When Kaylea was 6 years old, her mother, depressed and financially desperate, shot her in the head and then turned the gun on herself. When police discovered the pair 13 hours later, she was still alive ... her mother had died instantly.
Kaylea was rushed to Phoenix Children's. The bullet had entered one side of her head and exited the other, and the child was in a coma.
"It was serious enough that in most cases we would say, 'There's not hope here; let her go,'" the neurosurgeon said. Even if she lived, the outcome looked bleak.
"We were not sure whether she would live or die and were almost 100% sure she would be a vegetable the rest of her life even if she survived," said Kaylea's father, Michael Sexton.
New Medical Techniques
Fortunately, neurosurgeons at Barrow at Phoenix Children's were pioneering some new techniques at that time. The pressure on her brain was becoming increasingly dangerous, and the surgeons decided to try a new procedure now used routinely. They inserted a tube into the spinal cord to drain the spinal fluid off and relieve the pressure on the brain.
"It was from that point she improved," her neurosurgeon said. "That was the turning point, when we knew she would live."
The Path to Recovery
Weeks of rehabilitation followed, as Kaylea learned to walk, talk and eat all over again. It was during this time Jeanne, Kaylea's new stepmother, said she saw the first ray of hope.
"One day I was watching the PT (physical therapist) tediously work each and every muscle," she said. "I saw nothing out of the ordinary, but then she turned to me and said with conviction, 'This child will walk again.' I will never forget that."
Another setback occurred when doctors discovered an aneurysm that had developed when the bullet had knicked the edge of a blood vessel. Kaylea underwent another operation to have the aneurysm removed.
After her second major brain surgery and only a minor setback, Kaylea continued with her rehabilitation until she was ready to return to school.
"We all got to know Kaylea very well," said her physical therapist. "She was a great patient."
Kaylea's father remembers the physicians at Phoenix Children's did not want to take credit for his daughter's recovery.
"All they said was Kaylea just has a strong life force. But I know the things they were doing were new and not available in other hospitals at that time. From what I saw, nothing was overlooked in her care. Everyone did everything in their power to save her life and the quality of it."
No Lingering Memories
Kaylea remembers nothing about her gunshot injury, although she knows what happened and is comfortable talking about it. Her family has been very open and receptive to discussing it with her. "We're very close," said Kaylea. "I'm very close to all my family." She has four siblings: Sheryl, 17; Stephanie, 16; Timmy, 14, and Jessica, 12.
The Sextons have become involved in the Parent Safety Network, a foundation Kaylea's grandmother, Sharon Kimbriel, recently founded to assist parents in crisis. One thing the group is working on is a parent helpline, which parents can call to find support.
"If this saves just one child, it will be worth it," said Michael. "Sometimes people in these positions just need someone to talk to."
Four years have passed, and Kaylea is now 10. The only physical side effect left from that terrible experience seems to be a small motor problem with a few fingers.
"Kaylea has a special quality," said Jeanne. "She touches everyone she meets, and not only because of what she has been through. She just is loving, beautiful and miraculous."