Maddy Wilford, 17, is grateful to be alive after surviving three gunshot wounds from an AR-15 assault style rifle during the worst school shooting in Florida history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
The high school junior was shot in the stomach, right elbow and chest, and still carries pieces of metal in her body from the Feb. 14 mass shooting. Trauma surgeons at Broward Health North in Deerfield Beach performed three operations on her. She went home on Thursday, although she has weeks more of recovery ahead.
She spoke publicly Monday for the first time.
“I’m Madeline Wilford,” she said, then paused to compose herself. “I would just like to say that I’m so grateful to be here, and it wouldn’t be possible without those officers and first responders and these amazing doctors and especially all the love that everyone has sent.”
She sat at a table at the hospital, flanked by her parents, Missy and David Wilford, along with surgeons from Broward Health North and the Coral Springs Fire Department paramedic who treated her at the scene.
Maddy thanked the many well-wishers who have sent letters and gifts, “and just all the love that’s been passed around. I definitely wouldn’t be here without it,” she said.
Doctors said the teenager’s recovery has been speedy: “Young people have a tendency to heal very fast,” said Dr. Igor Nichiporenko of Broward Health North, who operated on Maddy.
She will still need four to six weeks to heal before she can begin occupational therapy to regain use of her right arm, which has tendon damage, the doctor said.
He does not know whether she will be able to rejoin her teammates on the Stoneman Douglas basketball team, but Nichiporenko said Maddy should be well enough to return to school in about a week.
The Wilfords did not take questions from media; it’s unknown whether Maddy plans to return to Stoneman Douglas. Broward school officials plan to re-open the school to students on Wednesday.
In the nearly two weeks since 17 people were killed and at least 15 were wounded by the shooter on the Stoneman Douglas campus, the school’s students have reignited a national debate on gun control, speaking on TV news broadcasts, at funerals and at large rallies to spread their message that they do not feel safe in school.
Maddy said she is proud of the way her classmates have stepped forward after the shooting.
“Like my mom says, it’s times like these when we all need to stay together,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of positive posts about what’s going on at school. I just love the fact that we’re sticking together after this.”
To hear the paramedics and doctors tell their story of saving Maddy’s life, it was not always clear to them that the high school student would survive her injuries.
The Coral Springs Fire Department had trained for mass casualty incidents in the past. But when the 911 call came in on Valentine’s Day that a mass shooting was unfolding at Stoneman Douglas, Lt. Laz Ojeda said he had a difficult time processing the information.
“We were dumbfounded,” Ojeda said Monday. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Ojeda and his team of five firefighter paramedics were the third rescue squad to arrive at the school in response to the shooting. He described the scene as “organized chaos” as police and other first responders flooded the school.
Soon after Ojeda arrived, a policeman led him to Maddy, who lay on the ground bleeding. At first glance, Ojeda said, he could see that she had been shot through the side of her stomach and in the right elbow. She had a sucking chest wound. One of the bullets had pierced her lung.
“At first sight it was believed that Maddy had deceased,” Ojeda said. “She looked very pale.”
But a police officer with Ojeda checked Maddy for signs of life, Ojeda said, “and I believe she gasped or she moved, but she made signs of life.”
Ojeda said a Broward Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team officer applied a chest seal and bandage to Maddy to stop the bleeding and apply pressure to the chest wound.
“I’m not a doctor,” Ojeda said, “but in my estimation that chest seal prevented [the gunshot wound] from progressing and perhaps killing her.”
But Ojeda’s quick thinking also may have saved Maddy’s life. Ojeda said the department's mass casualty incident plan called for Maddy to be taken to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, which is a Level I trauma center capable of dealing with more severe injuries than the Level II trauma center in Deerfield Beach.
The hospital in Fort Lauderdale is about 30 miles from Stoneman Douglas. Broward Health North is about 12 miles away.
“If we had gone 30 miles perhaps she wouldn’t have made it,” he said.
Ojeda said he rubbed Maddy’s chest as she lay in the back of the ambulance and asked her age. She did not respond. He rubbed her chest again and repeated the question. Then she answered. “She said, ‘I’m 17,’” Ojeda said.
That’s when the Coral Springs paramedics decided to take Maddy to Broward Health North in Deerfield Beach, which is closer to the school. “It might have saved her life,” Ojeda said.
Nichiporenko, the trauma surgeon, said the teenager was in shock from losing so much blood when she arrived at the ER.
“She was pale, not responsive,” Nichiporenko said. Surgeons performed damage control surgeries to drain fluid from her abdomen and to stem internal bleeding. Some of Maddy’s ribs also had been shattered from the gunshots, Nichiporenko said.
Doctors performed three surgeries in a 40-hour period, he said. Maddy was hospitalized for about a week.
Nichiporenko said the trauma team at Broward Health North sees gunshot victims “almost every other day,” but that the injuries Maddy sustained from an assault style weapon were much more severe than doctors are accustomed to seeing.
An assault style weapon, Nichiporenko said, causes much more severe damage because the high-speed bullets cause waves that ripple and tear apart nearby soft tissue as they travel through the body.
“We see more tissue damage” with assault style weapons, he said, “soft tissue and organ. She’s very, very lucky.”
Nichiporenko said that when Maddy arrived in the emergency room, trauma surgeons were already working on three other patients who had been shot at Stoneman Douglas and were considered critical.
In all, eight victims and the alleged shooter were taken to Broward Health North. Two died of their injuries, and one remains hospitalized in fair condition, said Jennifer Smith, communications director for Broward Health.
Seven patients were transported to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, and two remain hospitalized in fair condition.
Maddy’s speedy recovery has been a blessing for her family, said her father, David Wilford, who said he knew how lucky he was to have his daughter next to him when other parents had lost their children.
He thanked the first responders and doctors for “the miracle that’s happened with her and the way that she’s been blessed.”
Missy Wilford said Maddy is determined to recover and that she has been buoyed by her classmates, who have helped her “feel normal” after the shooting.
“She knows who she is,” Missy Wilford said of Maddy. “She knows where she wants to go in life. That strength helps you heal.”