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Man says stricken wife is 'silent victim' of Oregon mall shooting

Vanessa Ogden wasn't hit by bullets in the Clackamas Town Center shooting, but she has been silent and hospitalized for weeks. Her husband sees a link.

January 28, 2013|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Vanessa and Douglas Ogden. She sheltered customers in a storeroom during the Oregon mall shooting and seemed to be fine, but she soon suffered dozens of strokes that left her hospitalized and silent, even during the birth of their second child.
Vanessa and Douglas Ogden. She sheltered customers in a storeroom during…

PORTLAND, Ore. — In the last week Vanessa Ogden could speak, she was telling everyone the story of how she herded customers into a storeroom as a gunman stalked the Clackamas Town Center mall.

The 29-year-old clothing shop manager had barricaded the door as shots rang out in the nearby food court, and when a police officer knocked and said it was time to come out, Ogden insisted on going out alone to make sure it was safe.

"She's a real take-charge person. She doesn't panic. She's pretty level-headed in any situation," said her mother, Vicki Porter.

Days later, Ogden, who was seven months pregnant, suddenly became listless, spending hours at a time lying on the couch. She gradually stopped speaking. In repeated visits to doctors, Douglas Ogden was told his wife was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress connected to the Dec. 11 shooting, which left three people dead, including the gunman, and injured a third. Since then, he learned it was worse: Ogden had suffered 60 to 70 small strokes, with resulting brain injury that soon left her unable to walk or speak.

Doctors say she suffered a neurological ailment possibly brought on by an unknown infection. Did the stress of the shooting leave her body more vulnerable? Ogden thinks the timing is hard to ignore, and on the Facebook page he's set up to document his wife's mysterious affliction, he calls her "a silent victim" of the Clackamas mall shooting.

"We still don't have a why," Ogden said. "We may never know why."

Ogden, 33, is an affable, gregarious man who manages a Red Robin restaurant across the street from the Clackamas mall. Vanessa managed the Justice store for young teens at the mall. On the afternoon of Dec. 11, Ogden had dropped off the couple's 16-month-old daughter, Carolina, at his mother-in-law's house and was on his way to the restaurant when he phoned his wife.

"She picks up the phone and she just says three things to me: 'There's been a shooting. I've locked everybody here in the back room. I'm OK, and I have to go.' And then she hung up," Ogden said.

"At that point I get on the highway, and I get passed by 14, 15 emergency vehicles. Full sirens, full lights, moving very fast."

By the time he reached the mall, it was blocked by emergency vehicles. Ogden went to Red Robin, waiting what seemed like hours until Vanessa walked through the door. She was fine, she said. Their unborn baby was unharmed.

It was at a pre-Christmas family gathering five days after the shooting that Ogden noticed how tired his normally perky wife seemed. He wrote it off to her pregnancy until, over the next few days, Vanessa began spending hours on end stretched out on the couch.

"Vanessa's just sort of a go-go-go person, so it was just really unlike her to be this way. Lethargic, wanting to sleep all day. The Vanessa I know would certainly have considered that a huge waste of time," he said.

Then came the onset of near-total silence. One night, Ogden awoke to find his wife moaning in apparent terror, unable to talk. She had wet the bed.

Ogden hauled her to the emergency room, and doctors discovered that she had suffered dozens of small strokes. They were brought on, they learned, by acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, in which the brain, usually after an infection, becomes inflamed. Physicians said the fact that it happened so soon after the shooting was probably just a coincidence.

They were trying to treat the inflammation when, on Dec. 28, seven weeks early, Vanessa went into labor.

"I asked them, how in the world is a mother in this state supposed to give birth? And they said, basically in birth, your body takes over," Ogden said.

Somehow, he said, his wife was able to deliver a premature baby so healthy she began screaming immediately. "I say this, and I'm pretty confident," he said. "I witnessed a miracle."

Now, Ogden is on unpaid leave from his job. Donations have flooded in through the family's Facebook page; friends and strangers have signed up to provide meals every other day through March. Mothers who were in the store with their daughters on the day of the shooting have contacted him. "You don't know me, but I just wanted to share with you that we were there the day of the shooting," one wrote in an email. "You have no idea how much it means to me that she did this for us."

Vanessa remains on a feeding tube, and doctors are administering a debilitating round of chemotherapy to suppress her autoimmune response, which they believe, triggered by the disorder, has been attacking her brain.

Still, Ogden said, he sees signs of improvement during his daily visits to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where he plays Vanessa's iPod, tells her about Carolina racing around the apartment, places tiny Georgia on her chest.

The rest of the day, he's busy at home, swaddling Georgia, spooning macaroni and cheese into Carolina's mouth, changing diapers on the living room floor. Trying to explain why he's hopeful that Vanessa will get better without once saying the obvious: that he cannot go on like this.

Doctors have said whatever improvement will occur will happen within the next six months.

"I know that I will have the lion's share of taking care of these girls for at least the next six to 12 months, but we believe, and we operate under the belief that we do get her back," he said.

"The fact that she's young is a real plus. Knowing her personality, and knowing that she's kind of a fighter and really motivated — she's got a lot to be motivated about. She's got a family to come home to."

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