The following story comes from a local paper out of Mentone, AL where Griz Lacrosse player, Luke Johnson, and his family live. Luke is currently back home finishing the semester online due to Covid-19 shutting down campus operations and ending the 2020 lacrosse season. The Johnsons are healthy and sheltering in place at their summer camp for girls that they operate, Camp Skyline.
Miracle on the Little River
by Kelly Leavitt – Mentone Groundhog
It was a beautiful spring afternoon in Mentone on April 20. Little River was running high after recent rains. Sisters Makenzie, 21, and Virginia McDorman, 9, set off from their home in a kayak, intending to lazily float with the current down the west fork of Little River. Virginia sat between her sister’s legs in the one-seat kayak. Their father, Slate, planned to pick them up at a family friend’s home further downstream, near Camp Laney.
As young people are bound to do, once the sisters set off, they decided to alter this plan, and instead paddled upstream. Virginia wanted to see the waterfall which flows over the dam on the river near Camp Skyline, about 600 feet upstream from the McDorman home. Makenzie obliged her younger sister.
Larry and Sally Johnson, directors of Camp Skyline, were at their home on the west side of the dam, preparing for a family dinner. Their son, Luke, 22, had returned home from the University of Montana, where he plays on the lacrosse team, because classes had been cancelled due to the current pandemic. “We happened to be outside when we saw the sisters paddling up to the dam,” said Larry. “Sally called out to warn them, but then they were pulled into the back flow about eight feet from the waterfall.” The kayak flipped over, carrying the girls into the turbulent water. Sally and Luke ran to the river, while Larry ran to his truck to get a rope and Luke’s girlfriend, Winslet Herron, called 911. “The minute Luke saw what was going on, he started stripping, down to his underwear. He never even looked back,” recalled Sally’s mother, Sylvia Cash.
“We had just moved our cornhole boards out by the side of the river,” Larry said. “If it hadn’t been such a pretty day, we would have been inside, and we wouldn’t have seen or heard the girls.”
“They were both caught in the hydraulic effect of the water’s turbulence, and every time they came up, they’d catch a fast breath and then go back underwater,” Sally said. “Virginia was wearing a life jacket. If she hadn’t had it, I don’t know if we would have found her, as small as she is. Makenzie, who is a young mother herself, told Luke to get Virginia. Her entire focus was on saving her sister. She held on to Virginia and was finally able to hand her off to Luke.” Then Makenzie lost her footing and she began tumbling in the water, caught in the backflow.
Larry continued, “By the time I got back with the rope, Luke was chest high in the water, with his legs braced against the hydraulic, holding Virginia up above the surface. Last summer, Luke was a whitewater rafting guide in Montana, so he’s been trained in swift water rescue.”
Larry said Makenzie had started to drift, still caught in the hydraulic effect. “Every time she came up, she was looking at Virginia, so she couldn’t see me on the shore with the rope. “
“Makenzie had a bead on Virginia the entire time,” said Sally.
Larry grew up in Florida and spent many years as a lifeguard, and he is currently certified in cave rescue. He continues with the story: “I threw the rope to Makenzie a couple of times as she was coming up, going down, coming up, going down. Then the third of fourth time after I got there, she didn’t come up. I’d see two feet come up and then, a few seconds later, an arm. At that point, I knew she was unconscious.
“We were hollering at Luke, trying to get Virginia out. He threw Virginia towards the shore, but the current carried her back to him. So he reset his footing, pointed to Sally, yelled ‘Swim!’ and threw her as hard as he could. Then he dropped down into the bottom of the hydraulic and kind of popped out, so he could come up and grab her before she went back in. He was swimming her to the side, and that’s when Sally jumped into the river to take Virginia from him.
“While they were doing that, I was still on the bank, looking for Makenzie. At this point, she’d probably been unconscious for a couple of minutes. I caught a glimpse of her body starting to be spit out of the hydraulic and I pointed and hollered at Luke, ‘Body…four feet!’ The water was still flowing hard and you couldn’t really see anything, but he went to where I was pointing and put his hand down, reached around, and got her. It was by the grace of God that Makenzie was able to come out of the hydraulic when and where she did.
The green kayak remained caught in the backflow for two days until Slate McDorman and John Fischer were able to retrieve it.
“As soon as Luke pulled her onto the shore, just barely out of the river, we started CPR. I was kneeling in the water, doing the breaths, and Luke was doing compressions. The worst thing with the breaths was we had to force the air through the water in her body, so for every breath, it was a gurgle going in, and a gurgle coming out.
“We got through two sets of compressions and then John Fischer pulled up in his kayak. He came onshore and started switching out doing the compressions with Luke, while I was still doing breaths.” John is a member of the DeSoto Rescue Squad. He and Makenzie have recently started dating and he happened to be at the McDorman house when the rescue call came in on the radio.
Slate also volunteers on Desoto Rescue Squad and was with John when the 911 call came over the radio. The first thing Slate said was, “Those can’t be the girls; they were going downstream.” As soon as he said it, he realized they had doubled back and began running toward the river. He jumped in his kayak and was right behind John arriving at Skyline.
Mentone police officer Ross Greenwood arrived next and hopped into the rotation with the others who were doing compressions. Larry never stopped breathing into Makenzie. J.D. Trammell from DeSoto Rescue quickly arrived and helped with compressions, then set up the defibrillator.
“They defibrillated her twice, but there was still a flatline,” said Larry. “After the first attempt, the machine had to recharge. Makenzie was still unconscious but had started to spit up a little bit. Her eyes had rolled backwards in opposite directions, her skin was blue and bloated. She was dead.
“But the second time they hit her with the defibrillator, it started to show a weak pulse. DeKalb Ambulance had arrived with a backboard, so they put her on it and DeSoto Rescue continued with compressions until they got her into the ambulance, where they applied the Lucas device, which acts as artificial CPR. They worked on her in the ambulance for about 10 minutes until they could get her stable enough to transport. John rode in the ambulance, holding Makenzie’s hand. They got her down to DeKalb Regional Hospital, and then she was life-flighted to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. The doctors at Erlanger didn’t think she was going to make it. But she made it through her first night, and continued to get better and better. It was a miracle,” Larry concluded.
Slate later learned, when Makenzie returned home, that they had lost her again on the helicopter ride to Erlanger. The in-flight defibrillator was used successfully to resuscitate Makenzie for the second time that day.
“You don’t comprehend what kind of strength the water has, if you haven’t been around it,” said Edward Cash, Sally’s father. “And even local people, most of them haven’t ever been in the river when the water’s up like it was that day.”
“When you realize you’re too close, it’s already too late,” said Larry.
“All the links of the chain fell into place for Makenzie to survive,” Larry said. “It wasn’t just us; it was everybody. If you remove any link in the chain between here and Erlanger, it would have been a different outcome, no matter who you removed. We did what we could do, handed off, DeSoto Rescue did what they could, handed off, DeKalb Ambulance did their part, DeKalb Regional did their part, and the airlift team did their part, until she finally arrived at Erlanger. Everybody did their step and handed off. Everybody made her stable for the next person down the line. It was everybody. Even having clear skies for the helicopter to fly in was a blessing, so they didn’t have to land using instrumentation.” Since Camp Skyline spans both sides of the river and has multiple driveways, Edward Cash also helped by directing the emergency vehicles to the site.
“The next two nights, I woke up probably three times each night and when I woke up, I was still doing rescue breaths. I could still taste the river. We still didn’t know how she was doing at Erlanger. Luke and I would get up about 5, and we’d just stand there in silence, looking at the water, because you could still see the kayak. The kayak remained stuck in the hydraulic area below the dam until two days later, when the water was further down, and Slate and John were able to come get it. It took them a couple of hours.”
Sally said she believes Luke has been changed by the experience. “Absolutely. It’s not the first time he’s had to do this, but it’s the first time he’s pulled someone out who had flatlined.”
“She was underwater for at least a minute and a half, maybe two,” said Slate. “She was without a pulse or any life support for at least four minutes, maybe five.”
Slate and John drove to Erlanger, where at first they were denied admission due to coronavirus policy. But the doctors at Erlanger didn’t think she would survive the night, so they made an exception for Makenzie’s parents to be allowed in the emergency room. As they walked toward her room, they saw a chaplain standing outside the door. A grief counselor also accompanied them throughout their time in the emergency room.
When Slate entered the room, he was told by the ER doctor that Makenzie’s lungs were so full of water, the sensors on the electronic defibrillator were tripping and the machine would not work on her. To keep oxygen flowing to Makenzie, a nurse stood next to her bed squeezing a manual ventilator to pump air into her lungs. “For hours, the nurse stood there keeping her alive, literally by her own hands,” said Slate. The doctors had given Makenzie the maximum amount of blood pressure medicine they were legally allowed. However, her pressure and oxygen levels continued to drop. They couldn’t find any brain activity and Makenzie scored a complete zero on all the reflex and neurological tests. The doctors did not see any swelling or bleeding in her brain, but they were not optimistic that, if she were to survive, she would have any brain activity.
Makenzie’s parents next met with Dr. Jeffrey Poynter, who specializes in Cardiothoracic Surgery. Dr. Poynter said, “I believe there’s something that could help her, but there’s a 40% chance it will kill her the moment I flip the switch on the machine.”
He was referring to an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which is similar to the heart-lung by-pass machine used in open-heart surgery. “I signed the paperwork,” said Slate, “thinking she was about to die. Even if it didn’t kill her, it could have caused a stroke, or blown an artery, or her heart. There were pages of things that could have gone wrong.”
Slate said, “Forty-five minutes after signing the paperwork, Dr. Poynter returned and told us her body took to the ECMO and her vitals were improving. About an hour later, Makenzie was moved to an advanced ICU unit with two full-time nurses monitoring her vitals and the ECMO machine.
When she settled into her ICU room, we were allowed inside the hospital to see her one more time. Slate noticed that Makenzie was crying when they began talking to her. Slate asked her to blink if she knew they were in the room. Makenzie blinked. Slate then asked her several yes/no questions, telling her to just blink for yes. Makenzie blinked the correct answer to every question. The nurses stated that those were simply reflexes and that Makenzie was not actually aware anyone was there. Slate then asked Makenzie if she wanted her tattoos removed while she was staying in the hospital. No blinking. He asked her to blink if she wanted to keep her tattoos. Rapid, rapid blinking. “I knew in that moment that Makenzie was still in there, as I had been trying to get her to remove those tattoos for years,” Slate said. After this visit, everyone had to leave due to the hospital virus protocols.
The nurses told her parents that it could be 48 hours to two weeks before seeing signs of improvement. Makenzie woke up, though, less than 12 hours after they put her on the ECMO machine. She had no memory of the accident and had no idea what was going on. She couldn’t speak because she was intubated, so they put her under sedation to help her relax. They took her off the ECMO machine the next day, and off the ventilator the day after that.
To provide Makenzie every comfort possible for her recovery, the hospital allowed her mother, April Glass, special permission to stay with her in the CVICU unit. April was the only visitor in the hospital. The third day after the accident, they had Makenzie up walking in the hallway.
The day before they removed the ventilator, her ICU nurse, Hannah Alexander, asked Makenzie if there was anything she could bring her. Makenzie scribbled “Starbucks” on a piece of paper. Slate said, “The nurses had never seen anyone ask for anything like that before.” Once the ventilator was removed, the hospital’s Starbucks café gave Makenzie and all the ICU nurses Starbucks drinks of their choice. Makenzie ordered a caramel macchiato.
L to R: Luke Johnson, Virginia, Makenzie, and Larry Johnson 5/1/20
“It looks like she’s going to make a full recovery,” said Slate. “She has all of her memories. She has complete motor function and no broken bones. Her lungs will take 6–8 weeks to get complete lung capacity back. Right now, she has the lung capacity of a toddler, but it’s slowly coming back.
“It took about a week for the memory of the accident to come back to Makenzie,” Slate said. “She remembers realizing they were going to flip, and throwing Virginia to Luke, and her foot slipping. She remembers inhaling the water, gasping, trying to get right side up, spinning around like a barrel, and choking until she passed out. What an awful memory to have. I wish I could it take from her. But, I can’t. This has aged Makenzie. I can see it in her eyes.”
“If the Johnsons hadn’t been there, I would have lost both my daughters,” Slate said. “If the girls hadn’t been where we were supposed to meet, I would have started looking for them on the river toward DeSoto Falls. It would have probably been an hour before I located them. Camp Skyline would have been the absolute last place I checked since I watched them head downriver. Not only did the Johnsons save Makenzie, they comforted Virginia through a very traumatic event. Everything they have done means the world to us.”
“This has been the scariest time of my life,” said Slate. “We’d just gotten the kayaks, and I thought it would be fun for them to go downriver and get picked up. I have done that my whole life. Now I am feeling very blessed, very scared, and more hyperalert to danger than I was. You can’t take anything for granted, especially what kids tell you they’re going to do. I’m just blessed to be having this conversation instead of another one. It’s a miracle. A lot of people had to be in the right place at the right time for this outcome.”
“Makenzie is proof of the reason you just keep going, fighting to save someone’s life,” said Larry.
“God’s hand is all in this,” Sally reflected. “It’s in all of this.”