Since Baton Rouge shooting, comatose officer’s family waits, hopes

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) — Nick Tullier’s mother leans over her son lying in a hospital bed and whispers, “I know you can hear me.” Her finger caresses his forearm and she whispers again, “I know you can hear me.”

Since July 17, the family of East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Tullier has stood vigil by their son, waiting for him to emerge from a coma. It’s been more than 90 days since Tullier answered the call to take down an active shooter targeting officers.

“We feel he is listening to us,” James Tullier, Nick Tullier’s father, told CNN. “He’ll open his right eye at times,” Tullier says. “Sometimes it looks like he is looking at you, sometimes it looks like he is looking into space.”

The family allowed CNN to visit them in the hospital room where Nick Tullier, 41, has undergone intense treatment to save his life. The room is sparsely decorated except for a statue of St. Michael, a gift from a Louisiana nun. St. Michael is the patron saint of law enforcement officers.

This is the Tullier family’s daily struggle. Tending to the bedsores, riding the emotional highs and lows that come with every update from a doctor. But always looking for a slight movement, anything that might suggest Tullier will soon wake from this coma.

In the midst of caring for their son, James and Mary Tullier recently lost their home in the Louisiana floods. They do not flinch at this news. They do not care about the house. Instead the couple got permission to park their recreational vehicle on the hospital grounds so they can sleep and stay close to their son every second of the day.

The first breakthrough happened in August, when Tullier’s family realized he was wiggling his toes. And for a brief time, they say Tullier slowly and deliberately moved his toes and gently squeezed their hand. It was one of the most emotional moments of this long ordeal.

The shooting and race to the hospital

On a quiet Sunday morning in July, a lone gunman ambushed officers on the streets of Baton Rouge.

Nick Tullier and two other East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s deputies were sipping coffee at Frank’s Restaurant, their regular Sunday morning haunt beloved by locals for down-home Cajun cooking.

Then the call came over the radio from just down the road on Airline Highway, and they instantly recognized the voice. It was Deputy Brad Garafola, one of the three law enforcement officers killed by Gavin Long that morning.

The officers raced to the shooting scene down the road. Nick Tullier was the first to arrive. James Tullier says his son never saw the gunman who emerged from the woods just off the road and never had a chance to defend himself.

The gunman fired one round into Nick Tullier’s head. The bullet lodged in the back of his head and, according to his family, has caused severe brain stem damage.

Tullier was then shot twice in the abdomen and has undergone more than 12 surgeries to repair the internal damage to his organs.

“That guy that did the shooting was pure evil,” Tullier says. “Came here on a vengeance with a mission in mind. It was just to kill police officers.”

Van Foster, an investigator with the Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, has been close friends with Nick Tullier since their high school football days in Denham Springs. He isn’t surprised Tullier raced into the active shooting scene.

“His moral compass is always pointing due north,” Foster says. “I guarantee you the thought in his mind is there were officers down and there were potential people in danger.”

First responders raced Tullier to the hospital and his family was told to arrive at the hospital quickly because his chances of surviving were quickly slipping away.

Tullier’s heart stopped four times in the first 24 hours he was in the emergency room. James Tullier says doctors told the family that his son would not live another day. Then it was two days, then five days. Doctors pushed the time line back so often that no one talks about how much longer Tullier will live. He’s defied the odds and expectations at every turn.

“Nick’s a fighter. We believe in him. He believes in himself,” Tullier says. “He’s fighting, we know it.”

Since the first week, he’s been able to breathe on his own, without help from a machine.

Fears and hopes for the future

Nick Tullier is the father of two sons. Trent Tullier, 18, has tried to resume a normal routine as his father remains in the hospital. As he goes back to school and work, he often thinks about his father’s voice and if he’ll ever hear it again.

“What’s going to happen in the future? Like am I still going to have a father that is going to be able to have conversations with me? Will we still be able to hang out together and just chat? I have no clue,” Trent Tullier says, holding back tears.

Danielle McNicoll, Nick Tullier’s fiancĂ©, has been living at the hospital by Tullier’s side since the shooting. The two were planning to get married next summer, but now she lives her life “day by day,” and she says “every hour is different.”

Just last week, McNicoll asked Tullier to stick his tongue out at her, and she says each time he was able to do it.

“You can definitely tell that he can hear when we are talking to him. A lot of times he’ll open his right eye, he moved his head, he moved his toes. He’s there. It takes a lot out of him,” McNicoll says. “Medically he should not be here, and he is.”

Barring any medical setbacks, Tullier could soon be moved to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston — the same facility where former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords received extensive physical therapy after a gunman shot her in the head in 2011 during a meeting with a group of constituents.

Even though he is still in a coma, family and friends are optimistic Tullier will continue to beat the odds and recover whenever they are able to move him to Houston.

“They have really high hopes for Nick,” McNicoll says. “They see in his charts and his progress that God willing he can make a hundred-percent recovery.”

James Tullier says the outpouring of support from law enforcement officers and people around the world help keep the family’s spirits high.

Tullier routinely updates his son’s progress on a Facebook page that’s followed by nearly 5,000 people. Tullier often writes the Facebook posts in the middle of the night when he’s alone in the hospital room caring for his son.

But what Tullier often thinks about and hopes for is that his son’s struggle and fight to survive will help bring an end to anti-police violence across the country.

“We hope that this straightens some attitudes out, but why did it have to get to this?” Tullier asks.

McNicoll says in the weeks before the Baton Rouge ambush her fiancé worried about anti-police sentiment on the streets. He was more tense and worried that wearing a uniform could make him a target after the Dallas police shootings this summer.

“Even the morning of the shooting,” McNicoll recalls. “He said he didn’t feel like going to work that day.”

But then she reminded herself of a recent text message that Tullier sent her saying if something every happened to him, “know that I will not die easy.”