Sometimes, without warning, little slivers of glass leak out of Nelia Real’s skin.
There’s also glass embedded in her eye and bullet fragments in her neck and lungs — which doctors say must remain because it’s too risky to remove them.
They got there more than six months ago, when a man waving a gun on Florida’s Turnpike fired a bullet at Key Biscayne Officer Real through the side window of her police car.
As the window shattered, so did Real’s life.
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Real, who once loved to bike, hike and camp, and planned to move to Georgia and take it easy when she retired in November 2013, now spends her days at doctors appointments and therapy sessions. Bullet fragments remained lodged in her larynx, lungs and other places in her body. She gets migraines, and has trouble swallowing and speaking. The wound has also caused some paralysis to her face, almost as if she had a stroke. The 54-year-old has also been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Distress Disorder.
The worst part may be the fear.
“Whenever I see anybody who looks like him, I get scared,” Real said.
The details of May 10 are still clear in her mind. Her shift was over at the Key Biscayne Police Department and Real was taking Florida’s Turnpike home. It was about 5 p.m.
Traffic was heavier than usual. Something unusual was happening.
She pulled over onto the emergency lane, next to the median, wanting to help. It’s what she always did when she came across an accident.
Then she saw him.
“His eyes were glassy, his hair was disheveled,” Real said. “He looked like he was possessed.”
David Edwin Bradley was nearing the end of his day-long, two-county violent crime spree, which included at least two carjackings, holding up a barbershop and engaging a man in a shootout.
When he saw Real’s police vehicle, Bradley reached for his gun.
“There was nowhere I could go,” Real recalled.
Before she knew it, Bradley shot through her side window. Glass went into her face, and bullet fragments hit her neck and face.
Real got out of the car, holding her neck.
Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Osvaldo Petitfrere happened to be driving by at the same time. After exchanging gunfire with Bradley, Petitfrere ordered Real to get into his car.
On her own strength, she climbed into his backseat, still clutching her wound.
“She was bleeding really bad,” Petitfrere recalled.
As Petitfrere rushed Real to Memorial Regional Hospital, Bradley continued brandishing his gun on the turnpike.
Also commuting home that evening: Gabriel Martinez, an assistant field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When Martinez confronted Bradley, Bradley shot him.
Then Bradley, 23, turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
Both Martinez and Real recovered.
While Martinez was able to return to work shortly after the shooting, Real hasn’t been able to.
She and her partner are fighting off foreclosure on their two-bedroom Plantation home. The bills are mounting.
She still receives her basic check, but she depended on overtime, off-duty and special task force detail to make ends meet. Real said her income is about $2,000 a month less than it was.
“I have a lot of pride and I would not ask for help for anything,” said Real.
But yet, her colleagues are helping out.
Key Biscayne is allowing its 100 village employees to donate unused sick or vacation time that Real can cash out. So far, all of Real’s fellow officers have chipped in, said Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press.
“She did not ask for help, but I recognized she needed help,” said Press. “Everyone stepped up to the plate.”
The Key Biscayne Community Foundation has also stepped up, creating an online collection drive, with a goal of raising $35,000. Melissa White, executive director of the foundation, said they plan on presenting her with the money on Thanksgiving Day. So far, donations have reached more than $5,000.
“It’s like a gift from God,” said Real, who now talks with a rasp after a bullet fragment lodged in her larynx. “It’s amazing to know that they would do this for me.”
To get through the days, Real sets goals for herself: The top one is to get back to being the fun-loving, easy-going woman who loved the outdoors.
As for the man who inflicted this horror on her life, Real said she is convinced something took over him that day.
“I have forgiven him,’’ she said, “because I don’t believe it was really him.”