Who said it was .38 Special? It could have been .38 S&W or (given the usual accuracy of the press) a .32, .22 BB Cap, or about anything.
Nor is it really indicated where the bullets hit. A shot in the cheek or ear lobe won't be fatal with any caliber.
I agree that a .38 Special is not an especially powerful cartridge, even with the hotter loads, but a .500 S&W is not the ideal home defense firearm either, especially for a woman.