‘You’re a Quadriplegic’: A Las Vegas Victim Faces a Hard Reality

LOMA LINDA, Calif. — “This is your life,” the doctor said. “You’re a quadriplegic.”

When she heard the news, Kim Gervais broke down. The tears rolled out, and her daughter clasped her mother’s head, overcome by her own inability to help.

Then came Ms. Gervais’s trip home to Southern California. And here she was, three weeks after the shooting, strapped into a wheelchair at a rehabilitation clinic, toughing it out with a physical therapist and straining to drink from a sippy cup as her toddler grandchildren looked on.

This is the road after Las Vegas, after a high-stakes gambler named Stephen Paddock hauled powerful weapons into a gilded casino and opened fire on a country music festival below. The journey — as the survivors of so many other American mass shootings will say — is one full of chronic pain, fights with insurance, ruined marriages, lost jobs, anguished parents and children, and the injustice of being forced into a new identity: victim.

And this time, with 58 people dead, at least 161 pierced by bullets, and more than 20,000 concertgoers from around the country left to soak in the memories of that night, the web of trauma spans from coast to coast, linking the casualties of this attack with those of all the others. San Bernardino. Aurora. Orlando. Newtown. And on and on.

Some people left Las Vegas with a few trample wounds and the vision of a night gone horribly wrong. Others face radically altered lives.

Ms. Gervais went to the concert with two friends, Dana Smith and Pati Mestas. For years they had attended country shows together, giddy when they planned each adventure. On Oct. 1, they were just three California grandmothers joining the rest of crowd in singing “God Bless America.

Then came the crack of gunfire, and they were three panicked women trapped in a killing field.

Pati died.

A bullet hit Kim in the back.

Only Dana emerged unharmed.

So much of the attention in the aftermath of mass shootings has been focused on the gunman and the number left dead in his wake. But the injured who survive carry a special burden. “We all kind of forget that these people have to live with it for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Bryan Tsao, chair of the neurology department at Loma Linda University Health.

Dr. Tsao is still treating three patients from the 2015 San Bernardino attack. Battered physically and emotionally, none have been able to return to work, he said.

Kim Gervais, right, with her friends Pati Mestas, left, and Dana Smith at a country music club. Creditvia Dana Smith

He described the post-shooting process as one of deconstructing old lives and reconstructing new ones.

“Those that I’ve seen that cannot — that cannot stop dwelling on the tragedy of it, on the injustice of it, on their permanent disability — they don’t do well,” he said. “They take the struggle and kind of go down a different road.”

“He took a part of me that I can’t get back”

Ms. Gervais is being treated at Loma Linda, not far from her house, and just four miles from the scene of the San Bernardino attack.

On Day 19 of her recovery, she was in her hospital room, in the wheelchair, wearing a neck brace and thick compression socks. A humidifier puffed mist above her head. Her daughter Amber Manka, 30, stood by with her own two children.

Ms. Gervais, 56, runs a business servicing trash compactors. She spends — or spent — her weekends riding ATVs in the desert, wearing leather gloves and a full-face helmet. When her husband, a sprint car racer, died after a crash, she raised her two girls on her own.

She had lived a difficult life, she said, which steeled her for challenges. But even for her, this was a lot. “I’m disgusted,” she said of the gunman. “I’m angered, I have all kinds of emotions toward him. Because he took a part of me that I can’t get back.”

She blames her injuries on Mr. Paddock, not the casino or the concert host or gunmakers. “I have nothing against guns. Just him.”

She has no feeling in her legs, and extremely limited use of her arms. Her daughters saw it as a victory when she was able to bend and extend her elbows, something doctors had not expected. She does about three hours of physical therapy a day.

“Why would one person do something like this to people?” she said. “If you’re that unhappy with your life, why hurt others?”

Kim Gervais, in a photograph on her GoFundMe page, in rehabilitation at Loma Linda University Health. CreditAmber Manka

At night, the workers here turn her every few hours, to prevent bedsores. And sometimes she wakes up shaking.

Her daughter, Ms. Manka, has steered the family since the shooting, aided by her husband and younger sister.

She already has anxiety, and when she learned that her mother had been shot, she spent an hour vomiting.

In private, Ms. Manka said she was overwhelmed. “But mostly I just try to keep that away from her,” she said.

At the hospital, a man entered with a clipboard and said he was there to discuss the equipment Ms. Gervais will need when she goes home, which could be weeks or months from now. Among her needs are an expensive wheelchair, a remodeled bathroom, a new car, a nurse, and a way to run her business and pay her mortgage.

“You know,” he said, looking at the women, “your insurance will probably not cover any of this.”

Many families caught in mass attacks have found it difficult to pay for or get the care they need. Insurance companies put up fights. Donations run out.

After the San Bernardino shooting, the county repeatedly denied or delayed coverage to survivors, leaving people without the medicines, therapy and health aides their doctors said they needed.

Ms. Gervais would have to figure out the money later. For now, Ms. Manka used her right arm to spoon butter noodles into her mother’s mouth and her left to hold her daughter on her hip.

Pati Mestas with her son Brandon in 2011. Ms. Mestas was killed in the Las Vegas attack.CreditMarilynn Herman, via Associated Press

“Can I have some milk?” Ms. Gervais said.

Her daughter smiled and held the straw to her mother’s lips.

“I left one in the morgue and one in the hospital”

That night, a friend of Ms. Gervais had arranged a bingo fund-raiser to help pay for some of the costs. Collections from a GoFundMe page the family had started would barely cover the wheelchair.

Two hundred people crowded into an elementary school cafeteria, where a large sign bore the school motto: “No Excuses at Sky Country.”

“O-72!” said the bingo announcer.

At a lunch table in the back sat Dana Smith, the only one of the three women to make it out unscathed. She wore a blue shirt that matched her blue eyes.

Ms. Smith, 52, had known both Kim and Pati for more than 20 years, and was the one who had brought them all together.

In the weeks since the shooting, she had left the house three times, she said. She does not sleep or eat much, and spends time watching videos of that night, as if to remind herself it was real.

Some days she gets out of bed. “Wednesday I didn’t,” she said. “It was like I didn’t care. There was nothing to get me going.”

She has not returned to her job as an aide at a high school, because she is worried that the popping of milk cartons, a student prank, will throw her into a panic.

Melissa Strassner can relate. She was 14 in 1999, when two of her classmates went on a killing spree at Columbine High School. She watched them shoot her friend Anne Marie Hochhalter, and six months after the school shooting, Anne Marie’s mother killed herself.

The memorial home where Ms. Mestas’s funeral was set to take place. CreditStuart Palley for The New York Times

“I felt like it had been my fault,” Ms. Strassner said. “If I had not run away from her, maybe she would not have been paralyzed, maybe her mother wouldn’t have made the decision she made.”

“You’re never going to be the person you were the day before the shooting,” she added. “You have to mourn the loss of that person.”

Ms. Smith had visited Ms. Gervais a few days before the fund-raiser. That was difficult, she said, because she feels guilty for being able to walk, for being alive. And she feels guilty for feeling guilty, wishing she could bury her own anguish to help her friends.

She is seeing a therapist, but is still haunted by the facts. “Three of us went,” she said. “And I left one in the morgue and one in the hospital.”

“Mr. Stephen Paddock: I forgive you, sir”

The night of the concert, Pati Mestas, 67, had moved to the front row, where she danced while her friends hung back.

This was typical for Ms. Mestas, who was one of the Go Girls, fans of a country radio station who wore wristbands so they could find each other at shows. She died wearing cowgirl boots and a star-spangled T-shirt.

She had spent most of the past 15 years living with her son Jeremy Schmidt, his wife and their four children. She was the one who sneaked the little ones candy, who let them watch what they wanted on television.

After the shooting, Mr. Schmidt raced to Las Vegas, unsure if his mother was alive. His youngest daughter, age 8, kept asking her mother: “Did Dad find Nana?”

When Mr. Schmidt returned, he wrote in a Facebook post what he had told his daughter:

What I won’t do is harbor hate in my heart for the man who did this senseless act of violence.

I will not allow my kids to let hate grow in their hearts for this man.

He was so troubled that he thought ruining other people’s lives was the answer.

Well Mr. Stephen Paddock: I forgive you, sir.

Ms. Mestas’s three children, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild, two brothers and many cousins set her funeral for Saturday, Oct. 28, at a memorial home guarded by a statue of Jesus leading his flock.

Ms. Smith said she planned to attend.

Ms. Gervais would not be able to leave the hospital.

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