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Archive for July, 2012

A Miracle Inside the Aurora Shooting: One Victim’s Story


A Miracle Inside the Aurora Shooting: One Victim’s Story



At Columbine, I have seen this before. But not up close.  As a church pastor in Denver, I have worked as a chaplain with 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 had from birth a small “defect” in it. It is a tiny channel of fluid running through her skull, like a tiny vein through marble, or a small hole in an oak board, winding from front to rear.  Only a CAT scan would catch it, and Petra would have never noticed it.

But 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 defect. Like a marble through a small tube, the defect channels the bullet from Petra’s nose through her brain. It turns slightly several times, 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.  Like a giant BB though a straw created in Petra’s brain before she was born, it follows the route of the defect. It is channeled in the least harmful way. A millimeter in any direction and the channel is missed.  The brain is destroyed. Evil wins a round.

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 surgerys. 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.

Kim and Petra need our help. For more on the Andersons, or to help with their medical costs, please visit here. This is a great site.




Former lifeguards pay tribute to ‘Bird Lady of North Avenue Beach’

Arens beach memorial

Former Chicago life guards raise glasses of lemonade in memory of Eleanor Aren at North Beach. Eleanor passed away at the age of 85 on July 3. The former life guards used lemonade in the toast in honor of the lemonade Eleanor would frequently bring to life guards while they were on duty. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune / July 15, 2012)

By Barbara Brotman Tribune reporter

9:49 p.m. CDT, July 15, 2012

They stood at the edge of the beach late Sunday afternoon, North Avenue lifeguards of beach days past, ready to pay tribute. But exactly where should the memorial be held?

“Her old spot,” George Velisaris called out.

They headed out onto the sand. Everyone knew where it was: midway into the sand on Beach No. 2, just north of the North Avenue overpass over Lake Shore Drive.

Eleanor Arens occupied that spot for at least 60-odd years, and was a frequent beach visitor even longer, since her childhood in the early 1930s.

She was an instantly recognizable fixture along the lakefront, ensconced amidst an elaborate assemblage of beach chairs wrapped in a canvas windbreak or feeding flocks of birds that circled around her head.

But the Bird Lady of North Avenue Beach has flown.

Arens, 85, died of atherosclerosis on July 3, leaving behind memories of a summer-long beach party and the lifeguards’ best friend.

“Eleanor was like part of the beach,” said Joe Pecoraro, 82, the legendary longtime head of Chicago Park District beaches and pools, now retired, who attended the beach memorial.

He met her in 1949 when he was a rookie lifeguard at North Avenue, and became a friend for years. “Eleanor and her mother used to come down and feed the lifeguards,” he said. “Even on a bad day, they’d come down just to drop off some biscuits or rolls for the lifeguards. They never forgot the kids.”

The kids never forgot her.

Now grownups, they turned a lifeguard reunion they had planned for Sunday into a tribute. Over pounding music at Castaways, the rooftop restaurant at the beach, they told how Arens had looked out for them.

“We’d out there in the sun four hours straight, and just when you were about to give out because of third, here came Eleanor with lemonade,” said Velisaris, who worked at North Avenue from 1988 to 1993 and organized the memorial.

Everyone remembered the lemonade. It was the best they had ever tasted, and Arens somehow managed to serve it over ice, even after she had been sitting on the beach for hours.

“Every morning I would beg – beg! – to work on Beach 2,” said Leanne Fanelli.

It wasn’t just the lemonade. Arens gave out peaches, too – sweet, juicy ones that rivaled the lemonade- and grapes, cookies and sandwiches.

And not just for the lifeguards. Her beach encampment became a daily party, said Mary Beth Sammons, who was not at the memorial but grew up as part of the beach scene because her mother knew Arens for more than 60 years.

“There were famous and not-famous people from all walks of life who knew her, and would stop by to say hi,” Sammons said. “She created a community for these disparate people like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

It didn’t end when summer did. Arens invited beach people, including some who were homeless, to her home for her Christmas parties.

“She had the most wonderful parties,” said Isabel Von Driska, Sammons’ mother. “She was the best hostess.”

She was kind and generous, her friends say. She helped pay college costs for several young people in her neighborhood who needed help, said Velisaris. And when Arens learned that her Polish caregiver’s daughter had a cleft palate, she arranged for a surgeon to correct it, without charge.

“She helped support me,” said that daughter, Zofia Starosciak, now 49 and a radiation technologist living in Brookfield. “I didn’t know the language, I was going to school – she would help me with immigration, everything. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to make it.”

Famously, she fed birds on a massive scale, hauling numerous 25-bags of seed to the circular drive off the parking lot.

“The birds knew her car,” Pecoraro said. “When Eleanor’s car would enter the circle, all the birds would gather around and sit on the fence and wait for her.”

She also fed birds at her homes, on the Northwest Side and then in Melrose Park. Dismayed neighbors complained, and Arens was ticketed numerous times.

She was following in parental footsteps. It was her mother, Katharina Baumgartner, who started feeding the birds on the lakefront.

Arens’ parents were Austrian immigrants. Her father, who had been given passage to the U.S. when he was mustered out of the Austrian Imperial Navy after World War I, went to North Avenue Beach frequently.

“This was the Depression,” said Katherine Arens, Eleanor’s her daughter, professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “It was where you went.”

Baumgartner was an iconic beach presence herself. When she died in the early 1980s, six lifeguards served as pallbearers, in uniform of white jeans, lifeguard shirts and jackets, and whistles.

Arens worked as a corporate paralegal for various law firms. Von Driska met her when they worked for law firms in the same La Salle Street building.

“We used to go ice skating together,” Von Driska said. “That’s where she met her husband, at the ice skating rink.” They became part of a sociable group of friends who went out to plays and dinner for years.

Arens’ husband, Edward, a field engineer with General Electric, died in 1998.

She kept going to the beach. “She went as long as she could go,” her daughter said, until ill health intervened about four years ago.

The young lifeguards fought over who one would get to help the aging Arens. “She was like our North Avenue grandma,” said Nora Kennelly, 22.

“Toward the end, we took her in a wheelchair loaned to us by the boat house,” said Pamela Myers, her caregiver.”We walked her into the water.”

“Oh, she loved that beach.”

The beach loved her back.

The lifeguards stood in a circle at her spot, the sand golden, the water a rich, rolling blue, the air warm, the beach perfect.

“Today we are here to honor one of the most special people on the beach – someone who took care of everyone, whether it was a bird or a person,” Velisaris said. “She took care of all of us, and the world is a better place for her.”

The lifeguards raised their Solo cups.

“To Eleanor Arens,” Velisaris said.

“Eleanor Arens,” they chorused.

And they drank a toast.

Of lemonade.



Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

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