(Updates follow article)
At Columbine, I have seen this before. But not up close. As a church pastor in Denver, I have worked as a chaplain alongside several police and fire departments. I was privileged to counsel parents just hours after the Littleton Columbine shootings. However, in this new tragedy at the Aurora Theater Dark Night shooting, one of the victims was a 22-year-old woman from my church, Petra Anderson (pronounced Pay-tra). Petra went to the movies with two young friends who are biking across America. You and I have been inundated with news about what happened next. A joyful movie turned into bloody, unbelievable chaos. Petra was hit four times with a shot-gun blast, three shots into her arm and one bullet which entered her brain. This a bit of Petra’s miracle story.
With awesome people from our caring and pastoral team, I spent all day Friday in the ICU with Petra and her family. Her injuries were severe, and her condition was critical. A bullet had entered Petra’s face through her nose, and then traveled up through her brain until stopping at the back of her skull. The doctors prior to surgery were concerned, because so much of the brain had been traversed by the bullet. Many areas of brain function were involved. They were hoping to keep her alive long enough to get her into surgery. The prognosis was uncertain—if she lived, Petra might struggle with speech, movement, and thinking due to considerable brain damage. With Kim, Petra’s mother (who is in the final stages of terminal cancer), we simply cried, hugged, and prayed.
It is pressed into my memory now. Motion and emotion…
Other families come and go into the ICU waiting room. Some sit with us, and we talk. Others are visited by doctors with “Family Advocates” in tow. The families listen, sob, and then are moved like stunned cattle to a more private space to grieve. We pray. Petra is finally taken into surgery, using two different surgical teams. One team of neurosurgeons will open up the back of her skull to remove the bullet and clean up brain damage as best they can. Another ENT-specialty surgical team will then work through Petra’s nose by scope to follow the bullet’s path up into her brain. Their hope is to remove bone fragments, clean up damaged brain tissue, and reseal her brain to reduce infection.
If you have lived any of your days in a hospital waiting room, you know how long the enduring process is. It has a woeful pattern to it. Sit. Walk. Grab a drink. Sit. Walk. Answer a phone call. Sit. Walk. Hug someone. Sit. Talk to the FBI. Sit. Pick at the food. Sit. Walk. Go down the hall, but not too far because you’re afraid to miss something. Back. Hug. Pray. Sit. Sit. A picture of a five-year old waiting for next Christmas from January 1st comes to my mind. FOREVER. Only this feels worse: a heavy forever, with no promise of presents, Santa, or good news at the end.
After the waiting drags for over five hours, tired doctors and nurses spill back into the room, one or two at a time. I look for “Family Advocates” but can find none. I exhale. The doctors update us: “It went well, and she’s recovering now. We found very little damage to the brain, and got the bullet out cleanly. It went better than we hoped for.” Each brings a warrior’s smile, and a bit of information—information that we turn into hope as we regurgitate it over the next hours. Still, the medical team remains professional and reserved, “Something might still go wrong. We just need to wait and see if she makes it for the next 48 hours.”
Tears and thank you’s abound. We are so thankful for these men and women. We hug. Everyone hugs. Then, round two. Sit. Wait. Pray. Fully dressed people cuddle into small snails and try to sleep on the floor. Some are shuttled to a room donated by the Holiday Inn across the street. Thank you, Lord, for every little thing. We sit. We pray. “We’ll understand better tomorrow.”
Petra is moved back to ICU. She looks, surprisingly, wonderful. With a small hole in her nose, and her arm wrapped, she almost looks uninjured. She is medicated and sleeping when I come to visit her on Saturday. I sit, talk, and pray quietly with Kim amid the darkened room, lit by glowing medical screens and power switches. Nurses, like quiet soldiers posted on guard, come in, march attentively through the machines, and go out. These men and women really care. Finally, one of the surgeons comes in to check on Petra. He has had some sleep, and looks more like a movie star this time. As Petra sleeps, he retells the story of the surgery, and we ask questions. The doctor reads the perfect script, as if he is on Hallmark Hall of Fame. He fills us in on the miracle. Honestly, he doesn’t call it that, he just uses words like “happily” and “wonderfully” and “in a very fortunate way” and “luckily” and “we were really surprised by that.” Kim and I know a miracle when we see it.
It seems as if the bullet traveled through Petra’s brain without hitting any significant brain areas. The doctor explains that Petra’s brain has a small “fluid pocket” in it. In our non-medical minds, it is a tiny route of fluid running through her skull, like a tiny vein through marble, winding from front to rear. Only a CAT scan would catch it, and Petra would have never noticed it. It seems many people have these places in their brains, in random places.
But what is significant is that in Petra’s case, the shotgun buck shot, maybe even the size used for deer hunting, enters her brain from the exact point of this channel. The bullet is channeled from Petra’s nose through her brain. It turns slightly, and comes to rest at the rear of her brain. And in the process, the bullet misses all the vital areas of the brain. In many ways, it almost misses the brain itself, doing very little damage. Not exactly, but like a giant BB though a straw created in Petra’s brain before she was born, it follows the perfect route. The bullet moves in the least harmful way. A millimeter in any direction and the the brain is destroyed. Evil wins a round. (Medical update at the end, below)
As he shares, the doctor seems taken aback. It is an odd thing to have a surgeon show a bit of wonder. Professionally, these guys own the universe, it seems, and take everything in stride. He is obviously gifted as a surgeon, and is kind in his manner. “It couldn’t have gone better. If it were my daughter,” he says quietly, glancing around to see if any of his colleagues might be watching him, “I’d be ecstatic. I’d be dancing a jig.” He smiles. I can’t keep my smile back, or the tears of joy. In Christianity we call it prevenient grace: God working ahead of time for a particular event in the future. It’s just like the God I follow to plan the route of a bullet through a brain long before Batman ever rises. Twenty-two years before.
While we’re talking, Petra awakes. She opens her eyes, and sits up, “Mom.” Movie-star doctor spins to grab her, to protect her from falling. The nurse assures him she’s been doing this for a while. He talks to her, and she talks back. He asks questions, and Petra has the right answers. “Where do you hurt, Petra?” “All over.” Amazed, but professional, he smiles and leaves the set shaking his head. I am so thankful for this man.
Petra is groggy and beat up, but she is herself. Honestly, I look worse before my morning coffee. “I’m thirsty,” she proclaims.
“You want an ice cube, honey?” Kim replies.
“Please.” Wow. She lays down, back to sleep, a living miracle who doesn’t even know it yet. Good flowering out of the refuse pile of a truly dark night. “Thank you, Jesus,” I whisper.
Petra, you are amazing. Kim, you, too, are amazing. I am so proud of you both. But God, you are in a league of your own. (Duh.)
There is much ahead. More surgery. Facial reconstruction, perhaps. And for Kim, chemo therapy to stretch every moment out of life. But life remains.The ending is yet to be written for this family. One final note: I am told Petra will take her first steps today. Time for the miracle to go for a walk.
Medical update. The neurosurgeons involved have reviewed post-surgery MRI brain scans and clarified Petra’s injury to the family. The channel was not a “defect,” as we originally understood it to be. As the family understands it now, it is more of a fluid-filled pocket which starts right where the bullet entered Petra’s brain. Everyone has these channels, it seems, in random places. According to her doctors, the miracle is not that Petra’s brain was different than others, or deformed. The miracle is that the bullet hit Petra exactly where this fluid pocket occurred in her brain, and then traveled a journey through her brain missing all the vital areas. With the family’s permission, one of Petra’s doctors, Dr. Michael Rauzzino, was interviewed for NBC News today:
“If the pellet had wavered a millimeter, really in any direction from what it actually took, then she would have likely either died or been severely injured. I would say this is definitely a miracle…It would be hard to create a path similar to this where it goes all the way from the front to the back and misses every single blood vessel, doesn’t bother any of the major structures, and leaves her able to talk and move everything and not be paralyzed or dead. Never in my entire career have I seen a case where a bullet has traversed the entire brain like this and not caused severe damage or death.”
For the full story by Amanda Leitsinger, you can go to “Shotgun pellet’s ‘miracle’ path spared Aurora victim’s life” at NBCNews.com.
With each new day, the learning continues for us. As we find out more, we will continue these updates.
Author’s Update on 8/21/12, 14:22: Petra and her family flew last night down to Houston. Petra is healing well, but Kim, Petra’s mom, has taken a turn for the worse. The flight back to Denver may be replace by a quicker flight over a greater distance: the journey from Earth to Heaven. Kim’s cancer-filled body is about to die.
We trust God in all of this, and we are thankful that God gave Kim a chance to help care for and heal her little girl. Throughout Petra’s ordeal, Kim has been the kind of loving parent we all desire to have and to be. We gather with sadness but unshaken faith. Death is no one’s friend, but it has no power over the spirit set free by Christ. Death becomes simply a doorway to a new place where intimacy with God and others is as natural as breathing. Soon, Kim will be released to be as she was designed to be. We ask you to pray for the family, and ask the Father that the short time they have together will be rich and joyous.
Author’s Update on 8/1/12, 16:34:Petra has been doing very well in the rehab hospital. She is learning to move and think again. Her memory still responds slowly. We are proud of her dedication, and her desire to get on with her life. She listens to her music, and has even been surprised by her boyfriend playing his clarinet for her. One newspaper reporter wrote:
“Each morning for the past few days, Austin Hogan has carefully pulled out his clarinet, put in a reed and played music in the hospital room. His audience, lying on her back, is quiet and lets it wash over her. The first day he did it, Hogan played something from Mozart. The next day, she asked for something faster. For Petra Anderson — whose survival is nothing short of a miracle, says her doctor — the music delivers something the tubes snaking into her arm from the IV drip simply can’t. It feeds her soul.” (update: Petra and Austin married a year later).
The family surrounds Petra with love, and the prayers of thousands carry her along. Some day soon she might even get to go home to her own room, her own bed, her own refrigerator. What a day that will be. Thank you for traveling this journey with her. As well, at Petra’s and the family’s urging, Kim is now out of state for a few days, receiving chemo therapy in hopes of extending her life with her family. We pray that it is powerful and effective. This medical process is a difficult and trying ascent for Kim, who is already weary. She deeply appreciates your prayers.(For the full story from David Montero, Salt Lake Tribune, go to, “Petra’s story: Aurora victim survives thanks to a ‘miracle’”).