Libby Claire McGarity walked Monday.
Her grandmother, Susan Pressly, says it’s a miracle, without a doubt. It’s a miracle the little blonde is even alive.
“She should not be alive,” Pressly told us Monday night. “But she’s so remarkable. She’s such a strong-willed child. She’s phenomenal.”
Nearly a month ago, 20-month-old McGarity fell from a loft in Pressly’s home on Broadway in Longbeach Village, landing squarely on the front of her skull. Her story is a nightmare, a horrific blur for Pressly — as it is for Pressly’s entire family. It’s a roaring hurricane of flashes and flashbacks, the highs of miraculous joys, the lows of unspeakable possibilities and fears. Emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting, dehydrating.
Libby Claire McGarity’s story is also a story of God. Of professionals at their best. Of family, friends, neighbors and 1,700 people sharing their compassion, prayers, hopes and support.
And yet, it’s also a story of bent perspective, of a characteristic of Longboat Key that makes Longboat less than what its residents want it to be, less than what its residents are.
Angels in disguise
Pressly remembers standing in front of her home that morning, July 10, waiting with her daughter and three other grandchildren for Longboat Key’s emergency fire-rescue team. They were holding a limp Libby Claire McGarity, standing there gripped in the vice of fear. Please, God, let her live.
“When this happens to your grandchild, it’s like a double injury,” Pressly says. “There I am, and my daughter is looking to me and her daughter is looking to her. It was so devastating. It’s even worse than when something happens to your own child.”
But when the fire-rescue team arrived, Pressly says, “as soon as they touched her, they were competent and compassionate. They are phenomenal men and women. These EMTs are all angels in disguise. They saved her life.”
Little McGarity was lifted onto a Bayflite helicopter and rushed to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Her mother, Elizabeth McGarity, accompanied her in the helicopter. Writes Elizabeth McGarity in her journal, which is posted on the Caring Bridge Web site: “She was in the back behind a barrier. Upon arrival they slowly moved her from the helo; she was intubated and completely blue.”
Matt McGarity, Libby Claire’s father, drove as fast he could from Longboat Key to All Children’s. When he caught up with his wife, Libby Claire was being rushed into surgery.
“We heard words of explanation about the surgery but did not hear anything after they explained we might lose her,” Elizabeth McGarity says in her journal. “What else do you need to hear after those words? We were told pre-surgery of the risky seriousness of this procedure. They wanted us to be prepared for the outcome of these types of surgeries on children her age, that we would need to go ahead and say our goodbyes until we meet her again in eternity.”
Surgery began at noon. This was another miracle, Pressly says.
Pressly’s husband, Jim, is an opthalmologist in Charlotte, N.C. After the accident, he called one of his former medical school colleagues, a pediatrician, and asked for the name of the best pediatric neurosurgeon he could think of. His friend recommended Dr. Arthur Marlin.
Marlin, it turned out, is a professor of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida in Tampa and on staff at All Children’s Hospital. He was already on the scene, as the lead surgeon to operate on Libby Claire.
Among the neurosurgeons’ tasks: to remove the front of Libby Claire’s skull. “She had massive blood loss, 1 1/2 times the amount of blood in her body,” Elizabeth McGarity writes. “She was not with us twice during surgery. Thank-you to the nine people who donated blood that saved our little girl’s life.”
Matt and Elizabeth McGarity waited for hours with three different hospital chaplains. “We all prayed that our Father would strengthen her little body, hold her while we could not and whisper words of comfort in her ears. We asked that the Lord would guide the team in every step,” Elizabeth McGarity writes.
A nurse came out of the operating room. The news was grim. The surgery had not gone as planned, but Libby Claire was stable — and critical. “I asked if the surgery was complete and if she made it,” Elizabeth McGarity writes. “With her lip quivering, she said that it was not over yet. We again, on our knees, knew that He was in complete control and would never leave or abandon us. He was near. His mercy was with her, and she made it.”
The next morning, Saturday, brought signs of joy and hope. As the little blonde lay with IVs and a ventilator attached to her and a bolt inside her brain to measure pressure, Libby Claire’s attending physician tried to elicit reactions by pinching her and talking loudly. No response.
But when her parents began to call her name, Libby Claire moved her arms, pushed her ventilator with her tongue, tried to sit up and pulled at her IVs. The doctor was encouraged, especially knowing she was heavily sedated.
A setback occurred near dinner time. The pressure in her brain had doubled from earlier in the day. The hospital staff rushed the young child to another room to insert a central venous line in her groin to stabilize her blood. She made it through the night in stable condition.
But on that Sunday, the pressure in her brain would not subside. Doctors decided to place the child under a medically induced coma.
Writes Elizabeth McGarity: “This morning at 9:15 we sang her “Night Night” song to her as the line was pushed through … She will be in the coma hopefully for three to five days. Right now, 12:15 p.m., she is receiving another transfusion of blood.
“We never imagined a day would ever go by without holding our children in our arms and hugging, squeezing, kissing and feeling them do the same. It has been since Friday that our baby has been in our arms, but we know she is being held even while our arms cannot be around her.”
Monday, July 13, no change, her 10th blood transfusion. Matt and Elizabeth McGarity have spent four nights in the Ronald McDonald House. Tuesday, July 14, no change. Writes Elizabeth McGarity: “We get to see Mac, Beau and Maggie today in the waiting room! Yeah, my cup overflows!”
The pink banner
But while this life-and-death ordeal consumed the McGarities and Susan and Jim Pressly, who were watching over the McGarities’ other three children, Susan Pressly encountered the Longboat Key government.
Earlier that week, she and her grandchildren painted a pink banner with Libby Claire’s photograph and planted it in the right of way on Broadway near the Pressly home. “Pray for Libby Claire,” the banner said.
The banner helped Pressly’s grandchildren feel they were helping their helpless sister.
And then Susan Pressly heard the voicemail. The town of Longboat Key’s code enforcement officer, Heidi Micale, left a message that said she wanted to speak to the Presslys.
Susan Pressly called. Micale said the banner was violating town sign codes and needed to be removed from the right of way.
Taut as a guitar string, drained, Pressly says she lost her composure on Micale. “I was appalled at the lack of compassion,” she says.
“Life is full of joy and grief,” Pressly says. “If you feel you need to express your joy, you should be able to do that. And when you need to express your grief, you should be able to do that, too.”
Pressly left the banner up until her grandchildren left for their home in North Carolina. As soon as their car turned onto Gulf of Mexico Drive, she took it down. She called Micale and apologized for blowing up. “She was just doing her job,” Pressly says. Still, she notes, “It was so petty.”
With the banner gone, Pressly replaced it with a hot-pink bow — Libby Claire’s favorite color — around her mailbox. “It will stay there until Libby Claire is whole,” she says.
That precious voice
Friday, July 17, was a watershed. Libby Claire squeezed her parents fingers. Her eyes were still closed.
But her mother writes: “We are so happy … the sun is out!” On Saturday, July 18, Libby Claire was awake and began to talk.
Writes Matt McGarity: “As I’m writing this, Elizabeth is holding Libby Claire in her lap, cuddling up to our littlest princess. What incredible leaps she has made even over just 24 hours!! Libby is jibber-jabbin’ about all kinds of stuff. And oh how great it is to hear that precious voice again!
“She has been inspected and fully clear of any other injury to neck, back, etc.” McGarity writes. The neurosurgeon told them as far as he can tell, there is little damage to her brain, which will heal in the next six weeks or so. The neurosurgeon also said he does not expect any physical or mental problems as a result of the injury.
Friday, July 31: Libby Claire was released from a North Carolina hospital, where she had been flown about 10 days earlier. “Home sweet home,” Elizabeth McGarity writes of arriving with her baby at their North Carolina home.
Monday, Aug. 3; Libby Claire walked for the first time since the accident.
Back in Longboat Key, as Pressly relived in her mind’s eye the whirl that spun in front of her over the past three-and-a-half weeks, she saw the whole picture again — the EMTs, the neurosurgeon, the All Children’s hospital staff, the McGarities’ church and support from around the world. More than 1,700 people from all over the world offered encouragement and support to Libby Claire and her family through the Internet (CaringBridge.org/visit/libbyclairemcgarity/journal).
“It’s amazing what this little, sweet person impacted,” Pressly says.
Pressly talks about “no doubt about the hand of God.” She pauses. “When you need a miracle and reach out, it is there.”
The story of Libby Claire is worth remembering for all of Longboat Key. It’s a story of miracles, God, family, faith and hope. In a time of crisis and distress, it brought out the best. It brought out the angels. It’s a story of perspective — how we need to keep life in perspective.