Saturday, July 19, 2003

Flood leaves girl awash in faith

12-year-old, rescued after 3-hour ordeal, recovering from leg injuries

By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - After clinging to a tree in swollen Prather Creek for nearly three hours, Theresa Hartley had one distinct thought when she saw her rescuers.

"Thank the Lord I'm finally going to get out of this stinky water," the 12-year-old with pigtails said Friday, as she and her parents, Randy and Mary Hartley, recounted the story of that harrowing night when their mobile home was carried away by floodwaters with Theresa and Mary still inside.

Mary Hartley said divine intervention is the only reason she and her daughter are alive.

"Theresa has to have a night light at night, and she has to have a light on her to keep her safe," Mary Hartley said. "Where she was found at, there was a light coming up out of the water. After they rescued her, that light finally went out. We believe God was the one who put the light there for her because I thought she wouldn't survive if she didn't have a light."

Rescuers from Taylor and Marion counties found Theresa nearly three miles from where she was pulled out of her mother's grasp on June 17. Theresa suffered injuries to both legs, including an open fracture to her left leg, and she developed infections in both legs, said Jeffrey Selby, the orthopedic surgeon at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital who has been treating her.

The right leg needed skin grafts, and part of a bone and some tissue had to be removed from her left leg, he said. Theresa has endured 19 surgeries during the past month. She is able to stand on her right leg, but it will take longer to be able to walk on her left leg, Selby said.

"Overall, her condition is improving markedly," Selby said.

Theresa said injuries to her legs came from a 50-gallon glass aquarium in her home that hit her while she was in the water. Part of the home's roof went over the top of her head and ripped out some of her hair, leaving a "little bald spot," as she called it. At one point, she hung onto a two-by-four and fell asleep on it.

"I was lucky I didn't drown," she said.

Mary Hartley also vividly remembers that night.

"I tried to get help as soon as the water hit the house. I realized something was wrong," she said. "I was really scared. (The house) was split wide open. We were holding on to each other. Then (the water) took her down the creek and it pulled me under the house, so we were separated.

"We prayed to God to help us through this and to keep us safe, and he did," Mary Hartley said. "(Theresa) felt his arms around her, and when I went under the house, there was a bright light that guided me out of the muddy water."

Mary Hartley, who sustained only minor injuries, ended up grasping a small branch, but thought the branch wouldn't be able to hold her weight.

"The next thing I know, I'm in the middle of a field. How I got from there to there, I could not tell you."

With their home destroyed and their only daughter in the hospital, the Hartleys - who also have four sons, all older than Theresa - are trying to rebuild in more ways than one. Randy Hartley said the family appreciates the help it has received from outside sources, but that he's angry with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not helping his family, when it has helped flood victims in other counties.

"Apparently they didn't see our disaster as bad as theirs," he said. "I think they discriminated against us. Our home is just as much gone as anybody else's."

Theresa should be able to begin rehabilitation work at the local Shriners Hospital for Children early next week, Selby said. She'll stay there about a week. After that, she should be able to go home, although he said it would be at least a year before "life gets back to normal."

He said that Theresa's youth was a key factor in doctors deciding to try to save her mangled left leg.

"If it had been somebody older, like me or her dad, we might have considered early amputation," Selby said. "But because of her age, she was able to tolerate those procedures a lot better."

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