When I first heard that Gabrielle Giffords had survived a close-range gunshot wound through her brain, I was absolutely stunned, but as the doctors kept saying, I knew there was a frightening vigil ahead for her family as they waited to see whether the swelling in her brain would stop. Then I read that they had removed pieces of her skull to relieve some of the pressure. Then she opened an eye and moved her limbs. Then the doctors removed her ventilator. And then today, I heard that she was able to stand and read get-well cards. Tomorrow, she’s going to be moved to a rehabilitation hospital.
With each new piece of encouraging news about the congresswoman’s “miraculous” recovery, I grew more and more envious. I’m not proud of that reaction—in fact, I’m very ashamed of it. The envy does live alongside great relief for her family and hope for her complete recovery, but the fact that it lives at all feels awful. I’ve thought about this every single day since the shooting but have been afraid to put my thoughts into words.
Why can modern medicine save a 40-year-old woman with a bullet through her brain but can’t save a 17-month-old little girl, whose brain is supposedly more resilient than an adult’s, from an infection? WHY? Why didn’t the neurosurgeons remove parts of Hudson’s skull, or at least drill a hole in it, to help relieve the pressure? Why do so many other families get near-misses and miracles with their loved ones, but we didn’t?
I’ve written before that until the wee hours of Tuesday morning, about 8 hours after Hudson was diagnosed and admitted to the PICU, I had complete faith that she was going to be OK. I was still terrified, but I simply could not fathom that the doctors could not treat and cure an INFECTION (again, I had been advised to avoid Google—advice I took—so I had no idea what we were really dealing with in terms of fatality rates and so on). In the middle of the night, though, she started having seizure-like episodes, which seemed to me like a bad sign that things were not going well in her brain, and then, horribly, one of her pupils did not respond to the hourly checks with flashlights that the PICU nurses were doing. I knew then that it was very, very bad—I had been with Jessica’s family in the hospital when her mom was stricken with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and the news that her pupils had stopped responding to light was the beginning of the end. The CT scan they did on Hudson’s brain immediately thereafter showed significant swelling, so they pulled out all the stops to try to relieve the pressure—gave her a massive dose of Mannitol (a diuretic that is supposed to help reduce intracranial pressure) , sedated her and put her on a ventilator to control the amount of carbon dioxide to her brain, and kept her elevated in the bed. They may have been doing other things, but those are the things I remember. At rounds a few hours later, I asked the attending physician what we were hoping to see if Hudson was going to recover. He said we were looking for some signs of voluntary movements, like trying to pull out the vent tube, as the sedation wore off to show that her brain was still working. Not long after that, I looked up and saw Hudson, eyes still closed and still heavily sedated, lift her left arm and reach for that tube. My heart leapt. Surely this was a sign that they’d been successful in reducing the pressure enough to allow her brain to start recovering. The neurologists came in and did their series of neuroreflex tests—she passed them all. Her pupils were responding evenly again, her toes were curling in response to stimuli on the arch of her foot. No one could explain it, but it seemed to bode well. There was hope. Maybe we were going to get our miracle.
A few hours later, in the middle of the day Tuesday, still not even 18 hours after she’d been admitted, Hudson’s pupils stopped responding to light at all. Another CT scan (which took so long that we were not even sure she had survived it) showed massive swelling all over her brain, a catastrophic injury from which she was unlikely to recover—she would likely either suffer significant brain damage that would impair her in every way for life or she would die. The doctor said that he hoped he would be proven wrong, but those were the likeliest scenarios.
I can’t count how many times, in the hours before and after that CT scan and in the many days since, I pictured Hudson recovering in a general ward at Children’s, sitting up in her bed in a hospital gown covered with bears, IV full of antibiotics still taped securely to her hand with a wooden board, eagerly downing her first Jello with a grin, playing with all the toys people had brought her as she recuperated, laughing at the hospital clowns as they made the rounds each day, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with them. How many times I pictured us trying to keep her entertained and satisfied for the three to six weeks kids usually had to stay in the hospital for treatment for bacterial meningitis. Even after we knew the coma was probably permanent, I tied an Elmo balloon that one of our friends had brought for her to the foot of the bed, where it would be the first thing she would see if she happened to open her eyes. The first time our pediatrician stopped by, after the first CT scan but before the second, she told us that she firmly believed in the power of positive thinking, so I tried so hard to think positively. We tried not to cry openly or audibly in the room. We continued to talk to Hudson and read books to her and surround her with the stuffed animals she loved.
But it was not to be. The next time the pediatrician stopped by, she cried with us. The infectious disease doctor cried with us. The nurses cried with us. The hospital clowns came to Hudson’s room and softly sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star while we lay in the bed with her and cried. She never opened her eyes or moved her limbs or took a breath on her own again. She never got to see her Elmo balloon or eat hospital Jello. They never removed her vent until she had been declared brain-dead. And then we held our little girl in our arms as her body died, too.
And so today, for the millionth time, I ask the unanswerable question. Why? Why her? Why us? Why did our sweet, amazing, precious child who brought so much joy to the world, why did she not get her fucking miracle?