With such a perfect beginning, it seemed quite odd, a few months later, for Laurel's great-aunt to mysteriously proclaim from her deathbed, "Tell Elizabeth her baby will be all right!" At the time, no one could know Laurel faced any danger. But in the winter of 2004, the meaning of her great-aunt's words were revealed when Elizabeth returned to her childhood home in Modesto, California, bringing potted plants to help her children celebrate her grandmother's seventy-fifth birthday.
After a waffle breakfast, the family adjourned to the front yard, where the adults worked at transplanting the potted plants while Laurel and her sisters played nearby, running in and out of the house. "My last recollection of Laurel," said Elizabeth, "was when I called her back from the end of the driveway; she's wandered too close to the street. I told her, 'Good job, you came back!'"
But as quickly as Elizabeth returned to her plants, Laurel was gone again. The second disappearance prompted Elizabeth to begin asking those questions no preschooler's parent likes to ask.
"Who's seen Laurel? We need to find her," Elizabeth said. The search escalated quickly into some dramatic mental pictures. "I thought, She may be dead. I know that's dramatic, but after a few minutes, that's what I'd already begun thinking. I ran through the house and into the backyard, where I suddenly remembered the backyard pond."
Elizabeth's eyes shot toward the pond, and there she saw something "my mind wasn't letting me see," she said. She wanted it to be a giant lily pad or a discarded bucket, but it wasn't.
It was Laurel, floating facedown in the water.
Elizabeth remembers "grabbing Laurel by the back of her pants, but she was completely limp, like a cold fish. Her eyes were rolled back slightly, and her tongue hung out of her mouth. I started screaming, "Oh my God, she's already gone!"
As she had done earlier when Laurel had strayed too close to the end of the driveway, Elizabeth urged her daughter, "Laurel, come back! Come back!"
She laid Laurel down to start CPR, and water began to drain from the little girl. As Elizabeth started the CPR she recalled from a class she'd taken nine years earlier, Laurel's grandmother called 911.
Following the ambulance to the hospital, Elizabeth frantically called her airline pilot husband, Dave, sobbing out the words, "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!"
Once in the ER, Elizabeth waited with her family, anxiously watching the door and anticipating the worst news. In a few minutes she was told that Laurel had a faint pulse and needed to be transferred to another hospital—the one where I work, Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. Before the transfer, the family was invited to visit Laurel.
"She had a body temperature of eighty-eight degrees," Elizabeth said. "I bent down to whisper that I loved her and I was so very sorry. I sang her favorite lullaby. And I heard the nurses comment on her ominous twitching."
One by one the relatives came in, and the family's priest came to pray. His prayer acknowledged that the God who created Laurel could recreate her. He prayed that she would be whole and new, as she was intended to be.
"At that point, I felt really connected with God, and for the first time, I knew I had to pray that Laurel would completely recover," Elizabeth said.
After Laurel's transfer to Sutter, she met Dr. David Smith, whom she described later as "kind, but brutally honest."
"I wish I could tell you everything will be all right," Dr. Smith said, "but I can't. She's taken a great insult." And then, holding his index finger slightly above his thumb, he said, "There's a hair of hope, but that's hope. The first twenty-four hours are critical." He paused a moment before saying something else. Something that made Elizabeth gasp for breath. "Then we'll look at what remains of her brain functions," he told her.
After receiving that news, the family joined hands as Elizabeth offered her prayer, telling God how grateful she was to have Laurel. She promised that if God would do a miracle and make her child as new as the morning, "I won't waste the miracle. I'll declare your awesome, beautiful, and loving mercy to anyone who will hear it."
Elizabeth's sister shared a prayer as well, along with the words of Psalm 34:7: "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them."
Elizabeth worked to memorize the verse. "I repeated it throughout the night in my heart," she said. "The next morning, when the doctor's came in with their first report, I remember feeling as if the sun was going out of the dark sky."
Doctors told the family that the refrigerated blanket Laurel was sleeping on could be turned off, and she also would be weaned off the medication as they watched for some level of activity. But as Laurel left the bounds of the medication, she showed no signs of responding to any type of stimulus. Elizabeth remembers the neurologist giving her that "I'm so sorry" look. But she disregarded it and knelt beside Laurel to sing.
Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's going to show you a hummingbird.
And if that hummingbird should fly,
Mama's going to show you the evening sky.
Miraculously, as every eye in the room flooded with tears, Laurel opened her eyes. Yet even as surprised expressions overcame the staff, the doctors cautioned that it might be no more than a reflex action.
The positive signs continued. Dave had arrived during the night, and as Elizabeth stood outside the room later that morning, he came running out of Laurel's room to tell her, "She's waking up, Liz! She's waking up!"
Throughout the afternoon, as Laurel showed her recognition of everyone, the family members—and the doctors—fought back tears of astonishment. "We're declaring that God had a hand in this!" Elizabeth told me.
Dr. Dan Falco, the intensive-care specialist (a physician called an intensivist) told the family that none of this could be explained in medical terms. The "laboratory results weren't compatible with a good outcome," he said.
Over the next few days, Laurel fought an uphill battle as she labored to breathe, but, "Ultimately God had every bit to do with her healing," Elizabeth told me. "Some people thought the cold pond had worked in her favor, and perhaps that helped a bit. But the doctors all thought the pond wouldn't have been near cold enough."
"The water temperature really shouldn't have made any difference at all," said Dr. Falco, whose own faith was tremendously affirmed. "God did this one, and it may well be the defining point in Laurel's life."
Elizabeth remained at her daughter's bedside for six days; she spent hours staring into Laurel's eyes. "Children don't usually let you gaze very long, but Laurel let me look until I could see into her soul. I kept thanking her for coming back."
Months after the near drowning, Elizabeth reported that Laurel is "doing wonderfully. She's learning new words and has a deeper joy now when she's having fun."
Elizabeth admits that she doesn't really know "why it all happened, but I do know that God works through angels, doctors, nurses, and saints. I believe, but it will always be a mystery that I'll never understand."
It's a mystery the apostle Paul compared to looking in a dim mirror: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:12-12).