The rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor and constant whooshing of the ventilator filled the silence of the room in Vanderbilt Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. Beside the bed where wires and IVs snaked to their 10-year-old-daughter lying in a coma and clinging to life, Jared and Sarah Clark held vigil and prayed.
Forty-eight hours earlier, as emergency room nurses at Madison Hospital prepared Chloe Clark for a CT scan to determine the extent of the injuries she suffered after a 48-pound sheet of wood fell on the bridge of her nose, she told her father, “Daddy, I’m ready to meet Jesus. Tell Mommy I love her. If I don’t make it, I’m ready.”
That was before an ambulance transported Chloe to Vanderbilt Hospital, before she started screaming in pain, before doctors discovered the spinal meningitis and blockage of two veins in her brain and before the medical staff placed her on life support.
Through daily Facebook videos posted by Jared Clark, Chloe’s story impacted hundreds of thousands of lives. Strangers talked about how Chloe motivated them to spend more time with their children, attend church and get saved.
“We never questioned ‘Why.’ It’s kind of a silly question. We could never understand God’s plan,” Jared Clark said. “We did ask ‘Why us.’ Why did God choose us to represent him and give us this opportunity, as dark and tragic as it is, to share how good he is? It was very humbling. We didn’t know how our story would end, but we walked in the fact that God was using our lives to reach others.”
The Clark family continues to spread the message of God’s goodness every day, especially today, Easter Sunday.
“Through it all, we said God is good. In good times and bad, God deserves all praise. This is not our story. It is God’s story,” Jared Clark said.
As the early evening darkness descended on north Alabama, Jared Clark began installing roof decking to the front of the house he was building on his parent’s Limestone County property. Fifteen feet below him, his daughters, 10-year-old Chloe and 8-year-old Clemie, played.
Chloe, the oldest of Jared and Sarah Clark’s four children, loved helping her father build the family home — a temporary structure they hoped to move to another location once they purchased land. She handed him tools, moved boards and, according to Jared Clark, made a “mean concrete slump.”
“I was Daddy’s helper. If Daddy didn’t tell me to go inside, I’d be out there all day with him,” Chloe said.
Pulling the wood over the ridge of the roof, Jared Clark struggled to hold onto the material. After checking on his daughters, he let the sheet slide toward the safety rail. He watched the wood break through the rail and sail through the air.
Seconds later he heard Clemie scream, “Chloe’s been hit.”
Blood streamed from the gash crossing from Chloe’s right brow bone to the left cheek bone. Later, doctors would tell the Clarks the board could not have hit Chloe any better. Any higher and it would’ve damaged sensitive parts of the brain. Any lower and Chloe would’ve suffered extensive facial trauma. Any straighter and she would’ve lost both her eyes.
Sarah Clark was fixing dinner and watching 5-year-old Clay and 2-year-old Clara when Clemie slammed open the door.
“As soon as the door flew open, I knew something awful had happened,” Sarah Clark said. “All I could do was pray.”
Jared Clark rushed Chloe to Madison Hospital, where the staff performed a CT scan and, fearing the damage would cut off circulation to the eyes, transported her to Vanderbilt.
Besides the shattered cheek bones, fractured eye sockets and broken nose, which would require reconstructive surgery, the medical staff at Vanderbilt saw no other damage. The hospital told the Clarks to go home and return in a few days when the swelling decreased.
“We were so happy. We were ready to get home. That’s when the snowstorm came. We were leery about getting on the road. It wasn’t super bad, just bad enough. And it was rush hour. We decided to wait at the hospital for a few hours,” Jared Clark said. “That was God’s timing, his way of keeping us in place.”
At 6 p.m., Chloe started thrashing around and screaming about a pain in her neck. Two hours later, she was in a coma. Seeing the damage to Chloe’s face and hearing about her pain, a neurosurgeon immediately recognized the symptoms as spinal meningitis.
When the board hit Chloe, it shoved the bridge of her nose back and a bone shard pierced the membrane, pushing sinus bacteria into the brain fluid.
As the medical team drew blood, conducted an MRI and CT scan and placed Chloe on six antibiotics, Sarah Clark traveled the ice-covered roads from Athens to Nashville to get to her daughter.
That Saturday morning, Chloe opened her eyes and said, “Hey, Mama.” Those were the last words Jared and Sarah Clark would hear her speak for five days.
“When I saw her, at first I was in shock and angry,” Sarah Clark recalled last week.
“Why were you angry?” Chloe asked.
“Well, not angry. I was really upset. Mommies want to fix things, and I couldn’t fix it,” Sarah Clark said, gently stroking her daughter’s cheek.
On Saturday evening, Chloe’s vital signs skyrocketed — her heart rate soared to 300 and her blood pressure went up to 200 — due to the blockage of two veins in the back of her brain. Doctors placed her on life support and inserted breathing and feeding tubes down her throat.
Before leaving the hospital that night, Sarah Clark prayed Psalms 121 over her daughter.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you. The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm. He will watch over your life.
“We wanted to stay with her so bad, but the nurses told us we needed to get rest. This verse helped me leave, because I knew God would be with her through the night,” Sarah Clark said.
To combat any swelling of the brain, the doctors deepened Chloe’s coma and restricted Jared and Sarah Clark from talking to their daughter. Two nurses were in the room with her every second of the day, compared to the typical protocol in the pediatric intensive care unit where one nurse cares for two patients.
When the Clarks arrived at the hospital Monday morning, the medical staff did not allow them to see Chloe. Behind the closed door of Chloe’s room, nurses and doctors worked desperately to lower her heart rate and blood pressure and pump fluid off of her lung.
Jared and Sarah Clark anxiously waited and tried to pray.
“As much praying as you try to do, that is probably the hardest time to pray because there is so much going on in your mind. Having people pray for you, that’s probably the most critical time,” Jared Clark said.
A man appeared in the waiting room and asked if he could pray with the Clarks. They told him about Chloe and he told them about his daughter.
“She was 10 months old. She was born premature and had health issues. He said she was on life support and was not going to make it. He had already lost one child,” Jared Clark said. “Despite that, the whole time he’s talking to us, he’s telling us, ‘God is good, no matter how dark it gets, God is always good.’ ”
The medical team stabilized Chloe, but how much damage her brain suffered, they did not know. They allowed Sarah Clark to softly read to Chloe, who remained in a coma. On Tuesday, Lawson Bates, of the TV show “Bringing Up Bates,” visited the family and quietly sang “You are My Sunshine,” “Amazing Grace,” “At the Cross” and “Rejoice in the Lord.”
At 10:45 p.m., Jared Clark saw Chloe move. He placed his finger in the palm of her hand and asked her to squeeze. She did.
On Wednesday, she tried to make noise and answered questions by moving her head. Thursday, she opened her eyes and nurses removed her breathing tube.
“Where’s Mommy and Daddy?” she asked.
After steadily improving day by day, on Monday, 11 days after the accident, Chloe started hollering and thrashing her body. An MRI and CT scan revealed no seizure activity and no blockage in the brain. Doctors attributed Chloe’s temporary response to information overload caused by her brain healing and her senses returning.
The following Thursday, Chloe underwent reconstruction surgery. The doctor removed all of the bone fragments, rebuilt the bridge of her nose and put in a titanium plate.
Before Chloe’s release from the hospital, Jared Clark talked with her main doctor.
“He told me there were two times they thought she wasn’t going to make it. And, if she did make it, they thought she would have major brain trauma,” Jared Clark said. “He told me, ‘We are instruments God uses. Sometimes he uses us, sometimes he goes around us and does his own thing. In your instance, he used us and then did his own thing. There’s no other way to explain it.’ ”
Now, 2½ months after the accident, the only reminder of it appears in the scar on Chloe’s nose and the patch of short hair growing back in a spot doctors shaved on her head.
“You can barely see my scar anymore. It was kind of scary, but it looks a lot better,” Chloe said with a smile. “And my hair is already like 2 inches long. It grows quick.”
Jared and Sarah Clark noticed no change in their daughter’s positive personality. She spends her days crocheting, drawing, singing gospel songs, playing the guitar and learning ventriloquism, which she became interested in during her recovery.
“My grandparents bought me a little ventriloquism puppet. She has a little rainbow on her shirt that says ‘God’s promises.’ I named her Gracie,” Chloe said.
The Clarks continue to receive messages about how Chloe’s story changed their lives.
“Some people wonder how we were able to handle this and still keep our faith. Our family verse is Nahum 1:7, ‘The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble.’ It was our family philosophy when we lost our house and most of our possessions four years ago to black mold and asbestos and when I lost my job to restructuring,” Jared Clark said.
To help with medical expenses, churches, restaurants and organizations arranged fundraisers and benefit singings. According to Jared Clark, the medical cost not covered by insurance will amount to $250,000. Even today, the Clarks, who are currently living in Spring Hill, Tennessee, receive random letters in the mail with donations.
“It’s just like, the Lord provides when you need it. You can always count on him,” Chloe said.