ZEPHYRHILLS — Racing up the street toward parked firetrucks and police units near the Erie Canal, Yvonne Clanton felt an odd sense of calm.
The mother of five knew those first responders were meant for members of her family.
“I’m running down there and I’m saying, ‘Oh, God, help, Oh, God, help,” Clanton said. “I just felt like He was with me from that second on. There was an insulation. There was a lot of craziness (happening)… but there was a lot of insulation around me.”
On Aug. 15, 2012, the family was in Rochester, N.Y., to mark the fifth anniversary of the successful cornea transplant performed by a local eye surgeon on their son, Sam.
Sam and his sister Selah, then both 8, were in a side-by-side double stroller for a walk along the Erie Canal as their father, Jon, pushed.
Making sure he wouldn’t be late returning to the Ronald McDonald House to take friends to the airport, Jon Clanton stopped, took his hands off the stroller to check his cellphone for the time. The glare from the sun forced him to turn and take a step so he could see the screen.
Moments later, the stroller began a life-changing roll into the canal.
“I couldn’t stop them, I couldn’t tackle it. I just had to jump in immediately,” said Jon Clanton, 49, the pastor of Grace Church of Zephyrhills and a chaplain at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I could not believe that I was seeing my two children go in the Erie Canal and I’m right there.”
The stroller sank to the bottom of the canal, which authorities told the Clantons is about 12 feet deep. Clanton dove in, grabbed the stroller and returned to the surface. He then began the task of trying to get the children’s heads out of water and maneuvering a stroller that weighs about 80 pounds.
The current pushed the trio to a weeping willow arched over the water, which Clanton grabbed until help arrived.
“That was the best thing that ever happened because prior to getting to the tree limb, it was like a see-saw,” Clanton said. “The children were back and forth and I’m trying to keep both their heads out of the water, but they were back and forth.”
That was the scene Yvonne Clanton, 47, was running toward.
Jon Clanton and the children were pulled from the canal by medical students and firefighters and transported to Strong Memorial Hospital for treatment.
Already developmentally delayed, Selah suffered severe brain damage from the near drowning. She has needed extended in-home medical treatment.
Sam was released from the hospital after about three days.
In a back room of the Clanton’s home, which is adjacent to their church, Selah’s room is painted purple. Stuffed animals are displayed on shelves behind her.
Her bed is similar to one found inside a hospital room, complete with metal rails.
Selah, who can breath on her own, has a tracheal tube that keeps her from asphyxiating. She’s also fed through a feeding tube.
She spent four months at the hospital in Rochester, followed by six weeks at a Jacksonville facility before she came home at the end of January.
Doctors in Rochester didn’t expect Selah to survive the night. With a bit of urging from Yvonne Clanton, doctors used a technique in which Selah was placed in cold sheets — near 60 degrees — and the room’s temperature was also lowered.
The progress, Yvonne Clanton believes, began from that moment forward.
“She can grimace if she’s in pain. She’ll actually cry a tear if she’s in pain or if she’s not happy,” Yvonne Clanton said. “Those are things we were told never to expect.”
Selah, adopted from the Ukraine, recently began a regimen of 20 consecutive days of hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment. Twice a day for those 20 days, she is placed in a hyperbaric chamber at a center in Zephyrhills. She also takes fish oil as part of a clinical study.
For those with brain development issues, Yvonne Clanton said pure oxygen from a hyperbaric chamber has produced spurts of normal brain activity.
“I’d love to see her brain waves change,” Yvonne Clanton said. “During those normal brain waves, it’s when there’s more recognition. They say that the brain does repair itself to some degree, especially in little kids.”
Yvonne Clanton details her family’s journey on her website http://myreallifebyyvonne.blogspot.com, which she began in 2009.
The Clanton’s other children include their 17-year-old son, Steve, 9-year-old Shad, who was adopted from China, and Sarah, 6, also adopted from the Ukraine. Sam and Sarah were born with Peter’s Anomaly, a rare eye disease that turns the corneas opaque and causes glaucoma.
“Neither one of us questioned God after the tragedy,” Jon Clanton said. “We realize we live in a world where tragic things can happen, but God is a God who walks with us through life’s tears and valleys.” [email protected]