Patient Story: Carolyn Tuft and the moment that changed everything

I met Carolyn Tuft while on vacation in Provence, France with my wife, Holly. At the hotel one morning, we found ourselves sitting across from Carolyn one morning, who sat stiffly in her chair – a fragile woman. Before I knew it, Carolyn was telling her story of pain and suffering – both physical and emotional. Even though we were used to stories of injury and suffering, this story sickened us as soon as we heard the words “Trolley Square Mall.” Yet, her story is one of hope as well as tragedy; a belief that a good life – and the determination to go after it – are not only possible, but attainable.

On a Monday evening, February 12, 2007, Carolyn parked her car outside the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, where she and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Kirsten Hinckley, headed into the mall to shop for Valentine’s Day cards.

Moments after they stepped into the store, the mother and daughter heard a loud pop! Carolyn wondered if a gang member might be firing a gun in the street. But she felt safe where she was, in such an ordinary store, in an ordinary mall, on an ordinary Monday evening.

Kirsten started drawing her mother’s attention to a gag gift on a rack when they heard another pop! Actually, more like a blast — closer this time. Carolyn took a few steps toward the window facing the hallway but because of glare on the glass, she couldn’t see who was on the other side.

Unfortunately he could see her.

He was Sulejman Talović, an eighteen-year-old immigrant from Bosnia and Herzegovina. A high school dropout and loner, he spent a lot of time hanging around this mall. No one would ever know for sure why he showed up on this particular evening armed with a shotgun and a revolver, intent on killing.

He fired the shotgun in her direction. “Get down, Mom,” said Kirsten as she followed a couple store patrons who were running toward a wall to hide. Kirsten lay down facing the wall, with Carolyn close by.

The next thing Carolyn knew, someone was standing about two feet away. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a young man in a trench coat. He looked her in the eyes. He raised his shotgun. He fired.

This time he couldn’t miss. The shot took off the back of her right shoulder piercing her right lung. The force threw her forward onto her face. She tried to get up but didn’t have the strength for it. She was spewing blood from her mouth, more blood bubbling from her nose, and she was struggling for every breath. Stunned, she looked over at her daughter, a few feet away.

The shooter pivoted and fired at Kirsten, shooting her in the back as she lay facing the wall. The injury was unsurvivable.

But for the moment she was still alive. Kirsten rolled over on her back, and Carolyn could see she was wincing and crying in pain.

Carolyn started lurching across the floor toward her daughter, using her uninjured arm and knees to propel herself. She managed to get her head a foot away from Kirsten’s. Then she felt the muzzle of a gun pressing hard against her back. Talović had returned. To Carolyn, the pressure of the gun was a clear message from him: “You’re not going anywhere.”

This shot entered her lower left back, next to her spine, scattering shotgun pellets inside her pelvis and abdomen and blowing away her hipbone.

Later Carolyn would feel guilt over having crawled toward her daughter, because maybe, she thought, her action drew the gunman’s attention to Kirsten. Talović put his gun muzzle next to Kirsten and fired.

Carolyn knew Kirsten was gone. Feeling sickened and helpless, she whispered, “I love you.” Then she reached out and gripped Kirsten’s hand tightly with her own, as if she would never let go.

A police officer on the scene would later say that the hardest thing he ever had to do in his job was to pry Carolyn’s hand from her daughter’s hand so that the paramedics could take her to the ambulance.

While Kirsten’s sufferings were at an end, Carolyn’s had only begun.

She spent three weeks in intensive care at LDS Hospital, undergoing seven surgeries. Even after the physical pain receded a bit, the emotional pain over losing her daughter rose to the surface.

Carolyn also had learned how quickly and unexpectedly physical pain can come into anyone’s life. The damage to her nerves had been so severe that pain became her constant companion. She had joined the ranks of those in chronic pain.

Although they certainly recognized the legitimacy of her pain complaint (who wouldn’t?), the clinic doctors were reluctant to prescribe opioids because they were concerned about exposing Carolyn to the risk of addiction. If she became addicted, not only would it be dangerous for her, including the possibility of overdose and unintentional death, but also it could become dangerous to the doctors themselves. The looming presence over the shoulder of any doctor who prescribes controlled substances is the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has the power to criminally prosecute any doctor it deems as misusing the script pad.

Moreover, Carolyn had no health insurance and little savings. While she could have benefited from an aggressive, coordinated treatment plan for her pain in which she would have been taught how to maximize the activities of her daily life, her lack of insurance ensured she was only receiving pain pill prescriptions, and even that grudgingly.

With some aggrieved determination on Carolyn’s part, she received a fairly regular supply of opioids from the clinic. OxyContin, in particular, helped her noticeably. Nothing eliminated the pain, but Carolyn got by.

Under severe constraints, she was doing the best she could to get help for her pain problem and to live a normal and worthwhile life.

Thankfully, the Episcopal Diocese of Utah has gotten involved to help Carolyn. People from the diocese have interceded and given her emotional, spiritual, and financial support. They bought her medications and paid for her insurance, making it possible for her to get regular medical care. They also directed small work projects her way to help her earn a few dollars.

Carolyn continues to be poor in health and finances, but she is rich in relationships and hope. The same woman who refused to die on the floor of Trolley Square refuses to let pain prevent her from living  life as well as she can. This isn’t about medical treatment. It’s about the other things in her life that keep her going.

You can read Carolyn Tuft’s full story in my forthcoming book “The Painful Truth,” to be published in September 2015.


  1. Chelsea on December 30, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Thank you for sharing this story. I have experienced a similar situation and the painful truth of it, is that it never goes away… It never gets easier… You just learn how to deal with the pain. I will be buying Carolyns book when I leave my office this evening. Best wishes to you and Holly..

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