Vegas Shooting Survivor Continues Remarkable Recovery Five Years Later

Five years after sustaining extremely critical injuries as a result of being shot in the head during the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, a young Arizona mother continues to make significant improvements in her recovery.

Following years of intensive neuro-rehabilitation at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Jovanna Calzadillas, 35, has relearned to walk, talk, and perform independent daily tasks never thought possible in the days following the shooting.  

“I just recently stopped using my wheelchair,” says Jovanna. “My speech and cognition have greatly improved, and most importantly, I’m able to be a hands-on mom and wife. I feel so fortunate and blessed.”

Doctors in Las Vegas who were caring for the massive wave of critical patients told Jovanna’s husband, Frank Calzadillas, that his wife’s brain was so critically injured that she likely would not survive. They suggested removing Jovanna from life support. Frank, however, noticed small responses from his wife and felt strongly to keep her on life support to see if she would improve.

Jovanna was eventually flown by air ambulance to Phoenix to be cared for at Select Specialty Hospital, a long-term care facility that works closely with physicians from the world-renowned Barrow Neurological Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Christina Kwasnica, MD, medical director of Barrow’s Neuro-Rehabilitation Center, who was asked by Select Specialty to assess Jovanna, noticed small signs of responsiveness from her patient.

“Jovanna was shot on the left side of her brain which is the side that processes language, so I knew she wouldn’t be able to comprehend language to follow commands, but her eyes were open and she was able to track in a very small way with her eyes. This told me that she was unresponsive because of a language deficit, not because of the severity of her injury. She was not dying,” Dr. Kwasnica said in 2018.

Additionally, Dr. Lindley Bliss, a hospitalist for Barrow and Select Specialty, made the critical decision to lower the dosage of her medication to see if she would become more alert. He has since called Jovanna’s recovery one of the most profound he’s seen in his medical career.

Within weeks, Jovanna was awake, responsive, and undergoing intensive inpatient neuro-rehabilitation at Barrow to relearn to walk and talk. Nearly three months later, she was discharged from inpatient neuro-rehabilitation and began an intensive outpatient rehab program at Barrow’s Center for Transitional Neuro-Rehabilitation (CTN). Over the next two years, Jovanna spent four to five days a week undergoing intensive therapy at CTN to help her achieve her goal of returning to being a hands-on mom to her two children.  

Jovanna’s long road to recovery has not been easy. She’s had to overcome incredibly painful physical and emotional obstacles. But, her strength, positivity, and perseverance, coupled with her medical care, has carried her to where she is today.

“My life, along with many of the other victims, forever changed five years ago,” says Jovanna. “I suffer a lot from survivor’s guilt and think about the victims and their families every day. It’s hard to imagine what they or their families have had to endure. I want to work hard and live for them and for my family.”

Gunshot wounds to the head are among the most difficult brain injuries to treat. Fifty percent of gunshot wounds to the head are fatal, and patients who survive often have prolonged and difficult recoveries. Dr. Kwasnica, who has treated Jovanna since her arrival in Phoenix, calls Jovanna’s recovery “remarkable.”

“Jovanna is now walking independently and exercising daily. She is able to verbally express everything with only occasional word-finding pauses. She’s been very successful in achieving her goal of becoming independent. This is all remarkable,” says Dr. Kwasnica. “She has never complained, and has never been afraid to try something she may not be able to do. She is always upbeat. I’m so proud of her and the hard work she’s put in throughout her long recovery.”

Jovanna, who said during a press conference at Barrow in January 2018, “I am not going to live my life in fear because of what happened to me,” has held true to her words.

“I’ve been given a second chance of life, and I’m never going to quit. I’m determined to keep moving and working hard to continue improving.”