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This story was awarded first place for feature writing by the Kansas City Press Association for 2017.

May 28, 2016: From the edge of death to the tips of her new fingers, Julie Dombo won’t give up

BY OLIVER MORRISON
[email protected]

It was a typical Wednesday morning for John and Julie Dombo.

John woke up early, made himself breakfast, watched the news, picked up the paper and fiddled around a bit before waking Julie and making her breakfast.

Julie settled onto the couch with the paper, flipping the pages, and texting her daughter, Aimee, who lives in New York, about her plans that day.

They had a full day ahead. A couple of meetings and appointments, a leisurely lunch. Then in the evening they would eat dinner with friends they hadn’t seen in more than nine years.

It was just the sort of day that John and Julie, both 61, had imagined when they retired.

In other ways, it was nothing like what they had imagined.

For the last nine months, Julie has had no hands or feet.

After she was shot twice, there were many times when it was unsure whether she would live, let alone be able to dig a fork into her eggs.

By all accounts, every little joy that Julie had Wednesday morning was a miracle, from the moment she rolled out of her waterbed, got into her wheelchair and navigated her way to the couch. John had dressed her, attached an armband with a fork to the stub of her arm, and cut up her food into bits. She used a special stylus to operate her iPhone and voiced her texts.

She is the only quadruple amputee in Kansas that she knows of, one of only 48 in a world Facebook group for quadruple amputees.

Every moment Wednesday morning was made possible by the diligent work of medical experts who pushed her forward every step of her recovery. Each moment she sipped her coffee through a straw was in part due to the endless hours of support from friends and family, who stayed by her side every day and slept next to her hospital bed every night.

But mostly, it was something at the core of Julie’s being, which despite having died twice on the operating table, has kept pushing her forward, which John saw firsthand as she was whisked into surgery, ripping off her oxygen mask. “I don’t want to die,” she told him.

Aug. 11: Morning routine

Aug. 11, 2015, was the last day of summer for Julie. She had decided to start working again, part time as a truancy counselor. John had taken part-time work in retirement as a truck driver in the mornings, so he was already out of the house making deliveries when Julie changed into her workout clothes that morning.

She took a four-mile walk at a brisk pace. She was, at 122 pounds, in the best shape of her life, a four-pack on her abs.

As Julie passed the AT&T store, she made a mental note to stop in on her way home. She’s not really a tech person, she said, so she goes to the store when she has a problem with her phone.

As Julie entered the store, a man followed behind her a minute later and pulled out a gun.

Growing up in Illinois

Julie’s father, John Brooks, always bragged about being born in October of 1929, at the start of the Depression. His seven children were poor farm kids near a small town in Illinois, but they didn’t know it.

Julie and her older sister, Linda Housewright, milked cows and used to joke that they didn’t know how they would get any dates because they smelled like the cheese they were constantly making.

The family filled two pews at the Catholic church, and their dad took the church’s message to help the poor seriously.

“What are you doing? How are you making a difference?” Linda said. “Those are the kinds of things our father wanted from us.” The Brooks girls became known not only for their blond hair and blue eyes, they said, but for their desire to help those in need. Both eventually became educators.

After long days of farming, their father spent evenings for two years clearing out trees and brush, and damming a small creek.

They never had much money, so her father had to be resourceful. He filled the lake he had made with catfish and charged fishermen 50 cents a pound for what they caught. Julie and Linda started a side business cleaning the fish at 10 cents apiece, money they used to attend college.

It was at Western Illinois University that Julie met John Dombo. She felt sorry for the girl who had to marry into that last name. He worked as a dishwasher and she worked as a server in the cafeteria. They ran in the same circle of friends.

His senior year, John finally asked her out, and a month later, he proposed.

She said no. She still had to finish her degree, so she told him to wait until she graduated and ask again. On Aug. 14, 1976, they were married.

Aug. 11, a little after 9 a.m.

James Phillips ordered the employees at the AT&T store to take him to the safe, according to court documents.

Julie didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem like there would be much money in a phone store, so she thought he was there for something else. Thoughts raced through her head. One of them was the Carr brothers and the graphic torture they put their victims through.

“There are three women in this store, and we’re all going to be raped and killed,” she thought.

She was near the exit when Phillips shot her twice. She thinks she may have turned to protect herself, so that one bullet went through her arm and into the wall and the other went through her shoulder and into her right lung, stopping just short of her spine.

“You shot me,” she said, staring into his face, only a couple feet away. “You killed me.”

The two employees fled out the back, while Julie fell to the floor and the blood flowed out.

Wednesday, mid-morning

Julie and John’s first appointment on Wednesday, May 18, was at the Derby police station.

“Hi, how are you?” asked Robert Lee, the Derby police chief.

“Getting stronger,” she said, as they hugged.

Julie is planning on participating in her 26th straight River Run in June, and she was there to deliver shirts to Lee and to Larry Hampton, the officer who had received a medal of valor for chasing Phillips, even after being shot at through the back window of Phillips’ car.

They will be among the 85 people with black shirts who will walk at the back of the race, supporting her. Julie has walked two miles a dozen times now but she said she’s still nervous.

Lee told her she’s going to be an inspiration for a long time. He’s been to a lot of violent crime scenes, he said, and when he arrived at the AT&T store, it looked grim.

Aug. 11: From the floor to the hospital

Sherri Randall, a worker in the UPS office next door, came over to be with Julie. Randall took Dombo’s hand and rubbed her forehead, which was cold and clammy, and told her that everything would be all right.

Julie was lying a few feet from the door, still in her blue runner’s jacket, with her knees up and her hands on her stomach, saying, “I don’t want to die” and repeating her husband’s phone number.

John was about to start unloading his truck at a store when he received the call. “Your wife has been shot,” he was told.

“What?” he said. It didn’t make sense. She’s never in a position where she could be shot, he thought. He made the person repeat themselves several times before heading for the hospital.

Dombo’s paramedics were later honored for their speedy service that day, but the trip felt like forever to Dombo.

“Every bump, every railroad crossing, every stoplight,” Dombo said she remembered thinking. “I was just, hurry, hurry.”

A hospital worker later told Dombo that she was the calmest patient they’d ever seen with injuries as serious as she had, so much so that at first the worker didn’t realize how precarious her situation was.

“Call me 911,” John texted Aimee, their daughter, who was working on the show “Madame Secretary” in New York. Aimee thought her dad had forgotten his new internet passwords.

“Aimee, your mom has been shot,” John told her. She thought he was joking and had him repeat himself several times.

“I kind of just stood there for a second and fell to the ground and laid there in my office,” Aimee said. She booked a flight home.

When John made it to the emergency room, Julie ripped off her oxygen mask and told him, “I don’t want to die.”

A nurse handed him Julie’s wedding ring.

Wednesday: Getting ready

John stood next to Julie in the bathroom, handing her makeup, as she applied powder, blush and then eye shadow.

Julie still has two-thirds of her arms, and a friend has created little cups for her to squeeze the ends into, each with a different tip: one for lipstick, one for turning on her bidet and so on. She wears prosthetic legs, which John still sometimes struggles to snap on. John had already changed her into a formal shirt.

In just the past week she had started applying her own mascara, delicately, to the end of her lashes.

The last piece was her necklace, which John struggled to clasp. “This clasp is terrible,” he said. “Whoever invented this ought to be shot. He never put one of these on.”

“They are hard to do when you have man fingers,” Julie said. “He gave up on my earrings.”

“Dang it,” he said. “Quit moving.”

In addition to applying makeup and jewelry, John has had to learn to make coffee and has started doing laundry and cooking the meals.

John finally snapped the clasp. “There,” he said, looking proudly at the diamond on the end of her necklace that once sat on the tip of her wedding ring….Continue reading

December 20, 2016Derby woman gets unexpected Christmas gift: new electronic hands
This story was picked up across the country and world, including followups in the Washington Post.

Julie Dombo was nervous about lunch.

She had plans to meet with Mark Holden, the general counsel at Koch Industries, and Holden’s wife, Louise. They were coming to her house on Monday, and all she and her husband had prepared were chicken salad and chips.

Dombo, who lost both her hands and feet after being shot during a robbery last year, had met Mark Holden in October at an awards banquet for the Wichita Crime Commission.

Holden had to speak after Dombo spoke, “a tough act to follow,” he said. “She was inspiring, funny, lighthearted, no signs of resentment or bitterness.”

After that awards dinner, Dombo told Holden about how Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas would not pay for the electronic hands that she said would give her a chance at a relatively ordinary life. The hands allow her to grip objects, to work an iPhone and to put on her prosthetic legs.

With practice, she’d be able to go to the bathroom on her own, walk up a flight of stairs and, she hoped, drive a car.

“I just want to be able to be alone,” Dombo told The Eagle in May, when she still hoped the insurance money might come through.

“I’ll do what I can,” Holden told her that night at the banquet.

When Holden traveled back to Washington, D.C., afterward, he couldn’t get Dombo’s story out of his head. He told his wife and son.

He contacted someone who knew U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita to see whether Pompeo could talk with the company. But a pair of the hands retail for about $260,000.

Without the hands, Dombo’s husband, John, has to be with Dombo nearly all the time, to change her prosthetic legs and to help her transition from one activity to the next.

Dombo has been working out with the hands once a week since May at Peeple’s Prosthetics so that if the money ever came through, she would know how to use them.

Holden attended the sentencing hearing for the man who shot Dombo and learned there that Blue Cross still hadn’t budged.

“I promise you I will get your sister the arms,” Holden told Dombo’s sister Linda, and gave her a hug. “We’re going to get them.”

But Dombo didn’t know what that meant.

Holden told Dombo that his wife wanted to meet her. So the Dombos invited the Holdens over for lunch.

When the Holdens arrived, Dombo saw that he was holding two big boxes with the label of the company that made the hands.

“Why do you have those Touch Bionics boxes?” she asked.

“They are your hands,” Holden said as Dombo started to cry.

Holden and his wife had written a personal check to purchase the hands.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

This first article, reported and written the same day while working on other projects, was first published in the Wichita Eagle, and then was picked up across the country, including by papers such as the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, The Daily Mail and many more.

November 18, 2015: “Robbery victim who lost hands and feet ready to return home”
BY OLIVER MORRISON
omor[email protected]

101 days ago, Julie Dombo, 61, took her daughter, Aimee, 31, to the airport.

100 days ago, Julie was shot multiple times in the arm and right lung during a robbery in Derby, and nobody knew whether she would survive.

99 days after the robbery, Julie sat in front of reporters and said she is on the verge of heading home to a new life without the hands and feet that had to be amputated.

“When I go home, it’s going to be a whole new world,” she said Wednesday.

But when Julie took her daughter to the airport on Aug. 10, neither knew what lay ahead.

“She didn’t just let me out of the car,” Aimee Dombo said. “She walked me up to security; we looked at each other and hugged each other. And I remember getting through security and I turned around and we waved to each other about five times. It felt really special. That’s the last time I saw her with her hands and feet healthy.”

The next day, Aimee left her job in New York as an Emmy-nominated artist on the CBS show “Madame Secretary” and returned home. John, Julie’s husband, had just begun to enjoy retirement after leaving as vice president at Wichita Canteen Co. with 40 years in food service.

Both husband and daughter have taken on full-time jobs of helping to care for Julie as she works with physical therapists from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week to build the strength and skills needed to navigate the world.

But there is a lot of uncertainty ahead, they said, about what will happen when Julie comes home…Read more

JUNE 4, 2016

Quadruple amputee finishes River Run for 26th time

BY OLIVER MORRISON
[email protected]

A crowd of around 100 supporters walked and cheered alongside Julie Dombo as she finished her 26th straight River Run.

Dombo, who was shot and had both hands and feet amputated nine months ago, had been training for the race for months, and she hugged and kissed the 2-mile marker when she made it.

The crowd included Derby police officers, school colleagues, her husband, daughter, sisters, friends and friends of friends, each of whom was wearing a shirt that said “Walk, Run, Live” with a silhouette image of Dombo.

Hundreds more racers cheered and clapped as they passed by, and some stayed long after the race to cheer her on when she finished. Dombo waved and tipped her floppy hat with the prosthetic hands that she is still hoping insurance will pay for. Right now, her insurance company said its policy does not cover the hands that Dombo said she needs to live independently.

Steve Peeples of Peeples Prosthetics was there along with Matt Amos, who walked on prosthetic legs himself, which he received after he stepped on an explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011.

Dombo’s husband, John, and their daughter, Aimee, walked with her for much of the race, but Dombo walked alongside Amos as she turned for the second mile. She also walked holding hands with Lucie Glover, daughter of Samantha Glover, one of Dombo’s former colleagues at Haysville Middle School.

One of the paramedics who raced Dombo to the hospital nine months ago rode along the race route keeping an eye on Dombo and other racers. At one point, one of the walkers fell. But it turned out to be one of Dombo’s supporters who had tripped on an orange cone, not Dombo, who only stopped briefly for a sip of water that her husband poured into her mouth, as one of her sisters behind chanted, “Chug it, chug it!”

The crowd clapped and chanted, “Julie, Julie,” as she crossed the finish line and a medal was put around her neck.

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article81802317.html#storylink=cpy

MAY 18, 2016: “Two EMS workers honored for saving the life of Julie Dombo

BY OLIVER MORRISON
[email protected]

There’s a long list of people whom Julie Dombo has wanted to thank after she was shot during a robbery last August and had her arms and legs amputated.

But two of the most important were Amber Estrada and Sharde Hornberger, the two EMS workers who picked her up and rushed her to the hospital.

“I thought I was going to bleed out and die right there,” Dombo told Hornberger just before the ceremony Wednesday that honored Estrada and Hornberger with the first EMS award at Wesley Medical Center.

Instead Dombo was able to flex her newly bulging biceps in front of the crowd and hug two of the many heroes in her long journey to recovery.

But it felt like forever to Dombo. “Please just get me there, get me there,” Dombo said she remembered thinking. “Every bump, every railroad crossing, every stoplight, I was just hurry, hurry.”

Hornberger said she told Estrada, who was driving, to push it and she did.

“Where are you hurting the most?” Hornberger said she asked Dombo in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

“My head is hurting,” Dombo said.

“What else?”

“I can’t breathe,” said Dombo, who had been shot in the lung. Dombo was losing blood and if her lung burst, she would die, Dombo said she was told later. But Hornberger knew that she had already been hooked up to oxygen and just told her to take deep breaths and stay calm.

Which she did. A hospital worker later told Dombo that she was the calmest patient they’d ever seen with injuries as serious as she had, so much so that at first the worker didn’t realize how precarious her situation was.

But they arrived.

“When these guys loaded me up and got me into ER, I thought I was safe,” Dombo said. “At that point there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that I was going to live.”

The two EMS workers hugged Dombo and said they were happy to finally meet one of the many people they drop off and usually never hear from again.

Before the ceremony, Poindexter asked Dombo whether she would like to present the awards herself.

“I’d love it,” said Dombo, who stood up on her two prosthetic legs during the ceremony and handed each woman a plaque with the nubs of her arms. “I might start crying, but that’s OK.”

October 24, 2016 Man found guilty of attempted murder in AT&T store shooting

After 440 days, Julie Dombo finally could rest Monday, knowing that the man who shot and nearly killed her had received justice.

James Michael Phillips was found guilty of all nine counts against him on Monday, including attempted first-degree murder for shooting Dombo. She was shot while Phillips was trying to rob an AT&T store in Derby in August 2015.

Phillips also was found guilty of attempted second-degree murder instead of attempted capital murder for shooting at Derby police officer Larry Hampton.

John and Julie Dombo said they were disappointed by the lesser charge for shooting at Hampton but happy that Phillips received guilty verdicts on the other charges.

“That man altered my life forever,” Julie Dombo said. “He put me in prison for life.” Dombo’s hands and feet had to be amputated after the shooting…..Continue reading

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