It was on one such easy summer night in June 2007 that we met a couple of other families at the pool for dinner. Afterwards, we let the girls go for one more quick dip. Then, all of the kids hit the showers. Except for Abbey. She was still in the kiddie pool. I saw her sitting there and called for her.
When she stood up to get out, it was clear something was wrong. She looked dizzy. She walked sideways a couple steps. Then she fell, hitting her head on the pool deck, knocking out her front tooth, and falling into the adult swimming pool.
At the time, we had no way of knowing how serious our little girl’s injury was. We thought maybe it was some kind of sunstroke or neurological problem. There was no blood. Just Abbey floating in and out of consciousness, telling us her stomach hurt.
It wasn’t until several hours later, after surgery for what doctors thought was a rectal tear, that we learned the awful, horrifying truth. Abbey had been disemboweled by the suction from an uncovered pool drain. Unbelievably, her small intestine had been ripped from her body.
The doctors told us there was no medical reason why she had even survived that night. But she was alive. And we were hopeful.
Abbey’s initial recovery amazed everyone around her. The doctors, our family, our friends. Eventually, she would need a transplant, it was certain, but in the meantime, she got to come home. Thanks to some cleverly disguised nutritional solution (in her backpack) and a drainage tube that came out her side (in a Hannah Montana purse—what else?), she even made it back for the first day of school.
In fact, despite what had happened, life kept going, which seemed to surprise us all. We took to calling it “the new normal.”
But we knew there were many more hospital stays ahead for Abbey. So, after she came home, we chose to help her live life to the fullest for as long as we could.
When she wanted to go to an acting camp for kids, we talked to the camp’s director and arranged it so that she would have one of us or a nurse with her at all times. Thankfully, with those precautions, they allowed her to attend with her friends. She had a blast. An experience no “drama queen” should be without.
It was also during this time away from the hospital that a close friend of ours gave us four tickets to a Hannah Montana concert. Including a meet and greet before the show. A picture and autograph from Miley Cyrus, herself? The girls smiled for days.
Being at school and in public during these months wasn’t always easy, though. Abbey’s skin looked very yellow from jaundice. It was hard, as parents, to want to protect her from all the stares and pointing, and know that we couldn’t. The kids at school were generally very good about it. But they asked a lot of questions, as kids do. Questions that Abbey was quick to answer, but she grew tired of them, too.
One day, during a meeting between her class and the school’s principal, Abbey stood in front of her fellow 1st graders and told them how much it hurt her feelings to be treated differently. She said they should think before saying something that hurts someone else.
We were astonished at the depth of her understanding. A six-year-old communicating feelings like that? She had the ability to communicate thoughts well beyond her years.
Then, on December 16, we got the call. There was a transplant available for Abbey. Christmas was coming early.
We headed for Omaha, to the Nebraska Medical Center, where we were to expect Abbey would stay for at least six long months. The next day, the doctors began her triple-transplant surgery—Abbey would receive a new liver, small bowel and pancreas.
For a couple of months, it looked like Abbey was on the normal road to recovery. It was bumpy, but the doctors had warned us to expect that. One step forward, two steps back. Both good days and very bad days. And that was exactly what we experienced. We lived by the daily stream of lab results. Quiet days became good days. It was in this manner that we learned to accept a new way of life. Life that was one day at a time.
Of course, it helped to have visitors. The best medicine for Abbey seemed to be spending time with her sisters, especially Grace. One night, the girls were talking about that day at the pool, and how Abbey had survived. Grace told Abbey that God had one hand, Uncle David (who had passed away two years prior) had her other hand, and together they pulled her off the drain. Abbey smiled—she liked that idea.
We tried to make her feel better by decorating the hospital room, giving her manicures and painting her toenails. Abbey always appreciated pretty things. In the supermarket, she complimented complete strangers wearing their Sunday best. When we were at the Children’s Theatre, she complimented the woman sitting in front of us on her necklace.
A few months after the transplant, things just weren’t getting better. Good days came fewer and farther between. Abbey developed a cancerous condition that is triggered, though rarely, by organ transplants. The condition, called PTLD (post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease), affects certain blood cells. And so, in addition to all the other complications we were facing, the doctors had to start Abbey on chemotherapy.
She continued to have lots of problems with infection, too, and in early March 2008, her new organs began to fail. Devastatingly, her body was partially rejecting her liver. She needed kidney dialysis to remove excess fluid from her body.
By that time, Abbey had had countless infections and 16 surgeries. Surgery to drain fluid. Surgery to mend tissue tears. Surgery to clean up her abdomen. She’d been fighting for so long.
Selfishly, we wanted her to keep fighting for us. We love being her parents. It’s impossible to describe the joy she was to our hearts.
But, finally, on March 20, 2008, at 6:10 pm, Abigail, our beautiful, sassy, romantic, independent little girl, went very quietly and peacefully, with us at her side.
Those nine months were a gift. If Abbey had died that night at the pool, we would never have known what a truly amazing girl she was. We were always impressed by how much she was aware of. She knew everything that was going on around her and spoke up when she questioned any of it.
Maybe this was God’s presence in all of this. We were given an opportunity to get to know who she really was. We loved her before, of course, but over those nine months, we learned what it meant to have character.
Abbey may have lived a short life on the calendar. But she endured a long lifetime worth of pain and suffering. And through it all, she brought joy and happiness to every person who knew her. When she was at home that summer after getting out of the hospital, she used to call our voicemail from the house and leave messages for us. We will treasure those recordings forever.
In the hospital, we made a promise to Abbey—a promise to make sure this kind of injury never happens again. And so, with that goal in mind, we created this Foundation. We want to prevent the preventable and keep kids safe. For her.
They say that time heals. But how much time? And how much healing? Hopefully, by fulfilling our promise to her, we can take an active part in that healing process. Because we know that somewhere, Abbey is looking down on us—safe and sound, hair styled, wearing perfect lip gloss, fancy jewelry, and, our guess is, the most beautiful dress imaginable.
Keep the faith.