RIVERVIEW — It felt like the side of her head was on fire.
Then came the nausea and the worst dizziness of her life.
That's when Mary Ellen Spencer reached up to touch her forehead and felt the blood on her fingertips.
With a deafening pop, April 13, 2008, became the night she almost died.
In an apparent case of road rage, a man had shot her between the eyes.
And like U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head during last week's rampage in Tuscon, Ariz., doctors called 44-year-old Spencer's survival a miracle.
"Remarkable" is how Giffords' doctors describe her progress.
"Incredible" is the word Spencer's doctor used.
But despite the miraculous, Spencer says wounds remain that no doctor can heal. She figures the same will be true for Giffords.
"If she does have a full recovery, well, she's not going to have a full recovery. There are little things, you know, things that y'all wouldn't understand."
• • •
Spencer, her boyfriend and her adult daughter were headed home from the movies that night when they noticed a couple of cars up ahead driving erratically.
Spencer's boyfriend stopped alongside the cars at the traffic light at 50th Street and State Road 60. That's when the driver of one car — the gray or silver Nissan Altima — got out and approached Spencer's boyfriend's Ford F-150, cussing and giving him the finger. Neither Spencer nor authorities know why the stranger began targeting them.
"Look, man, I don't want no problems," Spencer's boyfriend told the man through a half-rolled window.
When the light turned green, the car and another white Nissan started swerving around Spencer's boyfriend's truck. One driver looked at Spencer and mouthed a derogatory threat.
At the next red light, at Causeway Boulevard, the white Nissan cut in front of the F-150. The driver stood up, out of the sunroof, and pulled a big silver gun.
The last thing Spencer remembers is the bang.
The bullet went through the truck's front windshield then through Spencer's forehead, where it hit her skull and broke in half. One portion went out her left temple; the other behind her left ear and through the truck's back window, stopping when it hit a Jeep behind the truck.
At first, Spencer felt no pain. She knew she was hit only because of the blood.
She went to the hospital, and, amazingly, was released the next morning after some plastic surgery and stitches.
"I told her she should go buy a lottery ticket afterward," said Dr. Brad Peckler, who was in Tampa General Hospital's emergency room that night. "She just got really lucky. She certainly could have been killed."
The shooter — described by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as a Hispanic man, 20 to 30 years old, 5 feet 10 to 6 feet tall, 120 to 150 pounds — has never been caught. A $1,000 Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay reward remains unclaimed.
• • •
Spencer was at work at Walmart last week when a co-worker started talking about a shooting in Tucson.
"It's like what you went through," the co-worker told Spencer. "Your miracle."
Spencer initially was relieved.
"Her life was spared, that's the main thing," she said of Giffords. Still, "I'm afraid for her. She's going to have to get one with herself, you know?"
This week, Giffords' doctors said the congresswoman took a "leap forward" in her recovery after opening her eyes, moving her arms and legs and responding to friends and family. Next, they hope to remove her breathing tube and have her sit in a chair.
Good news, yes, but Spencer knows the recovery will stretch beyond physical milestones.
For two months after the shooting, Spencer didn't leave the house.
She had headaches, tremors and recurring nightmares. She jumped at the sound of fireworks, looked for her shooter in every stranger's face.
When she did finally get out, everyone called her a miracle. Some asked to rub her for good luck.
The physical scar amounted to a thumbprint-sized dent between her brows. But inside, "I'd hide, you know, my feelings and thoughts and all that."
It wasn't until about six months ago that something changed. She woke up refreshed and with a new feeling: There's a reason I'm still here.
She vowed to treasure her good fortune, focus on the present and "live by the seat of my pants."
If there were anything she could tell Giffords, it would be that.
"The only thing she can do, honestly, is take one day at a time," Spencer said. "When something like this happens, it stops your path. You think, 'Why me? What could I do to prevent it? What if I had done this?' … It's a guilt that you go through.
"You have to open up. You have to find yourself."
• • •
The other day, Spencer was on her way back from shopping, heading south on 50th Street toward SR 60. She hardly noticed where she was until she got to the Palm River Road bridge — a place she hadn't been in two years.
She wanted to turn around but couldn't for the traffic. She started shaking. Her stomach was in knots.
Then, she thought, "I've got to do this … I drove this road all my life."
She got over the bridge and started crying. Yet, as the sky turned dark, she kept driving.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.