CMN Miracle Kids: Nathaniel Tavarez and Kendal Sanders
LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - It was January 2014, when Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, New Mexico, was thrown into the national spotlight.
Life changed forever for the students there, when a 12-year-old pulled a sawed off shotgun from his backpack.
This is the story of what happened that day, and the miracles that followed:
At Berrendo Middle School, students were gathering in the gym. The flag was up and school was about to start.
That's when the first blast came.
"I thought it was a firecracker," student Kendal Sanders said.
"I thought it was a bomb," classmate Nathaniel Tavarez said.
Sanders and Tavarez are the two children who were airlifted to the Children's Hospital at UMC.
The doctors who treated them can still clearly remember that emotional day of their arrival.
"It was the worst possible nightmare to get the call there's been a shooting, a school shooting," trauma surgeon Dr. Thomas McGill said. "Nathaniel came with multiple holes in his face."
"We expected the worst," said pediatric intensivist Dr. Tiva Kasemsri. "His face was essentially torn apart."
"Gunshot pellets were not only in his face and eyes and chest, but also in his brain," said pediatric intensivist Dr. Kerrie Pinkney.
Both McGill and Tiva gave 'major kudos to everyone in Roswell' who took care of Nathaniel during that first 'golden hour' of his emergency.
Both agreed that initial quick response and effective opening of the airways kept Nathaniel alive so he could be airlifted to Lubbock for specialized care.
"He came in shock," said Tiva. "It was quite amazing the team effort [to keep him alive.]"
"I was coming down the bleachers and my friends said, 'Kendall you've been shot!'" Kendall recalls. "I looked back at Nathaniel and saw his hands covering his face and there was blood everywhere."
The first miracle was that first responders kept Tavarez alive.
Meanwhile, Facebook exploded with the news, and parents rushed to the campus. Word spread fast that a seventh grader had pulled a sawed off shotgun from his backpack and fired three random shots in the school gym.
Nathaniel's mother, Donna Tavarez, said, "We just prayed and prayed and prayed."
Donna flew with Tavarez to Lubbock and into UMC's level one trauma center.
Alfred, his father, was already in Lubbock and rushed to the hospital.
The immediate concern was Tavarez' heart, which was struggling from so much internal bleeding.
"I didn't get to see him," Alfred recalled tearfully. "And then I was just waiting. I was a really long wait. At one point, there were five doctors in that operating room at the same time."
Dr. Frank Quattromani is a pediatric radiologist who remembers that day in the emergency room.
"I honestly thought it would end in the emergency room," Quattromani said. "He's not supposed to be alive with this. You don't live through this."
The CAT scan images of Tavarez' injury are shocking. Dr. Quattromani explained that every single white dot on the images represent a shotgun pellet. There are hundreds, maybe 1,000 of them.
"You can't dig these out", he said. "You'd do more damage. This is the worst I've ever seen, other than at war. We've seen soldiers come back from war and if there's a shotgun blast or a shrapnel blast, that's what it looks like. This is a war injury."
There's a pellet right in the middle of his brain, and an entire cluster in his left eye.
His right eye was also severely injured. So much so, that both eyes were swollen shut for a month after the shooting.
Now, with a very strong contact lens in the right eye and powerful glasses, Nathaniel has some vision on that side.
"His healing has been miraculous in the right eye," Mitchell said.
Another priority after the shooting was to relieve the swelling in Tavarez' brain.
Dr. Belirgen explained how close it was.
"Maybe even minutes later," Belirgen said, "he wouldn't have made it. [It was] very urgent."
In the follow-up, he checks the curved scar-line halfway around Tavarez' head in hair that is barely growing out.
That scar marks the line where Belirgen hurried to cut into the skull to remove a section of bone, called a bone flap, to allow the brain space to swell until the pressure went down again.
That section of bone was saved in a bone bank to give the brain time to relax.
"After two weeks," Belirgen said, "we took that bone flap and put it back into the original place."
Amazingly, with screws to keep it in place, the bone flap was returned to the skull, using the original scar line.
"The progress he is making is amazing," Belirgen added. "Miracle, total miracle."
However, Tavarez was the first emergency.
Kendal Sanders, another seventh grader, was also shot, but didn't realize it until she was leaving the gym.
Her parents, Nickie and Bert Sanders, said that before they knew what was happening, they were flying to UMC.
During exploratory surgery, Sanders had damage repair done to her liver, kidney and heart.
Quattromani decided after studying her CAT scan images that she must have been turned to the right with her elbow resting up on something, because the pellets mostly got her in the inside of that arm and down that side of the chest.
Sanders said later that she was turned to the right with her right arm resting on someone in a bleacher above her. She has pellet marks on the inside of that right arm, and a spray of pellets down the right side of her chest.
Dr. Samuel Campbell, a vascular surgeon, explained that a second surgery later to repair nerve damage in her right arm revealed something more serious there.
"She had an injury to the artery when a pellet had gone through the artery itself," Campbell said. "So that meant we had to cut out a segment of it and use some other vein to do a bypass."
Originally, they had hoped to take a vein from her ankle, but it turned out to be too small. So, they had to take a vein from her thigh instead to use for that bypass.
"What was supposed to be a 45 minute surgery took five hours with an entirely different team of doctors," Nickie said.
Tavarez was home schooled this spring during his recovery, especially while his vision improves. Sanders, on the other hand, returned to Berrendo Middle School to finish out the school year.
To see her smiling with her friends, you'd think she has recovered.
"Everybody sees (the scars on) her arm and her ankle," Nickie said, "but the extent of her injuries are so much more than that. She's in a lot of pain all the time with her back."
"She's a tough, tough girl," Bert added, with tears in his eyes
In both sets of CAT scans for Sanders and Tavarez, one thing is certain. The doctors agreed that the pellets are too numerous and too dangerous to remove. So all of them will stay where they are.
Both Sanders and Tavarez know there is always the risk they could shift and cause more damage or pain, but that's not stopping either of them from having fun with their friends, and just enjoying lives.
Dr. Kerrie Pinkney, pediatric intensivist, laughed when she remembers how Tavarez would dance in the hospital and ask her to dance with him. "That kid can cut a rug!" she said. "He's a miracle child in his own right, injury aside. He has an amazing attitude."
"It's a huge blessing that he made it," Sanders agreed. "He has a very positive attitude. He makes me feel like I need to have a positive attitude too."
Tavarez is just as kind when he talks about Sanders.
"She's one of my best friends," he said. "We have an everlasting friendship. We're fighting this together."
Turn the pages of this year's Berrendo Middle School Year Book and the shooting is referenced only by the day that it happened – January 1st, 2014.
There's no story, no explanation, just a big picture in each top corner of the girl and the boy who flew to UMC on a prayer.
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