For many of you, April 23, 2009 may seem like a long time ago, but to me it seems like yesterday. I can still hear the sirens and see the flashing lights of the endless line of emergency vehicles quickly approaching my house.
I had been living the typical suburban life with my husband and our three beautiful children Jack (6), Isabella (3), and Ava, who was just 18 months old at the time. We had a lovely house in a quiet suburban neighborhood, the customary SUV to cart the children to and from every activity imaginable, and a white Labrador retriever named Callie. My husband and I had moved to San Antonio in 2004 after meeting in my hometown Cincinnati. Having grown up in the Midwest, I was a bit nervous about moving away from the only world I had ever known. However, the Southern hospitality that graced so many of the amazing people I quickly befriended in San Antonio made me feel right at home. I never knew how important these people would become just five years later.
It was an ordinary Thursday evening on April 23, 2009. The spring weather was perfect and it was Fiesta time in San Antonio. My two daughters and I were enjoying the evening at home while my husband and son were at baseball practice. Raising three small children, I always tried my best to maintain a routine and schedule, but this evening was different. My girls were playing with the neighbor boys as I was tending to some much needed yard work while enjoying the gorgeous April weather. It should have been bath time for my girls but instead I chose to let go of the structure and embrace what was left of the beautiful evening.
The neighbor boys were called in for dinner and my girls asked if they could help me finish up the yard work. I still remember Ava’s eyes so full of life looking up at me, her pigtails bouncing, and her face beaming with a huge smile as she did her part to help. She was to my right and Isa was to my left as we bent down one last time to collect what remained of the grass clippings. As we stood up we came face to face with the front of a car crashing down on us.
My perfect world changed in the matter of seconds.
I remember feeling the impact of the car as it hit my backside. The only thing going through my mind was, “Please God, save my girls.” I remember hearing Isa scream – a sound so piercing no parent could ever forget it. Far worse was the silence that shrouded Ava. I looked over to see Ava’s lifeless body lying face down in the grass. Finding strength that I did not know I possessed, I crawled over to her. I turned her over as carefully as I could.
She was unconscious, and her eyes and mouth were slightly open. The same beautiful girl I had been admiring just moments before, now stared back at me lifelessly. Her pulse was weak and her breathing labored. For a brief moment her breathing stopped. I was now living a parent’s worst nightmare. At that moment, I was a mother that would do anything to save her daughter. Her father arrived at the scene moments after to give medical attention to his family that I am certain medical school did not prepare him for.
I can assure all of you reading this that you will never be prepared to handle a situation of this magnitude. To go from living what you think is a fairytale to barely being able to breathe at the thought of losing your child – there are no words. Ava had suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused doctors and nurses to lose hope. All neurological exams pointed to a slim chance of survival.
Ava spent three weeks at University Hospital and two months in rehabilitation at Christus Santa Rosa before being able to come home. Those were the longest weeks of my life – but Ava was alive. Several months after Ava was released from the hospital I found myself remembering the little ones that didn't have anyone by their side. It tugged at my heart strings so much I knew I needed to do something.
I'll admit that I was left with an enormous amount of anger after we were hit. There were many nights I would cry myself to sleep asking how someone could be okay with altering the life of an innocent child in such a tragic and senseless way. My mind did not stop, so I needed to make a decision. I had to decide if I was going to let this accident define me and my family in a negative way or if it would distinguish Ava as a beacon of light and hope for others.
We found out later that the woman that hit us was at three times the legal blood alcohol limit and had two sleeping pills in her system. She had been out celebrating Fiesta and had come home to change so she could go back out for more festivities.
She never made it to her destination that evening. Instead she ended up in a Bexar County jail cell. After hitting us, she fled the scene and drove off on the smoking and sparking rims of her tires, until she was finally pulled over a few miles down the highway. She claimed she had no idea what had happened when the police officer approached her, but the documentation said that there was an impression on the her windshield that resembled that of an infant’s head.
After the accident we quickly learned what a truly amazing city San Antonio is. I've come to regard the people that immediately surrounded Ava and our family as angels. Friends, doctors and neighbors – everyone had their role. We may not have any family in San Antonio, but we never went a day feeling alone, and the support and love that surrounded us was overwhelming.
For eight months straight we had a home cooked meal waiting on our front porch for us every day. Many of the meals came from people that, to this day, we have never met. We had continuous care for our two other children which allowed my husband and me to tend to Ava and provide around-the-clock care. In that aspect, we felt blessed, but we were also saddened by number of young patients who had no one visiting them, no one holding their hand, no one helping them through their tragedy, and no one providing the type of support our family was so fortunate to receive. That realization inspired me to start Ava’s Wish.
Ava’s Wish is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting children and families that have been affected by pediatric head trauma and related disorders. In its infancy, my board and I would visit families on a biweekly basis and provide them with tote bags which included a journal, a blanket, and information on caring bridge sites and setting up a care and meal calendar. My goal was to offer families the type of support we had been given and be that resource that people could turn to when they felt like their worlds had come crashing down around them. In starting Ava’s Wish, I wanted to give families the same consolation that our family so heavily relied on.
During the past year, we have had lengthy discussions with University Children’s Health about implementing a pediatric rehab unit within their hospital. Despite the expansive pediatric support systems available throughout our city, patients are often forced to wait in the hospital for placement at remote facilities. Ava’s Wish aims to enable a smooth transition from the pediatric ICUs or step-down units directly into rehabilitation programs. While Ava was blessed to have received outstanding care at an outlying facility like Christus Santa Rosa, having a rehabilitation unit at University Children’s Health would be a life-altering resource to patients and families alike.
In a recent meeting, University Health System administrators told us that our vision would soon become a reality. While our project's start date has yet to be determined, our goal to incorporate an Ava’s Wish pediatric rehab unit into University Children’s Health is underway. In the interim, we are proud to announce that we will be designing and integrating an Ava’s Wish trauma waiting area at University Children’s Health.
Ava is now nine years old and in third grade at Cambridge Elementary School. She brings joy and laughter to anyone who knows her thanks to her positive attitude and infectious laugh.
She just started participating in an after school group called Girls on the Run twice a week. Girls on the Run's mission is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running. For Ava to be able to actively participate in a group like this, just like her older sister, truly amazes me.
From a medical standpoint, she is functioning at the level of an eight-and-a-half year old. She still encounters various medical and mental challenges as a result of her head injury, but we continue to work closely with our team of doctors to make sure Ava overcomes these as well. To think that she spent nearly six years rehabilitating from the injuries she sustained in the accident – and now she walks into school happy and excited each morning.
I also have to give a tremendous amount of credit to my son Jack and my daughter Isa. They have been the most supportive siblings a mother could ask for, and although they have their normal sibling disagreements, they have played a huge role in Ava’s recovery and success. Ava is a walking miracle and I am so thankful and blessed to be her mother.
As part of the ongoing efforts of Ava’s Wish, we will be holding the 3rd Annual “Tennies & Tiaras” 5K Run at Olmos Park Basin on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. We invite anyone who wants to participate in this fun, family-oriented event to help raise awareness for pediatric patients with head trauma and to celebrate the miracle that is Ava. Amazing events and opportunities continue to transpire with Ava’s Wish and our ongoing goal is to build hope and inspiration one seed at a time.
Top Image: Ava, 8, raises her arms as she warms up before running with classmates at Cambridge Elementary. Photo by Scott Ball.