'I'm a new person': Year after shooting, Nick Carnevale, family find their footing
CHESHIRE — A nurse squeezed Cara Carnevale's hand and told her "to say what I needed to say" to her teenage son while there were still signs of life.
She told him to fight.
Her husband, Marc Carnevale, told him he loved him and watched a single tear slide down his son's cheek. Up until that point, Nick Carnevale had been unresponsive since being shot twice in the head.
"That was the first response I remember seeing from him," he said, tears in his eyes at the recollection. "To me, that was a sign that Nick was still in there."
A year later, Nick is walking, talking and deploying a whip-smart sense of humor.
Nick, now 20, was shot during a party Aug. 21, 2018, at October Mountain State Forest; one bullet pierced his left eye socket and another struck his lower right jaw.
Since then, Nick has had four major surgeries and two procedures treating aneurysms — ballooning blood vessels in the brain.
Prosecutors have called his recovery "miraculous," but his lifelong physician doesn't like to use that term.
"A miracle is something you can't explain," said Dr. John Dallenbach. But the reasons for Nick's survival are evident — each bullet took a lucky trajectory, he had healthy blood reserves and "he's a tough kid."
Now, a full year after the shooting, life for the Carnevale family is just beginning to settle. Nick is two months clear of his last major surgery, and the Carnevale homestead in Cheshire finally is functional after months of post-flooding renovations.
Four men face charges in the shooting; prosecutors allege that the assault was a joint venture between them. Kevin Nieves, Luis Delvalle-Rodriguez, Daquan Douglas and Christopher Frazier all face charges of armed assault with intent to murder, and aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
According to court records, Nieves, 20, previously dated the woman whom Nick took to the party that night and had posted on Facebook that anyone hanging out with his ex would need to "keep up with that beef."
After being shot, Nick lay in the woods near the Ashley Reservoir for an hour before first responders were able to retrieve him, his father said.
Now, Nick is working on muscle control in his right arm and right leg. He can clutch and make a fist with his right hand — it's his dominant hand — but he struggles to extend his fingers. His dad calls it "the claw."
He can't see or hear out of his left side. Doctors had hoped to put in a prosthetic eye, but now it appears that Nick won't be able to open his left eye again.
Dallenbach said Nick faces it all with poise.
"He's shown an amazing calm and resilience," he said, marveling that Nick has "worked hard and at the same time gone with the flow."
"I've not seen him frustrated," he said. "He's just basically doing it all and laughing about it."
Dallenbach said it has been challenging, too, as a physician and as a father to watch Nick go through it.
"The [alleged] shooter also happens to be my patient, and as you can imagine, that really messes with your head," he said. "That's not what my pediatric residency prepared me for."
`A reset button'
The shooting was "a reset button" for the Carnevale family, who say the ordeal has taught them all how to roll with life's punches.
Nick's parents say he went to the party that night an angsty, depressed teen who they wouldn't have expected could endure the struggles the past year posed. Since he came out of his coma, they say, his life outlook is much more laid-back and upbeat.
"Why do you think that is?" his mother asked him.
"I'm a new person," he said.
His father said it feels to him that, after the shooting, he got back his son, who, before then, had grown distant.
"This was like a reset button," he said. "He's smiled more in the past year than he probably had in the five years prior to this."
And the reset affected the whole family.
"We just do not sweat the small stuff anymore," his mother said.
The parents often refer back to those uncertain moments of waiting in the hospital, unsure of whether their son would live and, later, whether he would live a full life.
"The first day that he opened his eyes, it was sort of like giving birth all over again," Cara recalled. That was Aug. 30.
Nick gave her a hairy eyeball, and she told him he was very manly and not babylike at all.
She showed a video of his brother, Tyler, who was emotional after finding Nick awake. He started to cry at the kitchen table and Cara joined in, giving him a hug.
The parents had a strict bedside rule: keep the conversation positive. Even as Nick was in a coma, Cara said, she wouldn't allow doctors to speak negatively about his recovery in his presence.
Upholding that pledge also meant that the parents set aside the shooting itself — and the alleged perpetrators along with it.
"It took a lot of love on our part to not get preoccupied with what was done to him, and focus on Nick," Cara said.
They said they protect themselves by not seeking out information about the court proceedings. Instead, they take it as it comes.
"I can't have that information bouncing around in my head," Marc said.
He said the strategy "made it a lot easier for me to stay positive."
But now that there have been more court hearings, Cara said Facebook posts about them have been unsettling. That's why Nick hasn't returned to Facebook.
"Do I want to open him up to that?" she asked, drawing mild scorn from her son.
"I'm 20," he told her.
Cara said she took down his page while he was in a coma. Those close to the accused were saying things about him that she didn't want him to wake up and have to read, she said.
Asked if he thinks much about the men alleged to have shot him, Nick said "nope."
"Not even a little bit," he said.
Nick's last surgery was in June. Doctors harvested nerves from his right calf and implanted them into his face to help animate muscles that help him show emotion. The effects are revealing themselves a millimeter at a time, Marc said.
The parents recalled a scary moment when Nick, who they call "Pyro," started a small fire in their home. Even though quite young, Nick saw the danger in it and rushed into action, his mother recalled.
"I got this," she remembered him saying. And since then, it has been a common refrain.
"That's Nick's response to every emergency," she said.
This time, she said to Nick as she grabbed his hand from across the table, "you do got this."
Nick gets recognized when they are out and about, and sometimes complete strangers will introduce themselves.
"And it literally brings them to tears," Marc said.
Cara said her son used to be shy. But the community support has brought him out of that, she said.
"It kept him going," she said. "It kept all of us going."
She said "that level of love has changed our lives."
Nick said he appreciates the support but sometimes that level of attention also can be taxing.
"Sometimes I just wanna be like everybody else," he said.
This month, the extended Carnevale family gathered at their favorite vacation spot in New Hampshire to celebrate Nick's birthday. He turned 20 on Aug. 6.
Before the celebration, Nick's parents let him do some shopping, stocking him up on his Bape-brand clothing favorites. But the gifts he opened during the celebration had a more functional bent.
Family members bought Nick a Nintendo Switch controller that he can use one-handed — he still can't quite grip with his dominant hand. Nick also got an adaptive fishing device that allows him to reel in a fish with one hand.
Sun streaks lined his brown hair, caused by peroxide used to clean the scar on his head. He pulled on his mint-flavored vape, prompting a head shake from his mother.
"A 20-year-old will be a 20-year-old no matter what, I guess," Cara said.
Nick demonstrated how he ties his shoe with one hand, stepping on one lace to steady it while his finger made the loops. "Voila!" he said, smiling.
"There hasn't been much we haven't been able to figure out," Marc said.
As they readied to cross the street and watch the sun set, Marc plucked up a tan-colored bucket hat and placed it on his head. Nick didn't skip a beat.
"Dad, please take that hat away from your body," he said.
Nick thinks the hat looks goofy, Marc explained. He kept it on.
Nick's grandfather helped him tie his other shoe. "For expedience," he said.
Heading down the outside stairs from the second floor, Nick looked down as he slowly lowered one foot. And then the next.
Sitting in his wheelchair beside his parents, Nick looked out as the sun set over boats in the harbor. The family comes to the same spot every year.
"It's different this year than all the rest of them," Nick said.
Because he can't do everything he used to, he said.
"But, oh, well," he shrugged. "I still got Mario," referring to his Nintendo game's mascot.
Cara said the past year has seemed like "one obstacle after another."
The family's home flooded last fall while they stayed close to Nick's side. Cara said it took a while to discover the damage, and by the time they did, the house was covered in black mold.
A subsequent renovation has put them further in debt than even the medical bills, she said.
But her home renovation nightmares have a silver lining, she said, noting all the haphazard construction they found once the renovation was underway.
"What a blessing it is that this house flooded," she said. "Because if it hadn't, we might all be dead."
The road ahead
Nick is itching to get back behind the wheel of a car.
"It's a little boring," he said, walking around his parents' property this week. "I can't do everything that I want to do."
As his parents prepared ingredients for homemade pizza, Nick tried to open a bag of dough with one hand. He bounced it up and down repeatedly against the counter. Not seeing progress, he brought the bag to his mouth, using his teeth to make a small hole.
At that, his dad wordlessly inserted himself, taking the dough out of the bag and placing it on the counter.
The family plans to hold a party to mark the year since his shooting.
"I want it to be a celebration of the day that he lived," Cara said. "I just think we have a lot to celebrate and a lot to be thankful for."
She described gun violence in America as a national emergency, noting that she'd like to see more done to get illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of young people.
"All these kids know where you can get an illegal gun," she said. Nick affirmed her point.
Marc said that something that could help would be mandatory minimums for people caught committing crimes with illegal weapons.
All told, they said the terrifying experience taught them a lot about life and love.
"If people knew what we know now, they'd be here with their kids more," Cara said.
Nick graduated from Mount Greylock Regional High School about two months before the shooting. At the time, he was considering going to trade school to learn diesel mechanics.
That's still a possibility, his mother reminded him. She said they also had talked about culinary school.
But his right hand might need to be more functional, he said.
He perhaps most misses his previous dexterity with video games.
"That's been tough," his mom said.
In addition to building back up his mobility, Nick said he's eager to bring his speech and reading up in speed. The part of the brain that was damaged rules word recollection and processing, Cara said.
"I want to be more fluent with everything," he said, noting that sometimes "I know what the word is, but I can't speak it."
Number recollection has been faster for him, he said, citing a recent numbers test.
"This past time it was good," he said, snapping his fingers with a smile.
Nick said he's done with surgeries for a while — the only surgery doctors discussed with him lately is a cosmetic one, which would minimize the tissue bulge to the right of his cheekbone. But Nick said he has no interest in spending unnecessary time in a hospital. He's seen enough.
For now, he's more focused on successfully getting his dad into headlocks. After eating pizza this week, he threw some playful punches at Marc.
The wrestling bouts are fun, Marc said, but "he doesn't win."
To that, Nick said, "Gimme one more year."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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