July 14, 2008

Family Changed By Near-Death Experience: Tale of Sister’s Rescue From Pool Won a Resort’s ?Hero? Contest.

By Kelly Metz, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Jul. 14--Last winter, then-9-year-old Kelleeanne Jackson nearly drowned.

Six months later, she danced outside the home where she lives with her mother and sisters in Fort Wayne. She loves dogs -- especially Chihuahuas -- and she thanks her older sister for saving her life.

On Jan. 6, Kelleeanne, her then-10-year-old sister Madalynn and their brother Matthew, 8, were racing in the indoor pool at the Jorgenson Family YMCA on Aboite Center Road.

Madalynn was winning, but when she looked back, she didn't see her little sister.

"I thought she just got out of the pool," she said. She and Matthew continued swimming -- until they spotted something at the bottom of the deep end.

"There was a glare from the snow on the top of the water, so we couldn't see under," Madalynn said. Matthew dove under the water, came up and said, "I know that swimsuit," and Madalynn screamed for the lifeguard.

Madalynn remembers hearing whistles blown, bodies shuffling in a hurry from the pool, the lifeguard diving in and pulling up Kelleeanne's little body. She ran to get her stepmother, who was in the changing room.

Lifeguards started CPR and in the ambulance to Lutheran Hospital, the paramedics heard Kelleeanne's seemingly last breath. But they kept trying to resuscitate her, said Nancy Thomas, the girls' mother.

Kelleeanne said she saw God, and he was handsome.

"I went to heaven," she said. "I sat on (the Archangel) Gabriel's lap. My dog that died ran to me. I saw my ancestors. I told Gabriel 'I miss my family' and he said he loved me, and pushed me off his lap."

Mary Zull, the girls' grandmother, was with Thomas when they got the call with the news. Thomas started screaming, "This can't be happening. ... My baby, my baby." And she ran out the door barefoot in the snow.

"We didn't know if she was alive, what condition she was in. We didn't know anything. I have never felt that kind of despair," she said.

Zull drove them to Lutheran Hospital. Thomas was hysterical, shouting for her to run red lights, go faster. Zull was trying to stay calm for her daughter but she was panicking inside.

It was a few hours before Kelleeanne was stable. Her body temperature had been in the 70s since she was pulled from the pool, and doctors and nurses were working to keep her warm. She had breathing tubes inserted and IVs protruding from her arms.

And her mother was thankful.

"It was like giving birth again," Thomas said. When Kelleeanne woke up, the first whispered words to her family were, "I love you." Her first words to Madalynn were, "Thank you for saving my life."

Madalynn said the week her sister was in the hospital she couldn't sleep. She tried to rest in a beanbag chair on the floor of Kelleeanne's room, but she couldn't stop thinking about her sister.

Kelleeanne doesn't remember anything from the accident itself, just her spiritual journey.

Moving ahead

During the week she was in the hospital, she lost 11 pounds. Her vocal cords were damaged, leaving her with a constant hoarseness. She has trouble concentrating and with her coordination and short-term memory.

"She used to love reading," Thomas said. "She could sit down and read a book a day. But now she can't remember what she's read. So she stopped." Her grades at Whispering Meadows Elementary dropped from A's to C's.

Both girls are still swimming.

"We're a fish family; we've always been fish," Thomas said. Still, she's very nervous about letting the girls swim. Buddying in threes and taking frequent breaks are now family rules.

"I just don't think we'll get that lucky again," Thomas said. "I don't want to test it."

She has been back to the YMCA and looked at the pool, calling it a haunting experience. The girls have been back and although it was weird at first, they still had fun.

Winning story

Madalynn is a hero. At least her grandma thought so when she entered her in Splash Universe Water Park Resort's "Hometown Hero" contest.

She thought she had a great story but wasn't sure she would win -- but, she did.

The family received free tickets for a weekend at Splash Universe in Shipshewana. It's an award that makes Thomas' stomach understandably queasy.

Through it all, lessons have been learned. The family is thankful for friends and relatives who've made the experience a tad more manageable. The preciousness of life is something to be valued.

Madalynn and Kelleeanne still argue like sisters do. Madalynn still plays softball and crafts her own earrings. Kelleeanne is still dancing and loves going tubing behind her uncle's boat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a weekly series about people like you living in Allen County. If you have someone we should showcase in Our Town, call 461-8354 or e-mail [email protected]


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