Photographers' Blog

In this together: A recipe for survival

February 28, 2011

In the weeks after the mass shooting in Arizona in early January, the question in newsrooms and kitchens alike was: How long would it take Gabrielle Giffords to recover and could she ever hope to return to work in the U.S. Congress?

Never mind that she had survived a gunshot to her head at point blank range, we still wanted to know: How long? Six to nine months? Eight to 10 weeks? Years?

These were the same questions asked during my own medical crisis some 20 years earlier. I remember waking up in an emergency room and hearing talk of seizures (seven) and a brain tumor. Subsequent MRI & CT scans would confirm a tennis ball-sized mass.

The how long questions and answers I heard in the days that followed were hard to swallow. Among them one stands out: Six months to a year and a half was the answer. The question was not about recovery time but how long I could expect to live. The consensus by several doctors was the tumor was malignant.

That's my Mom and I at my old house on Christmas Day, 1991. My whole family brought Christmas dinner 200-miles from Pennsylvania, secured my release from the hospital for the day and we had dinner together.

People involved in traumatic events like that day in Tucson often speak of how things unfold in slow motion. That day in the hospital was no different for me. As a neurologist broke the news, it became very quiet. Even as he continued to speak, quiet. I didn’t cry, I didn’t say a word.

I was 30 years old. It was August 1990.

The night before, I went to a concert with friends and then worked an overnight shift. In between the drive home and waking up in the emergency room that Saturday morning, I remember very little. A linebacker-sized paramedic who took me to the hospital told me of the seizures and showed me a nasty bruise on his arm I had caused, handing me the shredded remains of what once was my T-shirt. Until that day, I had rarely had headaches, let alone suffered a grand mal seizure.

Despite the shock of the attacks and the initial diagnosis, I was allowed to go home after a few days of tests. I would return for surgery little more than a week later. I had time to plan and to pray; to surround myself with family and friends as the day of surgery approached.

Giffords was afforded no such opportunity. That bullet thrust her into a fight for her life. Survival would not guarantee recovery, which could take months or years in any event.

In my case, the successful removal of what turned out to be a benign cyst (still the size of a tennis ball) allowed me to return to work in less than two months. Fourteen months later, another mass was spotted during a follow-up MRI. A second surgery was scheduled for December 6, 1991. Despite an anticipated recovery period of eight to 10 weeks, it would be January 1994 — more than two years — before I would return to work full-time. Complications during surgery would leave me partially paralyzed on my left side. Once again, family and friends rallied to my side.

Daniel Hernandez (R), the 20-year-old intern credited with likely saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), hugs Giffords' husband NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly  at the "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" event held to support and remember the victims of the mass shooting, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, January 12, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

On the day of the shooting in Arizona, several people were instrumental in Giffords surviving the attack. The bravery of intern Daniel Hernandez to move toward her, the gunman’s apparent target, and his efforts to slow the bleeding from her gushing head wound while holding her upright to prevent her from choking on her own blood may have saved her life. The reactions of 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who grabbed ammunition away from the gunman, and two others who tackled him, were no less heroic in the chaos.

74-year-old retired Army Colonel Bill Badger (L) holds up the hand of 61-year-old Patricia Maisch (C) as the two are applauded by the crowd, along with others who were at the shooting scene for cooperating to stop and disarm the gunman, at the "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America" event held to support and remember the victims of the mass shooting, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, January 12, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Emergency room doctors will tell you that actions taken early can make all the difference in saving lives. But what about her remarkable progress since those early days? Two University Medical Center doctors addressed that very question at a news conference a week after the shooting.

Dr. Michael Lemore, when asked if her survival and progress had been miraculous, spoke of an incident when Giffords was visited by several close congressional colleagues on the day of a memorial held for the shooting victims. Lemore described the moment Giffords first opened her eyes during that visit, pausing to emphasize the healing power of what he called the “unexpected familiarity” that friends and family bring.

“A lot of medicine is outside of our control and we are wise to acknowledge miracles,” he said. “This is the part that doctors have the hardest time with, these intangibles in medicine that we cannot quantify.”

Physical Therapist Ann Malarkey works on colleague, rehabilitation technicianAlan Jones, at Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, February 25, 2011. Ann and Alan were part of my treatment team when I was at Mount Vernon. REUTERS/Stelios Varias

Physical Therapist Ann Malarkey works on colleague, rehabilitation technicianAlan Jones, at Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, February 25, 2011. Ann and Alan were part of my treatment team when I was at Mount Vernon. REUTERS/Stelios Varias

In my case, the heroes and the healing power of their “unexpected familiarities” were revealed in several ways:

* In a longtime coworker and friend, who would not only keep me focused on the goal of returning to work but arranged for blood donors, milkshake deliveries and brought together more colleagues on my behalf than I could ever have hoped to on my own.

* In two sisters, who for more than a year would drive nearly 200 miles from Pennsylvania to help take care of me, while still having to run the family restaurant back home. They were both trainers and caseworkers. When they weren’t pushing me to do one more leg lift, they were demanding the best from my doctors. One month after surgery, Annie and Mary helped me transfer to Mount Vernon Hospital, home to one of the nation’s leading rehabilitation programs.

* In a team of therapists who could see behind the mask of my brain injury and envision a fully healed photographer, father and otherwise regular guy. They were creative and always energetic with a regimen that kept me hopeful and motivated to work hard at coming back. They weren’t just great at what they do, they were my saving grace.

Physical Therapist Ann Malarkey works on colleague, rehabilitation technicianAlan Jones, at Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, February 25, 2011. Ann and Alan were part of my treatment team when I was at Mount Vernon. REUTERS/Stelios Varias

The doctors cannot be sure how long Giffords will take to recover. But one thing is clear to me. Whether it’s the lift we get from family and friends, the medical professionals who care for us or our own determination to recover from serious injury, we are in this together. And acknowledging that is an important step on the road.

April 2011 will mark my 24th anniversary with Reuters and I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge those who made my comeback possible.

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

What Stel is too gracious to mention is his incredible determination, mixed with humor and faith, that brought him back into the newsroom. Faced with odds and circumstances that would crumble most souls, he bounced back with results, and an outlook, that are truly inspiring. For those of us who work with him everyday, and have been here long enough to see this journey, it is quite inspirational.

Posted by RTRPIXDC2 | Report as abusive
 

I wasn’t blessed to know the “before” Stel, just the “after.” I can only echo the previous comment: Stel’s faith and humor are key parts of the person we see each day.

Stel Varias is on my own short list of people to call when things go wrong and I need a friend. He has a strong work ethic that also flows into the many hours he has spent assisting his church and the Cub Scouts & Boy Scouts. This same desire to give to the community flows through his family, and his sons and wife are also active participants in our church and in Scouting.

I’m very fortunate to know Stel. In a world taht sometimes seems to be full of bad guys and gloom, Stel Varias is a shining light of what we all desire to become, with a little effort, a little faith, and a little support.

Posted by Roger_Baker | Report as abusive
 

Powerful and inspirational. Thanks for sharing Stel.

Posted by sinpix | Report as abusive
 

test

Posted by freedomadvocate | Report as abusive
 

Very insightful and tremendously courageous piece Stel. I am grateful to you for sharing your first-hand wisdom. I will never forget the concept of “Compensatory Strategy” that you learned from your caretakers and passed on to your colleagues as shared knowledge.
God Bless You Stel!

Posted by kangphoto | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/