Eden Carlson wobbles the second she dares to stand on her own. Elbows close to her body, she takes one step, teeters precariously in the middle of the hallway and leans back against the wall for support. She tries again, right leg swinging awkwardly out to the side, her knee and ankle joints loose like Jell-O as she shifts the weight to her feet. Her mom encourages her from behind the camera, thrilled that her youngest child is walking once more, like she used to.
It was Feb. 29, 2016, when Eden squeezed through a baby gate, opened a heavy door and fell into her family’s pool. After being underwater for approximately 15 minutes, the 2-year-old was immediately transported to Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she was resuscitated after nearly two hours. Suffering from deep gray matter injury, cerebral atrophy and gray and white matter loss, little Eden wasn’t expected to survive the next 48 hours. Now, over a year later, the once comatose patient is almost completely rehabilitated due to normobaric and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. But the Carlson family, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also attribute Eden’s healing to priesthood blessings, prayers and fasting on their daughter’s behalf.
Chris Carlson, Eden's father, was at work when his wife, Kristal Carlson, called to tell him that Eden had drowned in the family pool. Although Kristal Carlson had immediately started CPR on their daughter, Eden hadn’t revived.
Upon hearing the news, Chris Carlson drove the 30 minutes to Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and phoned a neighbor, asking if he could give Eden a priesthood blessing. The neighbor, who arrived at the Carlsons' house just before the ambulance took off, only had time to place one hand on Eden’s head and bestow upon her a brief, but specific promise:
“‘I bless you that the medical personnel will be able to bring you back to life,’” Chris Carlson said were the exact words his neighbor spoke.
When he arrived at the hospital, Chris Carlson saw his daughter lying on a gurney and surrounded by a team of approximately 25 people. A total of 17 epinephrine injections had been strategically placed all over Eden’s body in an attempt to restore her heartbeat, and every 5 to 10 minutes or so, the staff would pause, listening intently.
Time was ticking away. Thirty minutes. Sixty. Seventy five. Ninety. Chris and Kristal Carlson hovered in the doorway, hoping against hope that Eden’s heartbeat would come back.
“About halfway through that they allowed me to go back behind her,” said Chris Carlson. “And I gave her a blessing. … It was a longer blessing, but pretty much the same thing, that she’d be brought back to life, that she’d be made whole.”
Medical personnel will attempt to resuscitate patients for 30-40 minutes at most, said interventional radiologist and area seventy Elder Michael Beheshti. At the time of the incident, Elder Beheshti served as the stake president in Little Rock, Arkansas, and visited the Carlsons in the hospital on many occasions.
“What’s remarkable in this case is that they did not quit,” said Elder Beheshti. “I don’t know an ER physician that would continue a resuscitation into the 90th minute.”
The fear, he said, is that while the “heart is very resilient” and can go without oxygen for some time, the brain cannot. Based on his experience treating ischemic and anoxic brain injury, Elder Beheshti stated that typically, 4 to 8 minutes is all physicians have to restore blood to the brain. Eden, who had been underwater for 15 minutes, had been without oxygen for much longer.
“The entire time she was in the pool until CPR started, she had no flow at all. So, by that alone she should have been brain dead,” he said.
Though Elder Beheshti’s medical background told him that Eden’s recovery was physically impossible, when he heard of the blessings she had received, he had a profound feeling of peace.
“All we needed to do was exercise faith,” said Elder Beheshti. “And from that moment, literally from that moment, I had a remarkably calm feeling that this little girl was going to wake up. Which, you have to understand, is so contradictory to all medical understanding.”
And then an hour and 40 minutes in, there it was. Eden’s heart was beating again.
“They simply just didn’t give up,” said Chris Carlson of the team who worked on Eden. “They refused to stop.”
Later, Chris and Kristal Carlson learned that nearly every person in the room had a child within a year or two of their daughter.
“I’ve never been in a situation before where you can literally feel … the prayers,” Chris Carlson said, recalling how Eden was then airlifted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where she remained for five weeks. “It’s kind of hard to explain the way it’s around you. … It turned out that we had people all over the globe praying for us,” he said.
Additional support flooded in from all sides for the Carlson family. Many of whom had never even met Eden fasted for her recovery, and Elder Beheshti and his wife provided a “home away from home” for the Carlsons during Eden’s hospital stay. Miraculously, Eden had defied the odds and lived past the first 48 hours — her body was posturing and she was in a vegetative state, but she was alive.
“Her arms were stuck up by her head, her knees were stuck up by her chest, her body was kind of making a ‘C,’” recalled Chris Carlson. “She was always stiff.”
The Carlsons were told that their daughter would never recover, and that Eden would never walk or talk again.
“We started understanding that it wasn’t our will,” said Chris Carlson. “We came to grips with the fact that we had to be OK with whatever happened, whatever the outcome was. … It was in God’s plan.”
When Eden was finally able to return home, Chris and Kristal Carlson had to keep a close eye on her.
“The parents had been given a breathing alarm that would go off,” Eden’s physician, Dr. Paul Harch, said in a BBC interview. “And they’d also been given a tank of oxygen such that if she did stop breathing at night, they would go in and have to resuscitate her.”
Harch, located at Louisiana State University, prescribed Eden with 100 percent normobaric oxygen twice a day for 45 minutes through her nose until the Carlsons were able to travel to Louisiana for hyperbaric therapy. Although this form of treatment had been tried on near-drowning patients in the past with some success, the younger the victims are and the sooner they receive care, the more likely their recovery.
"The startling regrowth of tissue in this case occurred because we were able to intervene early in a growing child, before long-term tissue degeneration," Harch said in Science Daily.
As Eden received the oxygen treatments, her body soon started to relax, Chris Carlson said; her eyes started moving, and she was smiling again. Forty sessions of hyperbaric therapy improved her speech, gait and gross motor function, and booster sessions have also continued to improve her focus and fine motor skills. The study, coauthored with Dr. Edward Fogarty of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, was recently published in Medical Gas Research.
“The surprise was when she went home and now was walking, had speech at a level beyond what she had before the drowning,” Harch told BBC. “We repeated the MRI of the brain showing that the shrinkage of her brain that had happened in the hospital had almost completely regrown, which was unprecedented. It is so low risk. … There’s almost no downside to this.”
The Carlsons hope that Eden’s story will provide hope for other families who have been through similar experiences. In May, the Carlsons decided to make Eden’s Facebook page public in order to show their daughter’s progress, and are quick to attribute her successes to their Heavenly Father.
“In my book there’s three big miracles that happened with her. One, that they got her back to life. … The second one is the fact that she lived those first 48 hours. And the third one is the hyperbaric care that got her out of her vegetative state,” said Chris Carlson.
The Carlsons don’t talk about the incident much, revelling instead in their daughter’s warm brown eyes, bright smile and positive attitude. Sometimes, though, Eden will bring up the drowning all on her own.
“‘I fell in the pool,’” she’ll tell her father out of the blue.
“‘Yes, you did,’” he’ll respond.
“‘I cried. And Mommy cried. I came back to you.’”
Her words have confirmed to Chris Carlson that there was more going on behind the scenes on that February day than meets the eye.
“We have a feeling that she was aware most of the time,” said Chris Carlson. “She just couldn’t do anything. … All she could do was just lie there. She was very aware.
“We always feel like the room was full of angels. The doctors and nurses were definitely inspired to do things they needed to do to keep her alive.”