Little Christmas miracles: Three who faced challenges end year on high note

ctruman@herald-leader.comDecember 24, 2012 

Christmas is a time to celebrate the little miracles, the unexpected gifts that mean more than anything that can be gift-wrapped and set beneath a tree.

Thousands of Kentuckians faced health crises, disasters and near-death experiences during the past year. Here are updates on the little miracles that three of them will celebrate today.

Amy Harris: Severely injured during tornado, she rebounds

Here is what Amy Harris took away from the March 2 tornado that left her on the brink of death and took part of one of her legs.

"I've learned that life is short; don't take it for granted," said Harris, 24, who is still undergoing rehabilitation from her injuries and is waiting to be fitted with a permanent prosthetic leg. "One major thing I've learned is, don't take your body parts for granted, because you can lose an arm, leg, anything, in a matter of seconds."

Harris was in a mobile home with her then-boyfriend, Eric Allen, and his parents, Sherman and Debbie, on March 2 when a tornado swept through East Bernstadt. Sherman and Debbie Allen died. Eric Allen was found nearby and was treated for an eye injury.

Amy was talking to her mother, Carolyn Hobbs, just before the tornado hit. Hobbs urged her daughter to seek shelter. The line went dead.

When emergency workers brought Amy up to an ambulance after the tornado, Hobbs said, "She looked at me with those brown eyes and said, 'I'm sorry,' and I said, 'Amy, why?'" Hobbs said. "And she said, 'Because I didn't come home.'"

Now Amy stands like a fashion model next to a Christmas tree in her Facebook photo, the glossy dark hair that emergency workers had to cut from a tree now grown back.

No one would guess that just nine months ago, chaos enveloped her, and that for weeks afterward doctors scurried to relieve the pressure on her bruised chest and lungs.

She spent six weeks at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, but she remembers nothing but the irritation of the feeding tube. Her left leg had to be amputated below the knee. Then Amy went to Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, which she remembers with affection.

On Facebook, Amy's mother wrote a heartfelt missive to her daughter: "God has so much for you in your lifetime you can't even begin to imagine. I want to witness all of it!"

Zach Pickard: Tiny powerhouse gets boost from new drug, kindergarten

Zach Pickard might be small, but he is a powerful force at Lexington's Stonewall Elementary School.

His mother, Tina Pickard, said her son, who has the rapid-aging disease progeria, loves library and music periods, can count to 100 and is learning simple addition.

He is also in a drug trial that might revolutionize the way progeria patients are treated.

Zach takes the drug lonafarnib, which has been shown to reverse some of the blood vessel damage that causes cardiovascular disease in children with progeria.

Zach makes twice-yearly visits to Boston, where the drug trial is headquartered, "and right now his heart is functioning normally, as a normal 5-year-old."

"It solidifies the hope we have," Pickard said of the drug and its performance. "That medication doesn't change his looks on the outside. It doesn't make him taller. It doesn't make him grow hair, but it helps him on the inside, which is what is important."

Progeria is one of the world's rarest diseases. Diagnosed as an infant, Zach still has plenty of energy and a winning personality, although he is smaller than his fellow students, with prominent veins and very little insulating body fat.

Tina Pickard passed along a report from Zach's kindergarten teacher, Holly Martin, who said Zach is so popular around the school, other students seek him out: "She said, in the classroom, he's just Zach, but in the hallway he's a rock star."

Phil Duff: Recovery from car accident eased by twin brother

Phil Duff is funny again. That in itself is a wonder, given where he was a year ago.

Phil has come a long way since the evening of Nov. 15, 2011, when he and his twin brother, John, had just come from church and were on their way to Applebee's to watch a University of Kentucky men's basketball game. The road was wet. Their Camry skidded and spun, and another car hit the driver's side — Phil's side.

That was a moment when both brothers' lives changed.

Phil was a UK senior who wanted to be a minister. John, also a UK senior, had planned to go to graduate school.

For the first few months after the accident, Phil knew nothing. He was in a coma for 50 days. Then he progressed to a wheelchair, then a walker and now to a walking pole.

His family, including mother Janet, provides constant support. John suspended his plans for school to stay by Phil's side, where he remains as Phil makes steady progress in recovering from his brain injury.

Phil talks more clearly and is more animated than the first time he spoke to a reporter in June. He has little patience with Facebook or other passive activities, preferring to concentrate on activities that hasten his recovery.

"I want to get better, and sitting on my butt by a computer is not getting better," he said.

Phil reads, though. He's working his way through the book of Mark in the New Testament, and he sometimes reads from the Psalms.

Phil said he's ready to get back to the joy and wit he had in his life before the accident.

A child at church, puzzled about why a young man like Phil would need a walker, asked him why he used it.

His reply: "It's stylish."

John hopes to return to school next fall.

Phil also hopes to return to school eventually, and he still intends to become a minister: "Jesus has so blessed me by helping me with my friends and my family and the nurses at Cardinal Hill," the Lexington rehabilitation hospital.

John said he and his brother have been relying on their faith: "Being able to help my brother was a big gift, being in the situation I was. It's about relying on God and being patient with things."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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