"The fear initially was obviously death," her father, Dr. Nelson Ayula, then a medical resident at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, said in an interview Tuesday.
He knew from his medicine and pediatrics training that the most important thing was the quality of care she got early on because "a third of patients who have gunshot wounds don't make it out of the scene," but those who make it past the first two to three days do well.
"As soon as she survived the first two days, I knew she was going to make it, because I've seen it happen," said Ayula, 40.
He then began focusing on bringing her home.
He began inquiring about the best U.S. surgeon to operate on his daughter. With help from hospital colleagues, he arranged for Stephanie to be airlifted to Newark Airport and then taken to Hackensack University Medical Center, where Dr. Arno Fried, the neurosurgery chairman and chief of pediatric neurosurgery, would try to save her life.
Ayula said that when he first saw his injured daughter at the airport, she was heavily bandaged and her face badly swollen, but was able to speak, "I asked if she was in pain and she said, 'Not really.' She knew she was shot."
Fried vividly remembers what he found when he first examined Stephanie, who came in heavily bandaged about the head. "It was pretty dramatic," he recalled.
At the time, he said, her prognosis was "very guarded" and doctors didn't know if she would be able to see with her remaining eye.
Fried's surgical plan was to do for Stephanie what doctors in Tucson did for Giffords, to remove bullet and skull fragments, but not all of them, from her brain; stop the bleeding and remove sections of the skull to allow the brain to swell without creating pressure that could kill brain cells.
"We were able to control the swelling pretty successfully," he said.
But, her father said, "nobody knew at that time … the extent of the damage, if she would walk, and what her cognitive functions would be. We all had our fingers crossed."
Within a couple days of her surgery, Stephanie was back to her normal self, cracking jokes, and demonstrating her natural exuberance. "One time, because she had the bed pan, she asked all the men to leave the room," her father said.
Stephanie remained in the hospital for three weeks. During that time her mother, Iyobosa, a nurse who had been 24 weeks pregnant, suffered a miscarriage with serious complications and was placed on a ventilator in a Hackensack University Medical Center intensive care unit.
She said that when she was discharged, she had that deep feeling that mothers have that Stephanie "was going to be OK now."
Since the initial life-saving surgery, Stephanie, now 9, wears an eye patch. She has undergone many more reconstructive procedures to restore the bones around the eye and reconstruct a skull to protect her developing brain.
Fried calls her the "miracle girl" who is completely normal neurologically. She will undergo additional operations to get her ready for a prosthetic eye. "She's healed very nicely," he said.
Fried said he doesn't often see young patients with such extensive injuries recover so well. "Depending on the type of injuries, it may be in 15 percent of the cases," particularly when the bullet only grazes the skull or "flakes the bone and barely goes into the brain," he said.
In most cases, "the bullet ricochets all over the place, and those are the cases that are not going to do well."
The intense medical attention seems to have had quite an influence on Stephanie, a precocious third-grader who, until three months ago, was home-schooled because of disruptions associated with frequent operations.
She adores math, and every day tells her father she wants to be a doctor. He tells her she can be whatever she wants, as long as she's happy.
In a brief conversation Tuesday night, Stephanie said she wanted to be a surgeon who operates on "the brain and the skull" so she can help adults and children.
The past few years have taught her "to be prayerful." God, she said, "kept me safe."