ORANGE PARK, Fla. – Orange Park Medical Center trauma nurses call him a "Christmas Miracle." Drew Stokes, an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations in Jacksonville, was shot five times back in September in Clay County -- targeted on his lunch break simply because he was dressed in his law enforcement uniform.
"I immediately went to the ground, had my weapon out ,and was waiting for him to come back around, and then that's when somebody came back and told me the threat had been eliminated," Stokes recalled about being shot outside an Oakleaf Publix on Sept. 26, 2017.
Now, nearly three months later and less than a week before Christmas, the Aviation Enforcement Agent wants everyone to know how thankful he is to those who saved his life, those who have given him the chance to spend the holidays with his family, and those who have made it so he can soon return to his job of protecting the nation's borders from the air.
When Stokes is not on overseas missions fighting drug cartels, he's working on base at Cecil Field. He had just grabbed lunch from inside the Publix and was walking to his truck to head back to the office. He never expected what happened next.
"The suspect yelled, 'I blankin' hate cops,' and then he approached me from my back right side, so when I heard that, I knew it was going to be violence against a police officer. I knew what was coming and that's whenever he started shooting. The bullets turned my body and then I turned and tried to draw my weapon. He hit me five times, once in the buttocks, both legs and once in my left forearm."
Stokes remembers the ride to the hospital.
"I was probably scared the most when I was riding in the ambulance on the way. I never thought at one point that I was going to die, but I didn't know what was going to happen," he said.
But despite his five fresh gunshot wounds, he still had his usual sense of humor.
"They pushed me through the emergency room entrance. I looked around and I said, 'This is one way to skip the line.' And then I saw my supervisor there, Steve Wood, and I said, 'Hey Woody, how ya doing?' And he just looked at me and started crying."
Stokes said he doesn't remember much after that. In fact, for the next two weeks he was heavily sedated. But, his medical team remembers it all, with each of them working overtime -- even sleeping in the hospital -- because none of them wanted to leave his side.
While Stokes said he never thought he was going to die, his medical team says after getting to the hospital, he was rapidly declining.
"I thought he might not survive that night," said OPMC Trauma Surgeon Dr. Elias Tsirakoglou."I actually spoke to his wife. I was very concerned, just due to how significant his high-grade liver injury was, and how much blood he got transfused. But, I think the fact that he got here as quick as he did, we got him in the operating room as quickly as we did, played a role in keeping him alive that first day."
Tsirakoglou and a team of trauma surgeons performed at least 10 life-saving surgeries on Stokes.
Three nurses also played a critical role in keeping him alive, both physically and spiritually.
"He looked at me and my partner Todd, which is the other trauma recess nurse, and he said, 'I'm going to live.' I said, 'Oh yes, you are, absolutely. You're not going to die today,'" said OPMC Lead Trauma Nurse Madonna Stotsenburg.
And the nurses never left, staying by Stokes' side.
"It was just a sense of obligation and duty, I mean, he could be my brother. He could be my father. I saw how sick he was and it didn't matter. Time is just that, and I wanted him to have more," said OPMC Trauma/ICU Nurse Christy Love.
Love, Stotsenburg and Trauma/ICU Nurse Nicole Sardina say crowd control was also part of the process with treating Stokes. The reason: hundreds of people were showing up to the hospital to check on him.
"We would have to push people away so he could get rest because it was just constant. When I say on guard and somebody keeping watch over their flock, he had a lot of people watching his flock. And when you have somebody that comes in with such a significant critically traumatic injury such as Drew (Stokes), he's a miracle, he truly is. He's a Christmas miracle," said Sardina.
Stokes spent about a month in the hospital, and with the help of rehab, he's getting better every day.
"Whether it's a miracle, fate, God's hand, I think when everybody shows up, does their best and does what they're supposed to do as a high-level functioning trauma center, we can often have successful outcomes like Drew's was," said OPMC Trauma Medical Director Dr. Jeff Levine.
"This is what we do, and to do it for somebody that gives us so much back for somebody that protects us and defends our country, and for us to be able to give just that little bit back, that's why we stayed," said Stotsenburg.
"If anyone is watching this clip right now and somebody gets injured later, I can come back and say, 'Listen, you're going to be ok here. These folks are going to put you back together and you're going to get back to living a normal life," Stokes said.
He not only credits the OPMC trauma team for getting him through, but also his wife, Amanda, his family, his co-workers, along with his own motivation to return to his passion of serving his country.
"It's just I feel like if I'm not there, I'm letting people down. I mean, guys are having to pull my weight now that I'm not there, and I don't think that's right. So, I need to get back and pull my own weight and get back on the front lines. It's where I need to be, it's where I'm at my best," said Stokes.
"I also want to go back and educate my brothers and sisters on the thin blue line," he said. "A lot of guys think this can never happen to them, so part of my duty when I go back will be to travel around and talk about the incident, and maybe change the guys and girls points of view of how they look at and carry themselves in public," he added.
Stokes anticipates heading back to work on Jan. 2. He has one more surgery planned early next year, and if all goes well, he hopes it will be his last.
Agent Stokes says he's met so many wonderful people through this experience -- from the doctors and nurses to the physical therapists and his wound care nurse. He also said he now has a special bond with Clay County Deputy Jacob Hawkins, who was the first officer on the scene after he was shot. When we asked what it’s like having a relationship with Hawkins, Stokes smiled big and said, "It’s awesome!"
Editor's Note: Agent Drew Stokes made a specific request when News4Jax interviewed him. He asked that we not question him directly about the shooter, 18-year-old Thomas Jacob Lewis, and we agreed. Lewis committed suicide and died at the scene.