Just 18 months old when a drunk driver plowed into her in the front yard of her suburban San Antonio, TX, home in 2009, Ava Lopez remembers nothing of a trauma impossible for her family to forget.
And with Ava, now 11, still facing effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—an imprint of her head was found on the windshield when the driver was arrested—finding forgiveness hasn’t been easy either.
“It was just such a senseless act,” said Ava’s mom, Traci. “The lives of our family changed in seconds.”
Traci and her older daughter, Isa, who was 3 at the time, were also injured, though less severely. If not for Traci’s training as an ICU nurse, and the arrival home of Ava’s dad, Manny, a former battlefield surgeon, the pig-tailed toddler likely would have died on the grass.
The driver, with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, was charged with intoxication assault and failure to stop and render aid. She fled the accident scene on bare tire rims, creating a trail of sparks and smoke.
The woman was eventually convicted by a jury, and sentenced to 6 months in jail and 10 years of probation. Ava’s sentence, in comparison, is a lifetime of health and other challenges related to the senseless act. Traci said of her daughter, “We will never know what could have been.”
What has been instead for Ava is ongoing recovery. After spending 2 ½ weeks in a coma, she had to re-learn how to walk, talk, even swallow. Many of her developmental milestones were delayed, and a recently diagnosed seizure disorder adds a layer of complexity to learning for a girl who loves school.
But to focus on what has been lost doesn’t honor Ava’s amazing progress. Traci said, “There are doctors we run into occasionally who tear up when they see her. They can’t believe where she is now, and how far she has come.”
With that in mind, Traci launched a nonprofit to support pediatric head-trauma patients, and others, at University Hospital in San Antonio. Since 2010, Ava’s Wish has provided hundreds of families with blankets and toiletries, and shared Ava’s story as a source of inspiration. Traci also sets up CaringBridge sites for parents to share health updates and stay connected.
As much as Ava’s Wish has helped others, Traci said she has received even more in return. “The way things happened to Ava … I had a lot of anger,” she said. “I knew I had two choices; I could go in a negative direction, or I could do something positive and turn it around. As a mom with three kids to take care of, I just had to choose the positive.”
Making that choice has been healing for Traci, although she wonders whether a mother’s heart can ever fully heal after a child is injured in such a reckless way. But Traci said she always tries to focus, with intention, on good over bad.
“This accident has made my children who they are today,” Traci said of Ava, Isa, now 13, and son, Jack, 16. “I’m super-proud of how kind and compassionate they are, because it has been painful and hard for our family … years of questioning and ‘what-ifs.’ But we have all learned that you can’t really look back. You just have to move forward.”
In that spirit, Ava’s Wish and University Children’s Health in San Antonio are working together to design and integrate a pediatric rehab unit into the new, $390 million Women’s & Children’s Tower, set to open in 2022. In the meantime, an Ava’s Wish pediatric rehab gym and garden will be taking shape in 2019, in existing spaces at University Hospital.
“Our family had so much support when we needed it,” Traci said. “Having something that can help other families is just a real positive thing … a way to give back.”