It’s Christmas, and Ave the Brave is lying in a hospital bed.
Avery Anderson is surrounded by love -- hundreds of photos and cards and paper ornaments -- from her classmates at Ada High School, each penned with a message of hope.
There’s Jesus on a wooden cross and a warrior angel in water colors and the 17-year-old’s own artwork -- blue-black mountains and a verse from Romans. I have loved you at your darkest ...
Santa came to her room at Madonna this morning. Her dad and her younger brother and sister arrived Saturday, joining her mom and her Aunt Kiki, who talks about her niece with tears in her eyes.
It’s been 154 days.
On Day 1, Avery was driving and a friend was in the passenger seat, both of them wearing seat belts.
They were on their way to another friend’s house in the small city of Ada, Oklahoma, and Avery turned, not seeing the other car.
Her friend is home now, her broken pelvis healed. Avery didn’t break a single bone, but the impact bruised her heart and her lungs and her head.
Her heart healed and her lungs healed.
But her head is still hurt. There is a scale that rates brain injuries. It’s called the Rancho Scale and it starts at 1 and progresses to 10; Avery’s score is 2.5.
“That’s considered very severe,” says Avery’s mom. “But she’s been making good progress in our short time here.”
Tiffany Anderson has wavy hair and glasses and chatty southern charm. She’s telling her story from the couch of her daughter’s room in the pediatric wing of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital on Day 151.
Her sister Kim “Kiki” Hill is here, too, and they take turns sleeping on the couch.
They are a long way from southeast Oklahoma and from their old life, where Tiffany was a children’s pastor, and Avery played soccer and strummed the ukulele and served on student council and raised money so she could go on one more mission trip to Haiti or Honduras or Guatemala.
But they are not alone.
“When we first came here, we worried it would just be the two of us sitting here looking at each other,” Kiki says.
“I think we’ve had only one day alone,” Avery’s aunt says.
“None if you count the day the angel dog came,” says Tiffany.
And they do.
* * *
There is a photo outside of Room L65.
Avery with her hands on her hips, grinning in her Wonder Woman costume, her cape trailing behind her, a hashtag written in green ink: #Avethebrave.
It was Super Hero Day at church and Avery dressed up, one of the leaders of the kids ministry.
“She has a heart for everything and everyone,” her aunt says. “She finds that person who doesn’t have a friend.”
And now people are finding Avery.
It started with friends down in Oklahoma who had connections up in Lincoln.
“Just that phone call,” Tiffany says. “Someone saying, ‘We have friends there, what can you do?’”
The Ada fire chief was one of them. He called the Lincoln fire chief and the next day, Micheal Despain stopped by Avery’s room with a half-dozen firefighters, returning again and again, bringing his family, praying at Avery’s bedside.
An Ada chiropractor called a Lincoln chiropractor and pretty soon Aron Ferguson was bringing dinner by Avery’s room every Tuesday night.
The family of former Husker quarterback Zac Taylor -- an Oklahoma native -- called the family who’d befriended him as a player in Lincoln, and Marcie Ryan began calling on Avery, too.
“Every day I wake up and think I should be doing more for them,” Marcie says.
Churches came with gift cards and prayers. Hannah Houston stopped by. An early Christmas meal arrived, pie and rolls and all the fixings.
“We feel really loved on by this community,” Tiffany says. “They have really embraced us.”
Avery had felt the love in Oklahoma, too, during her months in the trauma unit and two more at a children’s rehabilitation hospital.
An air ambulance brought her to Madonna Dec. 2, accompanied by her dad, Boadie, and her grandma. The next week, her mom and aunt took over so Dad could head home to work on the house -- expanding doorways and building ramps.
“We are believing in miracles for Avery,” Tiffany says. “But we need to be prepared when she comes home.”
For now, she trusts her god, she says, and lives the way she has for nearly five months.
“Completely day to day. I haven’t allowed myself to go any further than that.”
* * *
Avery is making progress at Madonna.
She is in a “minimally conscious state,” says one of her doctors. Adam Kafka is the director of Madonna’s Alexis Verzal Children’s Rehabilitation Unit, where Avery is staying.
She’s not in a coma, he says.
“We are seeing what appears to be some initiation. And some purposeful movement.”
She is learning to swallow, and now can have small spoonfuls of yogurt or applesauce.
Last week, she stood for 30 minutes, and can use a special machine that holds patients upright and stimulates walking.
She can focus her eyes on flashcards, responding to a therapist’s command.
In those first days, her eyes never opened, and when they finally did, Tiffany wept. It was Aug. 9, Day 16.
On Day 151, Avery is in her hospital bed wearing gym shorts and red and white striped socks. Her blonde hair is short and spiky, her nails are painted seafoam green, her favorite color, and her blue eyes are open.
Aunt Kiki is bent over her bed, murmuring good morning. The retired kindergarten teacher went shopping last week. She bought everyone in the family a Husker shirt.
When it was time for Avery to leave the hospital in Oklahoma, Tiffany got on her computer. She Googled “top pediatric rehab hospitals.”
She made a list and started sending emails and she kept hearing no.
“Except here,” she says. “They sent someone down to assess Avery and they said, ‘Come here.’ They said, ‘You bring her.’”
They had room.
* * *
It’s nearly Christmas, and Avery’s mom has all sorts of stories about their blessings, and the miracles that have followed her daughter.
The helicopters from the OU Medical Center that happened to be in Ada for first-responder training July 25, the day of the accident.
The path that opened in the thunderstorm as the choppers flew toward Oklahoma City -- and closed as soon as they landed.
“They were going to have to divert, and Avery wouldn’t have made it.”
The angel that appeared outside the Avery’s room as half of Ada gathered to pray in those first hours.
Tiffany points to a painting on the wall. A winged warrior angel wearing laced boots and carrying a shield.
The people who saw the angel got together with an artist from their church, Tiffany says, each describing what they saw. The long wings. The armor. The spirit clad in blue.
She knows not everyone believes in angels, or in miracles, but they do.
They believe that God is not wasting Avery’s sleep. That he is ministering to Avery and to those who come to see her -- using them, Tiffany says, as his hands and feet.
Every day, they read to Avery from the Bible, sing worship songs and pray.
“While her body may be broken right now,” her mother says, “it is my belief that her spirit is not.”
She thinks about the angel on the wall, the angel in the hallway that first night, and all of the love and care that has filled Avery’s hospital room for 154 days now.
“This might be a stretch,” she says, “but we believe everyone who comes in her room walks through the angel wings.”
And beholds a brave girl, lying in a hospital bed.