Dec. 19, 2012 | The presents were carefully wrapped and placed around the tree. Stockings were stuffed and hung tight. And three little girls were tucked away in bed, hearts fluttering in anticipation of Christmas morning.
The night had been capped on the storybook Christmas Eve in Madonna Badger’s warm, beautiful $1.7 million Stamford, Conn., home. And then came a twist so unimaginable, so tragic, that one year later the mother of three is just now finding a semblance of peace in its aftermath. It’s a comfort she attributes to the rigorous treatment provided by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Psychiatric Research Institute.
In the cold, dark still of the early Christmas morning hours in 2011, the house caught fire. Badger, the 47-year-old New York advertising executive, was suddenly awakened by smoke, heat and flames so intense that the only option was to escape out of her bedroom window. Her hope was to find another entrance to the home to get to her three children and her parents, who were trapped inside.
“I couldn’t get to them,” Badger said. “It all happened so quickly and it was the most helpless I’ve ever felt.”
The fire claimed the lives of 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah and 9-year-old Lily, as well as Badger’s parents, Lomer Johnson, 71, and Pauline Johnson, 69.
“So there I was, having lost my entire immediate family and my whole world had very literally gone up in smoke,” Badger said. “There are no words to describe what I was feeling then, or any way to begin to describe it. I didn’t know where to turn or what was coming next.”
Plagued by thoughts of suicide as the only way to escape the pain and reconnect with her lost loved ones, Badger unsuccessfully tried two mental institutions. With nowhere left to turn, Kate Askew, of Little Rock, her old friend and former college roommate at Vanderbilt University, drove to the second mental health facility in Tennessee to attempt a final rescue. Askew proposed to bring Badger back to Arkansas to live with her family.
But Badger’s trip to Little Rock hinged on one condition, Askew said.
“I told her we’d go 100 percent at this, but the only way we can do it is if she promised not to kill herself,” she said.
Badger agreed, and on a chilly, rainy Super Bowl Sunday in February, another family friend and UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute supporter, Helen Porter, helped arrange a meeting with Rick Smith, M.D., the institute’s director.
“During that very first meeting with Dr. Smith, after everything I had been through, I could tell for the first time that there was a light somewhere down this long tunnel that I could hope to reach,” Badger said. “He was the first person to sit me down and explain to me what was happening both psychologically and physically in a way that reached me at my core.”
Previous attempts to reach her, she said, were predicated on heavy sedation and trying to pin her as a victim similar to those of the 9/11 or recent tsunami tragedies.
“I remember feeling a connection when Dr. Smith explained to me that my losses were linked to giant nerve endings inside me, each one severed with the losses I experienced,” Badger said. “He talked from a spiritual, emotional, physical standpoint and those were all things he could help me with in Little Rock. That hope, along with the help and support of my friends, is what kept me alive.”
Betty Everett, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UAMS Department of Psychiatry, also worked intensely with Badger during the process.
“Like anyone who had gone through the things that Madonna had gone through, she was struggling with her grief and often found it extremely hard to function,” Everett said. “I think the grieving process is an integral piece to the healing process and she did the work to find meaning in her life.”
Approaching the one-year anniversary of the fire, Badger recently shared her experience at UAMS with NBC’s “The Today Show” and host Matt Lauer, where she said she will be spending the holidays in a “Santa Claus-free zone’’ in Thailand at an orphanage for young girls. She plans on bringing them toys that previously belonged to her children.
“Every day is hard – Christmas Day, the first birthdays, Mother’s Day, Easter,’’ she said. “I’m going to pray and meditate and be with my kids and love them and do the very best I can.’’
Due in large part to the help she received at UAMS, Badger has found the strength to go on.
“Dr. Smith was the first person who could really describe my grief and not treat me like I was schizophrenic,’’ she said. “I don’t have those (suicidal) thoughts anymore, mostly because I don’t know what would happen if I did that, and I don’t want to risk not being with my children.’’