caress on his forehead who seemed so confident that he would live when the odds were stacked against him, that he believed her.
Mario was certain then and now that the photo his mother held was the photo of that “nurse” at his side in the hospital on the night he was killed in the line of duty but survived.
The photo was…his grandmother.
Read more about Mario’s experiences in “Gunrunner: The Mario Oliveira Story” by Mario Oliveira and Keith Knotek. Detective Mario Oliveira would like to give much credit to his co-author Keith Knotek, without whom this book would have never been written.