Trauma Mama

Leandra Vilardi works at the city's busiest emergency room. She only wishes it were busier.

The first time she ever experienced death -- real death and not just the rumor of it in Spain or Israel or among distant uncles and aunts -- Leandra was nine years old.

She was told her mother had cancer, and Leandra built an altar out of shoeboxes and candles. In their Bridgeport, Connecticut, home, Leandra charged her Italian relatives to pray there, and then she pedaled to the church with the money, lighted more candles and prayed more prayers. Leandra bought her mother grapefruit and chocolate. She played the piano for her. She did what she could to provide comfort, and when her mother stepped out of the shower after the mastectomy, the girl came forth to kiss the scar.

She was enraged at God when her mother died -- "like if I knew where he lived," she says, "I would have ripped him off." God had ignored her, her mother had left her, and when her father the salesman sent her off to a Catholic boarding school, Leandra felt completely abandoned.

There proceeded a long, slow spiral, during which she sniffed glue ("I absolutely loved it!"), flunked out of two boarding schools ("He wanted me to be a damn debutante"), became a "full-blown hippie," went to Woodstock, formed such bands as Wisteria and Moonchild and hit the road for California to become a famous musician.

At this point, Leandra's story becomes a classic down-and-out recovery tale. The Laurel Canyon exit had a nice "vibe," and so she pulled her Dodge Maxi Van off the freeway and became a part of Los Angeles. During the day, she worked as a laborer, a janitor, a truck driver. At night, she played her music, drank and did cocaine with her friends. Then she began drinking and doing cocaine without them. Then she just drank and drank. Her hands began to shake until she could no longer play music, until she lost her job and had been evicted from her apartment. At "the righteous bottom," she woke up on some friend of a friend's couch one morning, searching for a way out.

If she sliced her wrists, she thought, she might botch the job. As for a gun, there was always the chance of surviving a gunshot. As for pills, they were expensive, and the people in the emergency room might pump her stomach and waste them.

So Leandra found a hose and retreated to the only thing she had left. Her trusty Dodge Maxi Van had brought her this far, and maybe it could take her just a little farther, to some remote, beautiful place in the mountains where she could simply cry herself to sleep. Leandra closed the door, put the key in the ignition and....

Nothing. The damn thing wouldn't start. Hallelujah! The battery was more dead than she ever wanted to be, and Leandra took it as a sign that she wasn't supposed to die at all. That night, she went to Alcoholics Anonymous and confessed her sins. She went twice the next day and the day after that and on the many, many days that followed. In the recovery group, she found the family at last who understood her. She recovered her faith in God (though not in the Catholic God), and she revived one of the few goals she had ever had.

Scraping by as a housepainter, Leandra enrolled in the nursing prerequisites at a junior college. Like her music, nursing was a way of giving, she believed. She aced her courses, and after a year, she went to visit the University of Southern California. The tuition figure they told her had far too many zeros, and Leandra returned home in the kind of despair that would formerly have resulted in a good drunk.

Then the telephone rang. It was the University of Southern California calling to offer a full scholarship. All she had to do, they said, was show up at the orientation tea on Monday. Leandra threw down the phone and rushed out the door. At the blood bank, she opened a vein and sold her platelets for $60. At the department store, she picked out something nice to wear to tea.

During the next few years, she always feared she would be discovered as a fraud. It never happened. For the first time, she embraced The System and became a part of it, and when she did her emergency room rotation and encountered a man charred over 90 percent of his body, it was her preceptor who began vomiting, and it was Leandra who held her.

In the emergency room were chaos and desperate need and not least of all, adrenaline. "It was like, love," said Leandra, and everyone told her, "You want to do trauma? Ben Taub's the place."

The hospital is one of two serving a million of Harris County's poor. Its emergency room is among the busiest in the country. During Leandra's time, there have been five shootings, one of which left a bullet hole in the admitting desk.

"Those who are turned on by being there," said Dr. Ken L. Mattox, "by being at the cutting edge, they then find themselves professionally stimulated by this environment."

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