Updated September 30, 2023 - 10:50 am
Jovanna Calzadillas, walking slowly with a cane Friday, returned to University Medical Center, the site of the start of her miraculous recovery from a gunshot wound to the head inflicted during the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting.
Calzadillas, 36, and her husband, Frank, 38, were invited to the Las Vegas hospital to meet again with those who cared for her during her brain surgeries and the more than two months she spent in a coma, including Dr. Deborah Kuhls, the hospital’s chief of trauma, and Dr. Syed Saquib, her treating physician.
It was one of her many goals, Jovanna Calzadillas said, to enter the site of a news conference at the hospital on her feet, after the bullet that entered three lobes of her brain had doctors telling her family she would not survive.
“I had to learn how walk again and talk again, just everything, like a baby,” she told reporters. “And six years later, I’m talking. And walking, and not as good, but it’s just walking.”
She and her husband attended the Oct. 1, 2017, festival to watch their favorite country music performer, Jason Aldean.
They heard a series of explosions, which were gunshots fired by a sniper, Stephen Paddock, 64, from his guest room at the Mandalay Bay hotel nearby. Paddock fatally wounded 60 spectators before killing himself.
“We just thought it was fireworks, and everybody started running and my husband told me to get down, (that) they’re gunshots from the street,” she said.
“So I thought we were OK,” she said. “He said, when they stopped, to run. They stopped, and I got up and that’s it. I don’t remember anything. And it’s like, one step.”
When she was admitted to UMC’s trauma unit, the staff was caring and updated the family on her condition, even when doctors were pessimistic, telling them that “she’s not going to survive,” Frank Calzadillas said.
“The first doctor I spoke to he said, ‘Hey, there’s nothing we can do for your wife,’” he said. “This is a non-survivable injury. And I think I had two other doctors come in asking for her organs. They said, ‘Is she going to be an organ donor?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
“I mean I was 50-50, it could have been as easy as you know, yeah, let her save other people, and she wouldn’t be sitting here,” he said.
But he finally decided, “I’m just going to keep her alive, and when it’s time for her to go, she’ll go on her own. But we kept her alive and she kept fighting.”
“I’m a fighter,” she said.
Her brain swelled to three times its normal size from the trauma.
There are “very, very few survivors” among people with the type of wound she had, according to Kuhls.
What turned her condition around was “good care” and that part of her skull had to be removed to make space for the swelling, the doctor said. Given time, it subsided.
She was confined to a wheelchair for three years.
“It took her three years to actually get up and move around, with my help,” Frank Calzadillas said. “And for her to walk on her own, it was about maybe four years.”
Recently, recovery from surgery to repair a flat foot put her back in a wheelchair, but she can still walk with the cane, she said.
As for her coma, she doesn’t remember anything except “being stuck. Like say you’re in a dream, and you can’t wake up out of the dream. You’re stuck. You can just move your eyes and your neck and you’re stuck. And it’s scary, it’s scary.”
Her first memory out of the coma was seeing her father near her bedside.
“My Dad, he walked by, and I said, ‘Hi Dad,’ and I didn’t even know how to talk. It just like came to me,” she said.
She said she feels like she’s about 65 to 70 percent back to normal.
“Last night, he (her husband) said, can you believe we’re here?” she said. “And laying down in Vegas watching TV? I was nervous to come. But it’s a step forward. You’ve got to move forward.”
She spent much of her recovery at a hospital near the couple’s home in San Tan Valley, Ariz. They’re also raising two kids, a son, 17 and a daughter, 9.
“She’s really independent, but she’s just really hard on herself,” Frank Calzadillas said.
“I was always hard on myself,” she said in reply. “That’s why I got this far.”