Family of Uvalde student survivor documents healing process, challenges: Reporter's notebook
"She's our miracle child," Miah Cerrillo's mother says.
On Christmas Eve, I was alone and away from home in my hotel room in Uvalde, Texas. It was my first Christmas without my family, and it hit me hard that night because in most Latinx cultures, Christmas Eve is the most significant day of the holiday season.
I was laying down hoping to sleep the night away when my phone rang.
"Hey, come over to my mom's house, we're celebrating Christmas Eve here. I know you're here by yourself so come hang out with us."
It was Abigale Veloz, mother of Robb Elementary School shooting survivor Miah Cerrillo. I had been in frequent communication with Abigale and visited her a few times, but her family hadn't committed yet to sharing their story on a national platform. I was surprised when she invited me over and allowed me to document her family's festivities.
When I got to their Christmas Eve party, Abigale and her family welcomed me with open arms and offered me my favorite Mexican dishes.
"We have menudo, beans and rice, and tamales," Abigale said.
Outside, corridos and banda music played while family members danced. The kids blew up fireworks with Miah's consent. She braced herself each time by running into the house to hide, only to come back out when she realized she could handle the cacophony of the fireworks.
"She tries to just get in her old self, but then it kind of triggers her and she'll pull away, but we're really good about making sure she's comfortable, that's number one," Abigale later told me.
Miah surprised us when she decided to light a roman candle, a firework that's typically lit while being held out in your hand.
"She likes those because they're not too loud," her father Miguel Cerrillo said.
'Our miracle baby'
When an 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, and fired numerous bullets into Room 112, Miah's two teachers and several classmates were killed. Miah said she survived by covering herself with blood and pretending to be dead. While on the floor, Miah and her classmate Khloie Torres repeatedly called 911 and asked for police to breach their classroom and save the students who remained alive, she said.
Months after the tragedy, Abigale and Miguel had the opportunity to listen to the 911 calls their daughter placed. They knew listening to the audio would bring them pain, but they wanted answers. As Abigale told me about Miah's 911 calls, she became emotional.
"The fact that she had to sit there through all that—she had to witness that," Abigale said as she teared up. "She was asking for help and she wasn't getting it. It hurt, 'cause as a mother, if you see a kid fall down and get hurt, your reaction is … do whatever it takes to help the kid out—a kid, any kid."
When Abigale was pregnant with Miah, she told me she faced medical complications that put Miah's life at risk. Miah was born with a tumor in her liver and spent a month in the NICU before finally being allowed to go home. At three years old, Miah had surgery to remove the growth, but doctors warned it would take Miah months to heal and function normally.
As we sat in Abigale's living room that day, Miah showed me the scar on her stomach from that surgery. The scar is an important reminder for Abigale and Miguel.
"She's our miracle child, 'cause she's always been fighting for her life," Abigale said.
"She's a miracle you know, God has her for a very good reason," Miguel added.
'Nobody should ever go through it'
One day out of the blue, Abigale felt compelled to share a personal video.
The video was filmed using an iPhone, and it showed a hand pulling something out of the skin with tweezers.
It was Abigale pulling bullet shrapnel out of Miah's leg.
Abigale revealed that occasionally, bullet pieces start to erupt out of Miah's skin, and doctors instructed them to facilitate the process by using tweezers to pull out the pieces when this occurs.
When I asked how many fragments Miah had in her body, Miguel said, "they just told us it was quite a few."
Miah's wounds from the shooting weren't life-threatening, but were traumatic nonetheless.
Doctors initially found bullet fragments in Miah's back and shoulders, Abigale said. Doctors later expressed concern about ones in her neck, she said.
"She kept complaining about her hair burning so we were looking through it … and she kind of shook it off and all the bullet fragments started coming out," Abigale recalled.
Miguel shared that the shrapnel had burned through parts of Miah's hair and left her with a few bald spots. The nurses at the hospital tried to remove as much blood, bullet fragments, and burned hair clumps as they could. At home, Abigale and Miguel had a difficult time trying to wash and get rid of all the blood on Miah's body, and for the next few days, more hair kept falling out as further burns were discovered.
"I kept asking [Miguel] like, 'Why does she have burn marks?' And he's like, 'Cause a bullet's hot,' and it probably grazed her or something 'cause she was all burnt from one side," Abigale said.
The physical recovery has been arduous for Miah as she continues to struggle through the pain and discomfort caused by the shrapnel in her body. And even though the bullets come out, the process is never pleasant for Miah.
"When they come out, it's metal, and it hurts her … and she's really scared 'cause they're sharp," Abigale said. "So I told her, 'We can go to the emergency room and they can try taking it out, or I can see if it doesn't hurt you too much I can pull it out,' and she's like, 'No, you try it, 'cause I don't want to go to the emergency room.'"
Miah's emotional recovery has also been challenging. She was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and deals with symptoms daily. Abigale disclosed that Miah developed a sleeping disorder, anxiety, mood swings and trouble eating.
"She'll be like, 'I have a taste in my mouth,' or she'll start thinking about things that she saw, and she loses her appetite," Abigale said.
"She'll say, 'I have a metal taste in my mouth,'" I guess from that day," Miguel added.
Miah goes through what her parents describe as "panic mode," which is triggered by loud sounds, crowds, or sudden irrational fears. When in public, Miah needs to be surrounded by her family members to feel safe, and she's constantly vigilant for perceived threats.
"Nobody should ever go through it," Miguel said.
The Kid Hero Award
In March, Abigale filled me in on a secret: On April 5, Miah and Khloie were going to be honored with the Kid Hero Award at the Texas Public Safety Conference in Galveston, Texas, for their heroic 911 calls during the mass shooting. The organizers wanted to surprise the girls and asked the parents to keep it a secret, but the girls became suspicious and figured it out days before the conference.
"They're pretty smart, so they put two and two together and they're like, 'What's going on?'" Miguel explained to me at the family's hotel room before the ceremony.
Despite knowing about it ahead of time, Miah began to get nervous prior to entering the ballroom. Before we all walked in, Miguel rushed over to me and whispered, "Miah is freaking out, she saw how many people are in there and she's freaking out."
Miah was noticeably tense, but right then and there, everyone banded together and prioritized her sense of safety.
"Miguel told her, 'Don't worry baby, I'm right here next to you,' and he told her, 'Mom's on one side, dad's on the other, we're going to walk you through and make sure everything's okay, and at any time if you feel unsafe, let us know and we'll pull you up,'" Abigale said.
Miah nodded to her parents that she was ready to go in. The Cerrillo clan walked slowly—Miah was using crutches after sustaining a foot injury the week prior—so the family walked at her pace. Once seated, Miah became more comfortable and tried some of the dishes being served while occasionally flashing smiles to her family. When the time came to accept her award, Miguel escorted her to the stage using a wheelchair provided by the organization. Miah smiled as she received a standing ovation by the entire conference.
When it was over, Miguel and Abigale revealed they felt proud and emotional watching Miah accept the award, but they held it together for her.
"We didn't want to freak her out because she was nervous already, so if she sees us crying, she's going to get more scared," Abigale said.
A significant date
As much as the Cerrillos would like to put May 24 behind them, they can't. May 24 isn't just a reminder of the horrific tragedy at Robb, it's also the date of their eldest son's birthday.
"It's hard for us because of Mikey's birthday, and we don't want to have him left out," Abigale said.
Everyone in the family feels the same guilt, including Mikey.
"He's like, 'Mom, if we throw a party or we have a cake, or whatever, I don't want to make her feel bad because it's the same day and it's hard for us,'" Abigale shared.
Still, the Cerrillos are determined to change the narrative. The family is currently fundraising for a trip to California to get away from Uvalde for the upcoming one-year mark. The family is hoping to create new memories around the date. This decision was run by Miah first, who is looking forward to visiting Disneyland while on the West Coast.
During a conversation with Mikey, I told him about a friend of mine whose birthday lands on September 11.
I told him the friend had struggled for years to enjoy her birthday, but now she is okay about celebrating it.
"Maybe someday for me, it'll be okay again," he said.
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