(Phoenix, AZ, January 24, 2018)
A young Arizona mother shot in the head during the nation’s deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas has made a seemingly impossible recovery at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and, amazingly, is headed home to her family.
Thirty-year-old Jovanna Calzadillas, who was unresponsive and whose family was being advised to take her off life support in a Las Vegas hospital days after the shooting, is today talking, walking with assistance, and joking with her family and friends. She has a message for everyone.
“I want to let others know not to live their lives in fear. I am not going to live my life in fear because of what happened to me. Life is too short. We cannot let them win. And, I want people to know that miracles do happen,” says Jovanna.
After the Oct. 1 mass shooting, Jovanna remained in the Las Vegas hospital for about three weeks, until she was stable enough to be flown home to Phoenix. “When I first saw Jovanna her neurological state was very grim and it was unclear if she would recover,” says Lindley Bliss, MD, a hospitalist at Barrow and Select Specialty Hospital. “Jovanna’s brain was severely injured but just weeks after her arrival in Phoenix, she was awake and responsive, talking and eating on her own. Her recovery is one of the most profound I’ve seen in my medical career.”
Jovanna was attending the Las Vegas Route 91 Music Festival with her husband Frank Calzadillas when the shooting occurred. She was one of the first victims to arrive at the University Medical Center (UMC) in Las Vegas. Fifty-eight people were killed and 546 were injured in the shooting.
Doctors at UMC who were dealing with the huge wave of critical patients told Frank his wife likely would not survive. She underwent brain surgery but because of severe swelling in her brain, doctors were unable to remove the bullet, which is lodged in the right side of her brain.
“The doctors in Las Vegas suggested removing Jovanna from life support and spoke to me about organ donation,” says Frank. “They told me there was nothing more they could do to help her and if she survived, she would likely live in a vegetative state.”
Frank, however, said he noticed small responses from Jovanna and felt strongly his wife would recover. He asked doctors to keep her on life support to see if she would improve.
Jovanna was transported by air ambulance to Phoenix on Oct. 19 to be cared for at Select Specialty Hospital, a long-term care facility that works closely with physicians from the world-renowned Barrow Neurological Institute. Barrow is part of Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Christina Kwasnica, MD, medical director of Barrow’s Neuro-Rehabilitation Center was asked to assess Jovanna at Select Specialty and noticed small signs of responsiveness from her patient.
“Jovanna was shot on the left side of her brain which is the side that processes language, so I knew she wouldn’t be able to comprehend language to follow commands but her eyes were open and she was able to track in a very small way with her eyes,” says Dr. Kwasnica. “This told me that she was unresponsive because of a language deficit, not because of the severity of her injury. She was not dying.”
After her assessment, Dr. Kwasnica recommended the medical team help Jovanna become responsive by using the side of the body where she had some function, and by doing therapies that don’t require language processing. Dr. Bliss also made a crucial decision to lower the dosage of Jovanna’s sedating pain medications to see if she would become more alert.
On Nov. 10, Jovanna grabbed her husband’s hand and within days, she was drinking water and eating ice cream. “We were ecstatic,” says Frank. “My wife was coming back to us. She was recovering.”
Jovanna was transferred to Barrow’s inpatient neuro-rehabilitation center on Nov. 30. By Dec. 27, Jovanna was walking with an exoskeleton device, a wearable robot that helps brain injured patients walk. She’s now walking short distances with a walker, talking and her sense of humor has returned.
“I love walking on the exoskeleton,” says Jovanna. “It is teaching my brain to talk to my legs again. I feel like the iron woman when I’m wearing it. But I know I will be walking on my own soon. No question.”
Jovanna says she is “feeling good and excited to keep improving.” In the months ahead, she is expected to continue receiving outpatient rehabilitation at Barrow. “I love the people at Barrow. They have been so good to me, but I can’t wait to go home and return to a normal life with my kids and family,” she adds.
Gunshot wounds to the head are among the most-difficult brain injuries to treat because of splinters from the bullet and direct damage from the path of the bullet. Fifty percent of gunshot wounds to the head are fatal and patients who survive often have a prolonged and difficult recovery. Dr. Kwasnica credits family support in addition to great medical care for how well a patient recovers. In Jovanna’s case, family support has played a large role in her amazing recovery.
“In many cases, the outcome for patients is far different and that is certainly through no fault of their own. Jovanna is a fairly rare case. She has made amazing and unpredictable strides because she not only had access to great medical care but also because her family is one-of-a-kind,” says Dr. Kwasnica. “They have been by her side every step of the way and are always willing to do anything that needs to be done to help her improve.”
For Frank, a police officer, watching his wife recover has been an inspiration. The couple, who grew up together and started dating when Jovanna was 17, wants the public to know their story to inspire others.
“Although many times medicine cannot heal a person who has suffered such a horrific traumatic injury like Jovanna’s, her parents and I really didn’t feel like it was her time to pass,” says Frank. “We had to have faith. We want to tell people to follow their instincts and have hope.”
With dozens of friends, family and a nation cheering her on, Jovanna is expected to leave Barrow in a few days and return home with Frank to their two children and a new hope-filled chapter.