The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

June 16, 2014

Fairy Tales Can Come True

Miracle child meets her match

By Sandy Hatley for the SNAP

Monday, June 16, 2014 — Once upon a time in Stanfield a little girl was born, but experienced problems during her delivery. Five years earlier, a little boy was born in Georgia with similar complications. Both suffered a brain bleed during child birth and had ventricular shunts placed in their heads.

The little girl was Madison Hartsell of Locust. Even with the shunt, her life was normal, until age 9 when she suffered seven strokes during a five-day period. On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1998, Sheila Hartsell, Maddie’s mother and a registered nurse, thought her daughter had contracted a virus.  

“She threw up. It never dawned on me that it was Maddie’s shunt.” Hartsell recalled.  

Maddie had a mild headache, was lethargic and was complaining of a stomach ache. Refusing to eat, she only sipped a little sweet tea, her favorite.  Her mother phoned her doctor.

“I’m bringing her in … something’s wrong,” the mother told her physician.

Hartsell relied on her son, Ryan, who was only 16 and a beginning driver, to take them to Charlotte. He was unsure about the trip, but his mother stressed that she needed him to do this and that she would guide him through the city. Holding Maddie in her lap as they traveled, Hartsell realized that her daughter had stopped breathing. She instructed Ryan to call 911 and administered mouth to mouth resuscitation, breathing for her child, until they met an ambulance in the K-Mart parking lot near what is now Bojangles Coliseum.

“Her pulse was 63. It should have been 120,” Hartsell said.

Following a CT scan, doctors discovered that Maddie’s shunt had malfunctioned, causing extensive strokes. Three occurred in the cerebellum, in both occipital areas, and in the medulla and pons of the brain.

“This type of stroke does not sustain life.” Hartsell, an experienced nurse, grimly stated, understanding the severity of the diagnosis.

“The doctor said she would never walk, talk, (nor) eat. If she lived, she would be a vegetable.”

Maddie remained in a coma for five days, not responding to any verbal commands. With little hope, the family decided that they would turn off her ventilator. Hartsell asked that it not be done until the following morning. That night she bathed Maddie, anointed her daughter’s head with oil and prayed over her.

“I prayed for acceptance,” her mother said.

But that night, what was supposed to be Maddie’s last night, a miracle occurred. Relatives came to visit bringing a small gift of frog socks. Hartsell placed them on her daughter’s feet and described the socks to her daughter. When asked if she liked them, Maddie nodded. Hartsell then asked if she would squeeze her hand and her daughter complied. Retrieving the nurse, the mother asked her daughter to nod and again Maddie moved her head. The nurse sought the doctor.

“Dr. Tim said it was a miracle in itself,” Hartsell said.

“He said it was a higher power.”

When Maddie was 10 and undergoing rehab three times a week, she asked her mother as they traveled, “Did I die?”

Hartsell listened intently as her youngest explained that she saw a glimpse of Heaven. She remembered walking with a lot of people. One was a man with gray hair. She thought she recognized him and tried to catch up with him, but never could. She saw a tall gate made of gold coins that shone like crystal. Inside she could see that there were flowers everywhere with the bluest sky and the greenest grass she had ever seen. As the old man walked through the gate, his hair turned black and the glasses flew off his face. On each side of the gate, an angel perched on a pedestal. As she approached one angel leaped off and said, “Madison, Jesus is not ready for you yet.”

Maddie’s parents began working with her at home. The nurse extracted her daughter’s feeding tube. She got rid of her wheelchair. She didn’t give Maddie an option.

Hartsell issued a command.

“I said you will walk.”

Her dad, Darrell, took her for a ride on their four-wheeler and then helped her walk back to the house. It was a slow, difficult process, but Maddie continued to improve and beat the odds.

Her parents realized that Maddie’s rehabilitation required more than just addressing her physical needs. She needed a support system.

“Maddie was starving for friends,” Hartsell said.  

“Life changes with accidents.”

One August night in 2008 while working in the ICU, Hartsell needed an EEG and contacted EEG technician Sheila McClain. While working with the patient, McClain mentioned that her youngest child, Chris, who lived in Georgia, had a ventricular shunt. Hartsell immediately realized their connection and shared a photograph of Maddie and her email address with McClain, hoping their children might become friends. McClain encouraged Hartsell to have her daughter contact Chris first since he was extremely shy.

Chris’s mom told her son about the young girl in North Carolina who had faced some of his same obstacles. Maddie emailed Chris and he emailed back. An online conversation began.  

“I was thinking, ‘This is great.  We can be friends. Someone actually has something in common with me.’ ”

Two months later, they exchanged phone numbers and Chris called. On the day after her 18th birthday, Maddie received a special present.

“He shows up on my doorstep,” Maddie beamed.

Chris had driven four hours north to meet the young lady that he had been corresponding with throughout the fall. Chris recalled that Maddie’s father was very inquisitive.

“Maddie’s dad was playing 20 questions with me,” Chris said.  

“He had me shaking. I was scared.”

Chris, five years her senior, admitted that he was looking for more than friendship.

“The first time I saw her, I thought she was beautiful,” he said.

For two years they kept up a long-distance relationship. Chris would travel back and forth between Georgia and North Carolina. Then they reached a turning point.

”Maddie gave me an ultimatum,” Chris said.

“She said that I would have to move up here to continue the relationship. So I moved.”

Chris had worked at a Zaxby’s restaurant in Athens. He interviewed with Zaxby’s in Harrisburg and was hired the same day.  Since then, Chris has secured a job with FedEx, working as a package handler, and life has been good.

The couple became engaged on Maddie’s birthday, Dec. 27, 2011.

“He took me out for my birthday,” Maddie said.

“He didn’t tell me where we were going.”

Chris drove her to the Open Kitchen in Charlotte. His mom had called ahead and explained the situation. When they arrived, they found a special candlelit table for two awaiting them. They enjoyed a meal and then Chris stood.

“He got up, then I got up and he said sit back down,” she said.

“Then he got on his knee and gave me a small speech. He got a ring out of his pocket and said, ‘Would you do me the honor and make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?’ ”

She admitted that she cried the entire time.  

“I had a funny feeling like something was going to happen,” she said.

On June 7, Maddie and Chris married in an outdoor ceremony at her parents’ home, Meadow Creek Farms, in Locust. They were surrounded by family and friends that had prayed and supported them over the past several years.

Following the rustic country wedding, the couple headed to DisneyWorld on their honeymoon. Mr. and Mrs. McClain reside in Locust.

Maddie, who is legally blind, admitted that she gets frustrated sometimes with her handicap.

“I can’t get a job, but I can be a wonderful housekeeper,” she said.

“I’m learning to cook.”

With her vision impairment, the young bride confessed that the stove scares her, but the couple is proud of their independence.

Maddie volunteers on Mondays at CMC-Northeast. She assists in cardiology and on the neuroscience floor assembling packets for stroke patients and doing office work. She also plans on volunteering this fall at either Locust or Stanfield elementary school.

“No parent thinks that your child can get their license and live on their own (with a brain injury),” Chris said.

“My mom pushed me to make that happen. She wouldn’t baby me.”

Maddie agreed that she has always been independent, but would sometimes become annoyed with her parents when they had high expectations.

“I’m glad they did that,” she said.

Surviving seven strokes, talking, walking, meeting Chris, sharing a life with someone who has known the same struggles, has been a dream come true for Maddie.

“We were made for each other,” she said.

“The theme for our marriage ceremony was Our Fairy Tale Wedding.”

Now all that is left is for them to live happily ever after.

Sandy Hatley is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.