by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Could it be that the darker the cloud, the brighter the silver lining?
Their harrowing story had a very traditional start: boy meets girl. Jennifer Hodder took a small-group communication course in her junior year at the University of California’s Chico campus. When Jennifer and several classmates were to meet to prepare for a debate on medical marijuana, only one, Dave Hodder, showed up.
“I told Dave I was dog-sitting and asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me,” Jennifer says. “He said yes.” That first yes gave rise to many more for Jennifer, then 22, a communications major, and Dave, then 19, an engineering major. They married in 2001 after they’d both graduated. The couple honeymooned in the Caribbean and settled in Roseville in northern California.
Dave, raised in Fair Oaks, California, and Jennifer, brought up in Lake Tahoe, would not learn about the existence of Chestnut Hill until their lives turned upside down. Jennifer, now 35, and Dave, now 33, had a lovely home in California when Dave landed work as a structural engineer while Jennifer worked first in sales, and then in insurance. Fulfilling lives, but for one thing. “We didn’t get pregnant,” Jennifer says. “It was either in vitro fertilization or adoption. We decided to adopt.”
An international baby seemed natural. Dave has two Indonesian foster brothers, Rob and Mike, and two sisters adopted from Korea, Debby and Dinah. Jennifer has three brothers, Jimmy, Rick and Jeff, plus a cousin adopted from Korea and another from the U.S.
“Our daughter, Aviana, was born in Guatemala in August of 2006,” Jennifer says. “It was exciting getting our home ready for her. The adoption agency sent us photos of Aviana each month.” In July of 2007, they flew to Guatemala City to meet their new daughter and bring her home. Jennifer had quit her job two months earlier to make preparations. “We don’t speak Spanish, but the foster family welcomed us with open arms,” Jennifer says. “We saw that they loved her as they did their own children.”
The family seemed complete, but Jennifer’s excitement slid into uneasiness. “Aviana had an electric personality,” Jennifer says. “People gravitated toward her. Yet, in Guatemala when the adoption agency put her into my arms, I didn’t know who she was. I guess I had unresolved issues about not having my own (biological) child.”
The bonding issues troubled Jennifer, but in time she simply surrendered. “I wrestled with the feelings, then just threw up my hands.” Somehow, that worked. Jennifer began to feel closer to Aviana.
Then fate stepped in.
“It was June 17, 2009,” Jennifer says. “I had gone to buy things for Aviana’s birthday party while my mother and step-dad, Brenda and Gary, took her shopping. My step-dad was carrying Aviana. They were crossing a five-lane street and had almost reached the other side when a car ran into my step-dad.”
The driver, a woman in her early 60s, stopped, unsure of what she had hit. The woman had been heading to her daughter’s house to show off a certificate for completing a computer class. “Neither drugs nor cell phones played a role in the accident,” Jennifer says. “It was just three adults not seeing each other.”
Jennifer’s step-dad, a mass of bruises, had cracked the windshield with his head and had broken several rib. Aviana’s visible wounds included two scratches, but she had taken the full impact on her head.
A legion of neurosurgeons and neurologists told the Hodders that Aviana might not survive. Even if they removed part of her skull to make room for her swelling brain, they warned, Aviana’s chances were slim. Hours after they cut away a section of bone, they returned Aviana to the operating room to remove a second piece. Flown to U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, northern California’s only level one trauma center, Aviana had a third section of skull removed. Even so, specialists held out scant hope.
“Our emotions rollercoastered throughout those first weeks,” Jennifer says. “Aviana was in a medically-induced coma for two weeks and on a ventilator for four. We weren’t sure that she would make it from one day to the next.”
Aviana remained in the hospital for three months. Once released, she couldn’t walk, talk or eat by mouth. She vomited every day. “I was against nursing care until the April after the accident,” Jennifer says, “but it became too much to care for her by ourselves.”
Jennifer and Dave no longer feared for Aviana’s life, but for the quality of it. Jennifer started a blog within days of the accident because it was too painful to discuss Aviana’s condition with friends and family members. A woman with a grown daughter who’d suffered a brain injury in a car accident saw the blog. “She wrote me the longest e-mails I’ve ever seen,” Jennifer says. “She told me that the accident had wiped Aviana’s slate clean, that Aviana would never be the same person again. But she said that her own daughter had made huge strides over the years and that despite the change in Aviana, I would still have a bond with her. That worried me because I didn’t have a good foundation with Aviana.”
If the woman’s e-mails stoked Jennifer’s anxiety, they also gave her hope. One e-mail urged Jennifer to read “What to Do with Your Brain-Injured Child,” a book by Chestnut Hill’s Glenn Doman, founder of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (IAHP), 8801 Stenton Ave. in Wyndmoor, a non-profit organization that offers teaching programs and literature to encourage the health and neurological development of brain-injured children.
At first, Jennifer and Dave rejected the idea of flying to Philly, as they felt that they didn’t have it in them to go to that extreme. The trip would mean a big investment of time, energy and money.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has criticized IAHP’s controversial program as outmoded, but that did not concern Jennifer and Dave. “We had researched many facilities and felt that the approach at IAHP was our best chance,” Jennifer says. “When Aviana was first released from the hospital, she qualified for three to four 30-minute sessions of physical therapy a month. It wasn’t nearly enough to help her recover.”
Sensory stimulation and “patterning,” moving the child’s limbs to ingrain motions on the child’s brain, stand at the heart of the IAHP program. “They keep you busy from sunup to sundown,” say Jennifer and Dave, who just returned home after a weeklong stay at IAHP. “The staff strives endlessly to help the children,” Jennifer says. “Aviana had been on 42 doses of medication a week, and IAHP detoxed her down to none.”
Back at home, Jennifer and Dave duplicate the patterning and sensory activities. “It’s been tough for me,” says Jennifer, a multi-tasker used to whipping through work. “Aviana’s progress is slow. Everything is slow; everything’s in her time.”
But the Hodders have seen changes. “Through the Institutes’ excellent nutrition program, Aviana, who’d been bloated, returned to being the lean, glowing child she was before the accident. Her respiration is much better. Thanks to detoxification, she’s much more aware and alert. She also eats most of her food by mouth.”
Yet, emotional aftershocks of the accident remain. “My mom’s and step-dad’s guilt was, and is, horrible,” Jennifer says. “They joined us on our October trip to IAHP. So did my Aunt Rella and Uncle Roger, who accompanied us for our first trip (to Chestnut Hill). They all just want Aviana to be happy.”
The accident wrought an unexpected change in Jennifer herself. “The barrier to bonding is gone,” she says. “Now Aviana is my complete and total life. I live and breathe for her. That’s the silver lining.”
You can read the Hodders’ blog at avianareese.blogspot.com or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will arrive in Chestnut Hill on June 13, 2011, for their next week-long visit to the Institutes. For more information about IAHP, visit www.iahp.org.