PHOENIX — Doctors told Frank Calzadillas to say his goodbyes to his 30-year-old wife, Jovanna, shortly after she was shot in the head in the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip.
Staff also asked if his wife, on life support at University Medical Center, would want her organs donated.
Then she came to him in a dream.
“She hugged me and kissed me and said it would be OK,” Calzadillas recounted Wednesday before a room full of reporters at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, where Jovanna has been recovering since Oct. 19. “I called her mom and said, ‘We’re keeping Jovanna alive. She’s going to be all right.’”
The accuracy of that vision was readily apparent, as Jovanna, seated next to her husband, smiled as he recounted the positive milestones she has achieved since the Route 91 Harvest festival tragedy. Nearly four months out, Jovanna has regained the ability to talk, can eat and drink by herself and can walk with the help of a walker — though she was in a wheelchair and spoke only a few words at the news conference.
‘Nothing short of miraculous’
Dr. Lindley Bliss, who has treated Jovanna since her transfer, called her progress so far “nothing short of miraculous.”
“Her recovery is one of the most profound I’ve seen in my medical career,” he said in a written statement provided by the hospital.
Doctors plan to discharge Jovanna on Thursday to return with her husband, 11-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to their home in Arizona’s San Tan Valley, about 50 miles southeast of Phoenix.
She will have to return to the institute regularly in the months ahead to continue physical therapies and to work on regaining her memory. But the vast progress she has made so far has doctors optimistic that she can conquer the remaining obstacles.
“The next step is even more exciting. The next step is about being able to take back your life, which is really what we all want when we’re doing rehabilitation.” said Dr. Christina Kwasnica, medical director of Barrow’s Neuro-Rehabilitation Center.
Jovanna has no memory of the night she was shot, but a cellphone video shot just before Jason Aldean’s performance at the country music festival showed her swigging a shot with friends. “Goodbye, Jovanna’s voice,” she said, apparently preparing to scream herself hoarse. “Peace.”
Minutes after the shooting began, she was one of the first patients to arrive at UMC, where doctors said she wouldn’t live.
An undescribable horror
The almost instant switch from celebration to catastrophe was undescribable, Frank, a Phoenix-area police officer and National Guardsman, said in a December phone interview.
“I just think about that night a lot, and there’s just no … there’s no words you could ever use to describe the pain,” he said.
In December, Jovanna could hold Frank’s hand and offer a kiss when he visited her in the hospital, but she wasn’t able to say more than a couple words.
“On Thanksgiving Day, she laughed for the first time” as her mom and cousins shared childhood memories, he recalled. “It caught us by surprise.”
In the following months, Jovanna began to recover her ability to talk. Her first words were “God damn it,” Frank told reporters Wednesday, after glancing at Jovanna for approval. “And her dad told her, ‘Mija’” — short for “mi hija,” or “my daughter,” in Spanish — “‘Don’t say that. You’re supposed to be a miracle child!’”
She continued to make progress. Soon she was able to grab a hand or other items, breathe without ventilation and eat from a spoon.
But the bullet, which entered through the top of her skull and passed through the left side of her brain, impaired her ability to understand language. That forced therapists to find creative ways of communication when Jovanna began rehabilitation.
Between the good days, the couple, who have been together since high school and married for six years, share trying moments.
“I just have to reassure her and let her know she’s safe,” he said.
She took on the reassuring role Wednesday as he recounted the moments and days following the shooting, whispering “It’s OK” as he choked back tears.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Frank finally shared with his wife what happened to her at the concert.
“It was emotional,” he said, adding that she was upset he’d been hiding the details from her.
The long haul
The two remain hopeful Jovanna will regain full mental and physical functioning.
Between playful jabs at each other — Jovanna told reporters she’s glad she can once again boss her husband around, while Frank joked she “finally gave into me” in their early years of dating — the two said they’re looking forward to returning to normal family life this week.
“We just want to spend quality time with our kids,” Frank said. “And really just lay down on our couch” and watch movies.
Jovanna is dreaming bigger. When asked what she was excited for, Jovanna shouted, “Go to Disneyland!” The couple’s 11-year-old son told Frank he hoped his mom would still be in a wheelchair so they could skip lines at the amusement park.
In recovering from the trauma, Jovanna and Frank’s love for each other deepened, he said. He called financial disagreements early in their relationship “kid” problems, and he said in their moments of rest, the two enjoy each other’s laughter.
Jovanna said her family and kids kept her motivated to recover. “I will not give up on them, and I will not give up on myself,” she said. “I will come back stronger.”
Her ultimate goal is to “get back to where she was,” Frank said. “And she will.” At the same time, he said he didn’t want to minimize the impact that the senseless tragedy has had on his family.
“A lot of people, they see this, you know? They see us smiling. But there’s still that dark side,” Frank said. “We laugh, we joke with our friends and our family, but, you know, when we’re laying our heads down, it’s tough.”
Fundraising drive for the family
Frank Calzadillas’ fellow officers with the Salt River Police Department have created a GoFundMe page to help the family with their considerable medical bills.
Donations can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/calzadillasfamily.