Wounded Police Officer Says 'Thank You' for Saving His Life to Benefis Providers, Nurses

Senior Great Falls Police Officer Tanner Lee can't yet make a thumbs up, so he's settling for a simple but heartfelt "Thank you" to everyone who cared for him and his family after he was shot in the line of duty in March.​

Tanner’s wife, Harly Lee, RN, a case manager in Care Coordination at Benefis, knows well the strain the pandemic has put on Benefis, as well as hospitals across the country. 

“The providers, the nurses, the staff in the OR, we couldn’t have been at a better place,” she said. 

Tanner was involved in a traffic stop on March 7 when the suspect failed to stop his vehicle and later fled on foot.

Tanner gave chase, and the suspect opened fire. One bullet was a direct shot to Tanner's chest and was repelled by his body armor. Evidence suggests one, maybe two, bullets went through his forearm and bicep, skidding across his chest under his armor and coming to rest above his heart, burning his skin. His forearm was shattered and an artery ripped open. 

After Tanner was shot, a fellow officer scooped him up and rode in the back as another officer raced them to Benefis. Kayla Rowton, RN, was just back from a Mercy Flight call and saw the police car screech in. She helped get Tanner inside.

“The next thing I remember, 40 people were in the room,” Tanner said. 

The Emergency Department had no warning Tanner was coming but quickly had his care in hand. He remembers feeling like he was at the right place and everything would be OK. Soon he was making jokes with the medical team, officers, and family there. 

The police department couldn’t reach Tanner’s wife, but Kayla tracked her down and met her at the ED registration desk with Tanner’s mom. Kayla and Scott Schandelson, Manager of the Emergency Department, broke the news to Harly bluntly and kindly. Kayla and Danika Hanning, who works with Harly in Care Coordination, took the Lees' young children to the pediatric floor so Harly could focus on Tanner. 

Harly said she felt a warm welcome in the ED, and the nurses caring for Tanner allowed her to help clean him up, giving her a measure of control during the crisis.

“It was something I could do for him,” she said. “I’m a control person like most nurses.”

She remembers Lisa Thomas, RN; Dr. Dustin Stuart, ED physician; and Dr. Jace Bullard, an orthopedic surgeon, treating Tanner and saving his life and his arm. After 2.5 hours in the packed ED, even more crowded with the police officers guarding and supporting Tanner, as well as collecting evidence, Tanner was moved to the Ortho/Neuro Unit. His alleged assailant was also in the ED and then a hospital room as he was treated for a gunshot wound. 

Members of the Great Falls Police Department presented the Benefis ED with flowers and a sign signed by officers in appreciation for caring for Tanner. 

The police and Benefis continued to work together to protect Tanner from possible security threats during his five-day stay on the Ortho/Neuro Unit. 

Tanner thanked those who cared for him, guarded him, and accommodated his fellow officers, city officials, state investigators, and family. They also helped him celebrate his 29th birthday while hospitalized.

“To me, it was very welcoming. Nobody wants to be in the hospital, but having your loved ones there makes it better,” he said.

The visitors were “a saving grace,” helping him process the trauma, as did Brian Ipock, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner. 

“I got to talk to the people who rescued me, and it helped all our mental health,” he said. 

Dr. John Rich Craw, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hands and upper extremities, placed a rod from Tanner’s wrist to elbow. It was a long surgery, complicated by the radial bone fragmentation and dirt in the wound from the street. Dr. Craw warned him he might need several surgeries, but so far the prognosis is positive from the first surgery, and Tanner is working hard in physical therapy at Benefis. 

“I’ve done a lot of things lefty in the last month,” he said. 

He’s dad to a toddler he can’t wrestle right now and a 3-month-old he can’t lift. He's a right-handed competitive shooter whose arm won’t straighten, whose thumb and trigger finger are stiff. He's a police officer whose full return to active duty might be a year away. He's a survivor with a lifetime of possibilities ahead.

“Between the officers and the doctors and the nurses, that’s why I’m here today,” he said. “I want to be back to work. His goal was to have one fewer cop on the streets. He won’t win.” 

He’s learned that “tomorrow is never promised,” he said. “You never know when it could be your last day. Everyone went home that night and hugged their people tighter.” 

Harly said the near tragedy has reinforced the preciousness of time together and making the most of the moments they have.