On May 30, 2020, Thalia Brown and her husband were enjoying a date night when she got a phone call: Her son, Johnathan Tate Jr., 22, had taken three bullets to the head during a violent shooting at a Gastonia, NC, block party.
“I dropped to my knees,” Brown says.
She rushed to CaroMont Regional Medical Center, where Tate had been taken, but the facility was in lockdown because of the multiple shootings. She had to wait outside for more than an hour before a police officer let her enter the hospital to face a parent’s worst nightmare.
“The doctor told me they’d done all they could do,” she recalls. “They said they’d keep him comfortable for a few days and then take him off the machine.”
A certified nursing assistant, Brown has been around patients who were near death. But she refused to accept that was her son’s condition.
“When I walked into his hospital room, I touched Johnathan’s feet and went all the way up to his chest. I showed the nurse that when I rubbed his face on one side, he moved his hand. She told me it was just a reflex, but I said, ‘No, it is not. My son is not gone.’ I prayed the whole time. In my heart, I never felt my son had left me,” she says.
Tate was moved to the intensive care unit, where he came under the care of surgeon Kris Harley, D.O.’04, M.B.A., FACOS. Brown beseeched him to do all he could for her son. Later, when she was at a funeral home planning Tate’s funeral, she got a phone call from Harley: Things had changed with Johnathan; how soon could she get to the hospital?
“He told me to have him paged when I got there so he could talk to me,” she says. “He said Johnathan needed surgery and that he couldn’t do it, but he could get Johnathan to a place that could. Dr. Harley saved my son’s life.”
Harley doesn’t want credit for doing so – “the Lord gets that,” he says – but he did perform a procedure designed to trigger a gag reflex in his patient. In response, Johnathan raised his hand, indicating he may not be brain-dead.
“So then it was full-court press to save him,” Harley says.
Before Tate was flown to Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, where he underwent multiple brain surgeries, Harley explained to Brown the possible outcomes her son faced. “He was the doctor who told me step by step what was happening,” she says. “I’m 40 years old, and never in my life had a doctor explained things to me in the way he did.”
Although he suffered a traumatic brain injury that resulted in a stroke, Tate is now enrolled in special classes at Central Piedmont Community College and relearning to talk, eat and walk. Brown created a GoFundMe page to raise money for a van that can be used to transport him and his two preschool children. She invited Harley to his birthday party, where Tate stood to greet him.
“What doctor do you know who, after doing surgery, comes to a patient’s birthday party?” she says. “Seeing Dr. Harley and Johnathan together – that was a special moment.” Brown says she would encourage other doctors to emulate Harley: “It’s amazing what you can do to change someone’s life. If you are able to go to school to become a doctor, be that good doctor. Be that doctor like Dr. Harley who sits down and tells you what’s happening.”