Officer thanks rescuers 30 years after shooting

Lem Dermid is on a mission to thank every paramedic, doctor and nurse who saved his life


By Derek Lacey
Times-News

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — Lem Dermid is a retired law enforcement officer, a husband and father, but he was almost none of those things.

Dermid, 60, served for about 10 years as an officer with Hendersonville Police Department, also working for the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office several years and in private security. He married and raised two children.

But on a spring day 30 years ago, his life was nearly cut short.

On May 19, 1987, Dermid was shot at point-blank range while on duty with the HPD, while questioning a mentally disturbed subject at the corner of Asheville Highway and Oakland Street around 3 p.m.

Dermid spent more than six weeks in the hospital, had his kidney, spleen and 70 percent of his pancreas removed, fought off infections in his blood and survived further surgeries and complications.

Today, exactly 30 years later, Dermid is searching for a way to properly thank everyone who helped him survive.

Dermid said now is the time to make sure that happens, as he might not make it another 30 years. He wants to reach out to the nurses, the doctors and paramedics, the friends and community members who visited him, everyone who had even the slightest part in helping him get through, to say thank you.

May 19, 1987

On that day, Officer Jim Sams was working as a crossing guard for Hendersonville High when he recognized a man, Brown Case, wearing a gray suit with what appeared to be a billy club sticking out from under his coat.

Fifteen years earlier, Case had injured Sams in a fight, and it had taken five men to get him in cuffs, according to Sams’ statement to police. So Sams radioed for Dermid, who was then working the day shift as watch commander, to come and see to the situation before class let out at HHS.

Officer Rusty Sweezy beat Dermid to the scene by a few seconds and was already questioning Case when Dermid arrived.

“By the time I got there, the man was visibly shaken, yelling at us to get back in our cars and so forth,” Dermid said.

According to Sweezy’s statement, Case “quickly stuck his hand into his right coat pocket and said, ‘No, you can’t see what is in my jacket!’ It looked so obvious like he was just sticking his finger into his jacket from the position of his hand and his finger was stuck straight out.”

With his hand still in his pocket, Case began pulling the trigger on a concealed .32 caliber revolver, striking Dermid from just a few feet away.

“It even seemed like I could see the fiber in his jacket come away from where the barrel was,” Sweezy continued in his statement. “I heard Lem groan and he turned toward my direction.”

“I got hit in the side,” Dermid said. “I knew I’d been shot because of the pain, like a baseball bat hit me in the stomach.”

He fell to the ground, and one of the last things he remembers is looking down at the pistol in his hand, not realizing he had even fired it, though he had. It would be about two weeks until Dermid was fully aware again.

The bullet, as Dermid described, “zipped around inside me.”

Dr. John Strange, one of three surgeons to operate on Dermid that day, said the bullet entered his left side, hit his spleen, traversed his pancreas, went through the substantial portal vein, went completely through his stomach, traversed to his inferior vena cava, a vein twice as big as the portal vein, then ruptured the right renal artery and vein and destroyed his right kidney.

“Every single one of those is a fatal wound,” according to Dr. Jim Caserio, who saw Dermid through the immediate recovery as his internist and who has served as his personal doctor ever since.

The mortality rate for someone with those injuries is more than 90 percent, he said, but Dermid made it, “against all odds.”

“Luckily, miraculously, whatever you want to say, the bullet went about an inch under my heart,” Dermid said.

It’s still there, lodged behind his diaphragm, Caserio said.

Sweezy, Dermid and another officer, Jim Wells, all returned fire, striking Case nine times. Case was pronounced dead at Pardee Hospital shortly after.

Wells said he worked to reassure Dermid, telling him to take some deep breaths.

Everything happened very quickly. Radio transcripts show only 32 seconds lapsed from the time Dermid says he is out of his car to Wells calling for an ambulance.

Dermid credits his training with allowing him to be able to draw and return fire, and credits the Hendersonville police chief at that time, Larry Hesser, with being a believer in police training of all types and someone who constantly trained his officers.

He recalls that his unit was the first to switch from revolvers to automatics shortly before the shooting, because the officers were the best shots.

A will to survive

The key factors in Dermid’s survival were the location of the shooting, his excellent physical shape and a strong will to live.

The shooting happened just a few blocks from the only emergency management station the county had at the time, next door to the hospital, just a few blocks from where Dermid was shot.

“If it had happened in the county, I wouldn’t have made it,” Dermid said.

Tava Morgan was the responding paramedic that day. She said it took them about 90 seconds to reach him, and described the scene as “pure chaos.”

“There were people running, people screaming, people crying; no one really knew what to do or where to go,” she said.

Dermid was a family friend, someone Morgan knew well.

“It’s tough when you’re working on a friend,” she said. “You don’t consider him a friend, (you) consider him family.” Law enforcement, EMS — they all work together as one big family, she said.

She and another paramedic quickly tended to Dermid, getting him in the back of the truck for what paramedics refer to as “load and go,” starting IVs and monitoring his heart rate, giving him oxygen, all in the back of the truck on the way to the hospital.

In his statement, given June 26, 1987, Dermid recalls the other paramedic, David Hill, working to keep him conscious in the back of the ambulance: “I was in the ambulance at the scene and the paramedic, David Hill, was slapping my face ... He slapped me in the face and started talking to me. I remember them cutting my uniform off.”

Wells estimates that Dermid was in surgery about 30 minutes after getting shot.

Martha Todd was a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Pardee, where Dermid would spend the next couple of weeks.

She said his being three minutes from the hospital, his age and good physical shape are surely what saved him, and that he maintained a good attitude through the pain.

“There were times he didn’t give up and I’m sure he was questioning how his life was going to be after this injury,” Todd said.

Dermid went straight into a five-and-a-half hour surgery when he got to the hospital.

Surgeon Dr. John Strange recalls the day vividly.

“I just knew we had a guy that had a gunshot wound to his abdomen” who was in shock when he came in, Strange said. He knew he was going to find a lot of blood in there and that the victim might not make it off the table.

He found that Dermid’s peritoneum, or the lining of the abdomen, was in turn providing pressure to help stem the bleeding.

That gave Strange and another surgeon, Dr. David Glenn, time to take out the spleen, the 70 percent of the pancreas and fix the holes in his stomach before addressing the blood in the retroperitoneum, then the portal vein and the vena cava. Then the kidney was removed by urologist Dr. Edwin Smolowitz.

Strange said it was his privilege to take care of Dermid, giving the credit to God. Dermid also reached out and told Strange that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of him.

All the while, Dermid wasn't giving up. About four hours before the shooting, Wells remembers, officers had gathered to watch “The Will to Survive,” a film about an incident that happened to law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County who were shot and ready to just give in to death.

They decided independently but simultaneously to fight through it, he said. “If they were going to die, they were going to go down fighting. (We) watched that film four hours before (Dermid was) laying on his back on the street fighting for his life.”

Dermid remembers watching the video, saying to this day it’s still one of the best he’s seen.

A year or so after he came back to work, Dermid actually tracked down one of the deputies in the film, reaching out to thank him, too.

“Certainly I think it was a factor,” he said. “The whole theme is never give up, no matter what happens.”

Strange has also heard about “The Will to Survive.”

“Speaking as a scientist, there’s no objective way to measure the effect that has on healing or ability to survive,” he said. “But I can’t help but think that probably played some role.”

Dr. Jim Caserio, who cared for him during his recovery, said Dermid was built like an NFL quarterback, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing about 230 pounds. He was strong as a bull, with a “driving will to live."

Strange said Dermid exhibited a true spirit of gratitude even then.

“I think Lem realized real quick what we had done for him,” he said.

He eventually came out of the hospital about 60 pounds lighter.

“Rambo Robo”

After the surgery, Caserio took over.

As an internist, his job is to orchestrate care, making sure everyone is speaking to each other and not contradicting others’ work.

Dermid was in bad shape. The only things that came out unscathed, Caserio said, were his heart and nervous system.

Caserio spent the night by his bedside, as Dermid needed minute-by-minute care.

Throughout the recovery, Dermid would need additional surgeries to drain abscesses, and he had other complications like blood infections and pneumonia. It took days to ween him off the ventilator, Caserio said.

In about two weeks, Dermid was moved out of the ICU.

Todd remembers a slew of visitors, explaining that Dermid’s mother, Lucille Dermid, was a well-known magistrate in the county.

There was enormous community support and visitors poured in, from the police chief, a state senator and judges to state Highway Patrol troopers. “The whole law enforcement community,” she said, so many that they had to be given a clipboard to sign in, “or he’d never get any rest.”

The entire community rallied behind him, Caserio said.

He called the case the “Holy Grail of being a doctor,” a chance to put into practice all the years of education, training and experience to save a life.

The well-wishers were many, and Dermid said he had to compile a list of just a few that could visit him. One of those was his close friend Jeff Miller, now a Hendersonville city councilman.

Miller said he got the news quickly and headed straight to the hospital, as did others, positioning themselves in the halls, trying to stay out of the way of nurses and doctors while waiting to hear the results of the surgery.

He remembers watching them go back and forth getting more and more blood.

The surgeons came out and told the group they had done the best they could, Miller said, and they waited to see if Dermid would recover.

Miller described Caserio as “the conductor of Lem’s living or not ... He was incredible to watch” — hell-bent on getting everything done properly.

Miller even brought in a TV and VCR and would sit with Dermid and watch movies while he recovered.

“Rambo” and “Robocop” were recently-released movies, Caserio said, and they became a sort of meshed nickname for the movie-loving Dermid among the staff: “Rambo Robo.”

Dermid doesn’t remember that nickname while he was in the hospital, but said he did get called “Robocop” a few times after he made it back to work. But there couldn’t have been a more accurate description, according to Caserio. Dermid was a big, strong fighter, and doctors kind of rebuilt him into a “Robocop.”

Miller said they’d try to make him laugh as much as they could, even though it was sometimes at Miller’s expense, as he has a serious phobia of needles.

Some days, Dermid said he didn’t feel much like talking to people. The antibiotics he was on were so strong, he had to have shots first so that he wouldn’t get sick from the antibiotics themselves, Dermid said.

“He had days when he was a lot of fun, and days when he was a jerk,” Miller said. “He had always been wide open; (he’s) never been one just to lay in a bed.”

Dermid had to learn how to walk and eat again, as his digestive system had been shut down. For weeks he was fed only intravenously. He was bedridden for so long, he said, that his brain forgot how to tell his legs to walk.

“That surprised me more than anything else,” he said. “I thought I could just jump out of bed, but when I tried doing that, I couldn’t get my legs going."

He suffered two bacterial blood infections and one fungal blood infection. If those had made it to his brain, he remembers doctors telling him, there would have been nothing more they could have done.

At the time he was told that he may not survive.

Dermid put his total trust in Caserio and the doctors, Miller said, and Caserio recognized it.

“Lem lent that confidence to all us doctors — complete and ultimate trust,” Caserio said.

“To do what they did,” Dermid said. “To keep me alive, again, is something they need to be given credit for.”

Moving forward and giving thanks

With 30 years elapsed between now and then, Dermid wants to thank those involved in his care.

Harrison Metzger, a Times-News rookie police reporter with less than a year on the job when the shooting occurred, covered the incident and Dermid’s recovery.

“I remember the police scanner going off with the call that an officer was down, and that it occurred just as school was letting out near a school crosswalk,” Metzger said. "It seemed unbelievable that such violence could occur in a small town seemingly out of the blue on a beautiful spring day, but such are the dangers all law officers face on a daily basis.”

He remembers the community praying for Dermid while awaiting word of his condition, and being greatly relieved when the word came that he would live.

“I remember going to interview him in the hospital and getting to know him a bit as he was recovering, and later when he rejoined the police force,” Metzger said. “He often had a smile on his face and had an extremely positive and generous outlook, even forgiving the man who had shot him and saying he wished the man had gotten help. I believe Lem Dermid’s kind and caring spirit, which led him to become a law officer, made a big difference in his being able to recover from such terrible wounds.”

Dermid has struggled over the years to find the right way to reach out to the people who helped him get through it. They didn’t get the credit they deserved at the time, he says.

May 19 is a day Wells will always remember, he said, like his wife’s birthday or wedding anniversary. "It’s burned into my mind.”

Each year on the anniversary they’ll get in touch, Dermid said. This year, for the 30th, they’re doing a little more, getting together at the old guard in Hendersonville.

He went back to work that September, shown then in a Times-News photo smiling and waving from behind the steering wheel of his patrol car.

Dermid has had health problems since, but Caserio says only one is related to the shooting — his pulmonary hypertension, from blood clots in his lungs. Today, he carries oxygen tanks with him.

He met his future wife, Beth, a couple of months after he got out of the hospital and they were married in 1989.

“You can’t really forget about it, because you live with it every day,” she said. “And the complications of it; even though he lived, you still live with the emotional part of it and the physical part of it.”

He’s thought about it so many times, he said. “How do you properly thank someone for saving your life?”

“Even though it’s their job, it’s still hard,” Beth Dermid said.

With the bad rap that police officers have been getting lately, she said, “you don’t really hear about the other side of the coin, the officer wounded or killed in the line of duty — nobody really talks about it to the extent that they really should.”

Dermid said he’s not complaining about any of the health problems or discomfort, about having to carry oxygen with him wherever he goes.

“Every day since has been a gift.”

Copyright 2017 Times-News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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