Student who lost his leg in hunting accident has some doors close, others open

Jessica Hallman
January 27, 2020

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of iConnect, the magazine of the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State.

A suicide vest and a shotgun. A young man bleeding out with a critical bullet wound. A team of first responders dragging victims through the snow.

It may sound like a scene from a movie, but it’s a scenario that Penn State student RJ Shirey has seen many times in real life.

“But that dream motivated me. I was lying in bed on life support, thinking ‘why am I alive?’ But I realized that I needed to live to see my future kids run. The will to live saved me.”

— RJ Shirey, sophomore in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State

A sophomore in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Shirey serves as an adjunct instructor for Techline Technologies, Inc. — a Pennsylvania-based mannequin manufacturer — where he acts in advanced trauma simulations aimed at training emergency responders.

Shirey was drawn to the role, in part, because he knows first-hand what it’s like to be in an emergency situation. In 2016, he suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound that would lead to the amputation of his right leg.

‘A new me’

It was early in the morning on the first day of spring gobbler season in central Pennsylvania. Shirey and his father woke up early to get to the woods. With the night sky still above them, Shirey lifted his shotgun from his shoulder. The trigger caught on his jacket, sending a slug point-blank into his right leg just below the knee, and exiting through his calf.

“I looked down and didn’t see much blood and didn’t think it was that bad,” he said. “My dad called 911 and planned to meet the EMTs at the nearest gas station. He loaded me in the truck, and that’s when I could see my bone, the severed artery, and through (a hole in) my leg to the floor of the truck.”

He added, “That’s when the pain kicked in. It was immense.”

Badly wounded and in a remote area, Shirey got to the gas station to meet the paramedics. Once they arrived — 45 minutes later — he was fitted with a tourniquet, loaded onto a stretcher and transported to a nearby hospital where he underwent bypass surgery. He was then airlifted to Pittsburgh and woke up in the intensive care unit.

Citing great medical care, a strong will to live and a little luck, Shirey soon took a turn for the better. He was eventually moved out of the ICU but required near-daily surgeries to clear out dead tissue.

Finally, after two weeks in the hospital, doctors told him the news: they wouldn’t be able to save his leg. It was amputated on May 13, 2016.

“When you lose a limb, it’s as if you died but you’re still here,” he said. “You lost a part of you. It was a new me; I had to get used to it.”

Living his best life

RJ Shirey and Techline trainers

RJ Shirey (left) with fellow Techline Technologies, Inc. combat medicine trainers.

IMAGE: Provided

Though Shirey felt like a different person, he didn’t expect others to treat him like one. However, when he arrived for his junior year of high school with a prosthetic leg and a crutch, many of his friends didn’t approach him. Other students stared or turned away.

“The first student in the school to walk up to me and say ‘welcome back’ was a student with Down syndrome,” said Shirey. “A kid who also knows the struggle of having physical challenges. That interaction meant so much to me.”

While Shirey knows that many people stare at him because they’re uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, he encourages them to be more open minded.

“I might be 80% human and 20% robot, but I’m still a person,” he said. “Because it’s something physical that happened to me, people treat me differently.”

“Everybody has struggles, whether visible or invisible,” he added. “For people like me who suffer major injuries or are born with disabilities, it’s not our fault. That’s how it is. We’re just trying to live the best life we can.”

He continued, “Instead of staring, ask ‘how did it happen?’ When people ask me about my leg, I am so happy.

Shirey often tries to break the ice with humor. He’ll offer to charge fellow students’ phones using a USB port in his prosthetic leg, and once went to school with the artificial limb wrapped in flashing Christmas lights.

“I make jokes because you have to find the good in it,” he said.

He shares the same advice for anyone facing a similar physical or mental handicap.

“Don’t let it define you, but don’t be afraid to let it dictate something you might do,” he said. “Be positive, embrace it, accept it. Find passion in your life and find a way to use your disability in whatever possible way to benefit your life and those of others around you.”

Turning tragedy into triumph

RJ Shirey set national records

RJ Shirey set national records in both the javelin and shot put in the Tri-State Wheelchair and Ambulatory Athletics regional competition last summer.

IMAGE: Provided

When Shirey lost his leg, he said that many doors and possibilities closed for him. But through his determination, other surprising opportunities arose.

In addition to his job as a combat medicine trainer for Techline, Shirey participates in competitive sports. He is a member of the Penn State Ability Athletics team and has qualified for nationals in javelin and shot put in the Paralympics. He won first place in javelin and shot put in the Adaptive Sports Junior Nationals in Minnesota last summer — on which also happened to be his 19th birthday.

And, in the recent TSWAA Tri-State regional competition, Shirey set national records in both the javelin and shot put competitions.

Shirey’s claim to fame doesn’t stop with being a star Paralympic athlete. He also plays a role in an upcoming Netflix film, serving as a body double in “Nice Girl” for a character with an amputated leg.

“I taught the actor how to walk as though he’d have a wobble a year after an injury,” Shirey said. “We also practiced hopping. It was such a cool experience.”

He says the biggest impact he’s making, however, is through his work with Techline. While one might think that re-enacting his injury repeatedly would have an emotional effect on him, he says that it makes him happy to help people learn how to respond in an emergency situation.

“It’s how you perceive it,” said Shirey, reflecting on how he’s able to use his life-changing injury to benefit society. “I’m helping to train people. We have had numerous reports where [Techline’s] students have gone on to respond to shooting situations. And the knowledge that we taught them helped save lives.”

Opening the door to IST

RJ Shirey climbs a rock wall

Showing his physical and mental strength and determination, RJ is now successfully (and quickly!) able to climb a rock wall.

IMAGE: Provided

Shirey, a State College native, first came to Penn State with the intent of becoming an astrophysicist. But during an IST summer session class, he met assistant teaching professor Nick Giacobe, who has a background in emergency response as a volunteer with the Pleasant Gap (Pennsylvania) Fire Co.

“He opened the door for me to IST,” said Shirey. “I got to bond with him and talked with him at the end of the summer session.”

The exposure that Shirey got to the curriculum, along with his interactions with Giacobe, led him to change his major to security and risk analysis in the fall of his freshman year. Giacobe guided Shirey in what courses he should take to maximize his education.

“We discussed what routes I could follow to go into industries like government or health care,” said Shirey. “He really made it clear and literally showed me the path necessary in order to graduate with a degree.”

Through his classes in the College of IST, Shirey has been introduced to the importance of teamwork. His freshman year was filled with group projects and papers.

“It was an adjustment to work with people,” he said. “You get a mixture of people in every group, and it’s difficult when some don’t speak effectively or communicate well. But if someone can take the skills they learn in these projects and apply them to their future career, it will definitely help them out.

Shirey hopes to work in counterterrorism after he graduates, which, he describes is quite an accomplishment for someone who was close to death less than four years ago.

“The fact that I survived was not supposed to happen,” he said. “Somehow I didn’t bleed out entirely.”

But, he said, perhaps his survival can be credited to a dream he had while still in the hospital — the single happy dream he recalls among a string of nightmares he experienced while taking heavy pain medication.

“In the dream, there was a light blue filter on everything,” he said. “I was looking out the kitchen window, and my two sons were running around the front yard. I wanted to run with them, but I couldn’t because I had one leg.”

“But that dream motivated me,” he continued. “I was lying in bed on life support, thinking ‘why am I alive?’ But I realized that I needed to live to see my future kids run. The will to live saved me.”

Last Updated April 15, 2021