For some massacre survivors and their families, there is no leaving Las Vegas

Sunday, 15 October 2017 17:02 Written by  Read 26 times
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Francisco Calzadillas, a 32-year-old Arizona resident, shares a meal with his brother, Orlando, left, at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. Francisco’s wife, Jovanna, was gravely wounded at the Route 91 Harvest music festival. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

LAS VEGAS — T he goodbyes were brief. What can you say to a man whose wife is in intensive care with a bullet in her brain?

Francisco Calzadillas’s family just offered him their tightest hugs and words of encouragement: “You’re so strong.” “Take care.” “Please, please let us know if you need anything.”

It had been a week since Jovanna Calzadillas, 30, was critically wounded in the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. As her husband kept vigil at her bedside, more than 45 family members — siblings, godparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends so close they might as well be brothers — converged on the city to support them.

“But now they have to get back to their lives,” Francisco, 32, said after the crowd had gone. “I want them to.”

For Francisco, there is no leaving Las Vegas. His wife, Jovanna, remains on life support, her prognosis unclear, and he will not consider returning to their Queen Creek, Ariz., home without her. He has settled into his new reality: Spending 14-hour days in the intensive care unit at University Medical Center. Eating bad pizza in the hospital cafeteria. Collapsing into bed in an impersonal hotel room each night, waking up in the mornings alone.

But as long as Jovanna clings to life, Francisco holds on to the hope that one day they, too, will get to go home.

[In Las Vegas, going back to where they thought they would die]

It had been Jovanna’s idea to come here for the Route 91 Harvest country music festival. Francisco, a police officer and master sergeant in the Air National Guard, had just returned from an eight-month deployment to Kuwait. In his absence, Jovanna was the one who kept the family going, who made sure the children ate and got them to dentist appointments, who did so much of the household’s worrying and supplied so much of its light.

“It’ll be good for us,” she told Francisco when they bought the tickets — although he suspected the bigger draw was Jason Aldean, Jovanna’s favorite country singer and the festival’s closing act. He teased her about it on the five-hour drive from Arizona, in between talk of old memories and new plans.

Jovanna was right: The trip was good, and when Aldean stepped out onstage, she whooped and grinned while Francisco filmed her with his phone. The crowd of thousands roared at the guitar solo — many, like the Calzadillases, had come to Vegas just for this.

During the next song, the shooting began.

There was confusion, then chaos. Jovanna collapsed. Francisco reached for the back of her head and found it covered in blood. A man whose name Francisco never learned told him to take his shirt off so he could plug Jovanna’s wound, and another stranger grabbed Jovanna’s legs to help Francisco carry her to a nearby police car. The two officers in it didn’t ask questions when Francisco shouted “She’s been shot”; they just helped the couple into the back seat and sped toward the hospital. Jovanna was one of the first patients to arrive.

[Armed with a new approach, police and medics stormed through the Las Vegas gunfire, saving lives]

Later, Francisco would think about those people — how they hadn’t hesitated before doing what needed to be done. He would want to learn their names, to thank them. If Jovanna lives, their speed will probably be what saved her.

But right then the nurses were wheeling his wife away, a doctor came out and told him that Jovanna probably wouldn’t survive her wound. In that moment, Francisco felt lonelier than he had been in his entire life.

His first call was to Orlando, his brother and best friend. Orlando, 25, was shocked to hear his older sibling sob into the phone. “I’ve never heard him cry like that before,” he said. “I’ve never heard him cry.”


Orlando Calzadillas shows a video of his critically injured sister-in-law to family and friends gathered at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Orlando and a friend drove through the night to meet Francisco at the hospital. In the hours and days that followed, dozens more family members from Arizona streamed into the city — enough to take over 18 rooms at three hotels. With them came Francisco’s children, 11-year-old Eli and 3-year-old Ariel.

Since only two people could be in Jovanna’s hospital room, the Calzadillas clan filled the visitors lounge at the ICU, dispelling the sterile silence with muted laughter and murmured memories. They kept Orlando’s phone buzzing with calls about lodging logistics, donations of clothes, deliveries of homemade tamales by a friend of a friend who lives in town.

And Francisco began to feel hope — hope that was bolstered Tuesday when Jovanna, finally, miraculously, opened her eyes.

“She’s stronger than they realized,” Francisco said.

Doctors performed surgery to patch the hole in Jovanna’s head, but the swelling in her brain is so bad they could not risk removing the bullet lodged there. They still don’t know whether she’ll recover or, if she does, what kind of life she’ll lead.

For now, she is too fragile to be transferred to a facility in Phoenix, closer to home.

“It’s just wait and see,” Francisco said.

And that’s what he does. He arrives at the hospital every morning before sunrise and stays until long after dark. He avoids the news. He doesn’t remember to eat unless Orlando brings him food.

When officials announced that survivors could start collecting belongings they had lost fleeing the festival, friends went to pick up Jovanna’s cellphone at the convention center. Francisco was only interested in the phone for the photos it contained of him and his wife on the night of the concert — smiling, standing, whole. For him, that was when time stopped.


Family and friends of Jovanna Calzadillas gather in Las Vegas to support her as she tries to recover from critical injuries. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

But for the rest of his family, he knew, life had to go on. Cousin Mario had a son back in Arizona. Uncle Tony needed to return to his job. Three-year-old Ariel was exhausted by the upheaval; one afternoon in the UMC visitors lounge, she kicked her legs and whined for her parents.

“I want Daddy. I want to go to him.”

Lupita, Francisco’s sister, looked distraught. Francisco was in Jovanna’s room, where he’d been all day. “You want to go with me? We’re going swimming.”

Ariel only twisted in her stroller and cried, “No.”

So on Sunday, Francisco sent everyone home. Only Eli, Orlando and Jovanna’s parents remained. Eli told his father he’d leave when Mom did. Orlando told his brother he’d stay wherever Francisco was.

“I told him, ‘Not just your life priorities changed,’  ” the younger man recalled. “Mine have, too. My life has changed, too.”

After the goodbyes, Orlando headed out to buy lunch. He checked his phone — there were several messages from friends wanting an update on Jovanna — then he scrolled through Facebook, pausing to watch a video of Hurricane Nate making landfall on the Gulf Coast.

With his thumb, he swiped away from the images of the country’s latest disaster.

He returned an hour later, carrying a bag of chips and rice bowls from Chipotle and persuaded Francisco to come down to the hospital cafeteria to eat.

It was quiet — just a few nurses drinking coffee, some visitors talking softly on the outdoor patio. A “prayer box” sat atop a counter beside a stack of blank cards.

But Francisco recalled what it looked like a few days ago, when the room was packed with tables of donated clothes and food and volunteers handed out bottled water and well-wishes to everyone who walked through.

“I hated this place,” he said. “I hated the Strip. I hated everything. . . . But with everything they did, I love Las Vegas now.”

Even so, “I will never come back,” he said.

But then he smiled, knowing how stubborn Jovanna can be. “She’s going to want to go back for a Jason Aldean concert.”

If she does, he will join her.

For Jovanna, he would go anywhere. Even here.


Orlando, left, and Francisco Calzadillas share a meal on the cafeteria patio at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. They’re not sure how long they will be in Las Vegas waiting for Francisco’s wife to recover. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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