As they fought to resuscitate 14-year-old Abigail Kopf, the trauma team could see that the bullet had pierced the top of her head and exited the right side, destroying that section of her skull.
The team kept pumping and ventilating, but the girl’s heart stopped and no discernable beat returned. A doctor called the official time of death, and the frenetic effort suddenly ceased. The team stepped away. A nurse recorded that Abigail Kopf had died of a single gunshot wound at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the night of Feb. 20, 2016.
The parents, Vickie and Gene Kopf of Battle Creek, approached the still form of the magical daughter who rejoiced in climbing trees and saw something to love even in sharks, who was so passionate about wolves that she had created a website to protest hunting them.
Abigail also loved musicals, and she had gone to a show in nearby Kalamazoo that night with Barbara Hawthorne, a family friend who had become her honorary grandmother. They had been returning to Hawthorne’s car for the drive home along with three other women when a gunman whom police describe as a crazy Uber driver opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun. Hawthorne and the other women were killed, as were two other people in another location, before the suspect was caught.
As the parents would recount to the Battle Creek Enquirer, Vicki now laid her head on Abigail’s chest in a sudden stillness that could have been the start of eternity. Several long minutes passed. The mother then detected faint signs of life that anybody but a mother could have thought imaginary: barely detectable breathing and an almost imperceptible heartbeat.
The mother called to a nurse. The team returned and put Abigail on a ventilator. Doctors cautioned the parents that Abigail might be brain dead.
The parents remained with the girl as one hour and then another and then another and another and another and another passed. Saturday night became Sunday morning, and Vicki began asking about the procedure for donating Abigail’s organs.
The mother was clasping her daughter’s hand, too stunned and horrified and grief-stricken to consider something so seemingly incidental as Abigail not liking to hold hands this way. Vicki would describe to the Battle Creek Enquirer how the girl’s pinky then stirred. The pinky extended and turned, followed by the other fingers, sliding in between her mother’s fingers so they were intertwined, the way Abigail liked to hold hands.
The doctors told the parents that dying patients sometimes twitch as the last of life leaves them. The mother called on Abigail to squeeze her hand again if she could hear her. Abigail squeezed. A doctor took Abigail’s hand and tried it. Abigail squeezed.
When Vicki was again holding her hand, Abigail repeatedly traced something in her mother’s palm. The mother would tell the Battle Creek Enquirer that she realized it was a B. The father asked if it stood for Barbara, and Abigail’s hand became agitated. The doctors said this was not the time to tell her that her beloved “Grandma Barb” had not survived.
The teen who had earlier been pronounced dead was taken into surgery. A doctor later theorized that the partial shattering of the skull had given Abigail’s stricken brain room to swell without exerting fatal pressure on the brain stem. The mother later offered another explanation for her daughter’s survival.
“I think she has a lot of spitfire in her, and I think she just willed herself back,” Vicki told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “Because she was not ready to go yet, and she’s got many more things that she wants to do. I don’t know if I can say it’s a miracle. I think she’s just one strong-willed child, that [said], ‘I’m not finished yet.’ And she’s gonna finish what she started.”
Bronson Children’s Hospital provided regular updates as the spitfire willed herself from extremely critical to critical condition. A doctor asked Abigail to give him a thumbs up. She reportedly gave him two.
On the fifth day, Feb. 25, the parents issued a statement.
“Abigail remains critically ill but is continuing to show improvement. She is responding to staff, has given thumbs up and wiggled her toes. We anticipate further improvement over the next several days.
Friends started a GoFundMe page. The parents and friends posted regular updates.
Feb. 28: “Our hearts are full of joy right now as we celebrate a milestone for Abbie. The tube is out she’s breathing on her own. And she wiped her own face with a towel!”
March 1: “Our girl is fighting...and winning! HER CONDITION HAS BEEN UPGRADED FROM SERIOUS TO FAIR!!”
March 2: “She looked at us tonight. Her right eye is too swollen yet, but she managed to open her eyes and recognized us.”
March 4: “She smiled and stuck her tongue out at the doctor today. She still has a sense of humor and playfulness.”
Also on March 4: “There’s no keeping this girl down!! Abbie continues to make unbelievable improvement. She is able to walk with some assistance now and at one point even stroked a nurse’s ponytail. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the prayers, thoughts, and support!”
March 7: “She is laughing and joking. She laughed at bits of Harry Potter and even made political jokes with us.”
The next day was the Michigan primary, and the nation’s attention was on how the Republican and Democratic candidates would fare.
But the most meaningful news came from Bronson’s Children’s Hospital, which reported that Abigail Kopf had been released after 17 days and transferred to a rehabilitation center in Grand Rapids.
“The pace of her progress is exceptional,” Dr. Aaron Lane-Davies, the Bronson medical director, said. “It will be a long journey ahead, but she is regaining her functions more quickly than expected for someone with an extensive brain injury.”
A 14-year-old spitfire powered by her own spirit, treated by dedicated medical people, and supported by loving parents as well as devoted friends had achieved what some were calling a miracle.
But it was not something that just happened. They made it happen.
And that makes it so much more than a miracle.