After Reid made sure 13-month-old Paxton’s seat was secure, he jumped back behind the wheel and drove off. Because he was running late to meet his wife, he forgot to fasten his own seatbelt.
The next thing Reid knew was a confusing blur of bright hospital lights, the distant sounds of voices and wrenching pain through his entire body.
What happened in between is a mystery.
“I have no clue,” said Reid, who returned Monday to his home in White Plains following several surgeries, mostly to repair a severely broken right leg. “And if anybody saw what I looked like in the hospital, they’d know why.”
Reid was driving toward Oxford at around 5 p.m., planning to meet his wife, Joy, who would take home their two younger sons — Paxton and 5-year-old Payton — while he watched 7-year-old Parker’s baseball practice. He never made it there.
Instead, Joy received a call that Reid was being air-lifted to UAB Hospital. He suffered multiple fractures to both legs, a lacerated spleen, three “inoperable fractures” in his neck and four compressed discs in his back.
Some 200 stitches now run from his chin to below his ear.
Doctors say his recovery could last up to six months.
“It looks like somebody put a tiny zipper in my face,” Reid said with a forced laugh. “It’s amazing that I’m still in one piece.”
Eddie Burkhalter, news editor of The Piedmont Journal, drove by the scene with his family minutes after Reid’s accident. Through the back window, Burkhalter noticed a child’s car seat. Though he couldn’t see Paxton at the time, the toddler was still safely strapped in and only received a few minor bruises.
“Driving by, at first it looked like someone had thrown trash out of their truck,” said Burkhalter, who was among some 10 bystanders to the wreck, which took place across from the Wagon Wheel Restaurant on Highway 9. “It wasn’t until I saw him lying there not moving that realized it was an accident. He was lying motionless about 10 feet from his truck.
“When I learned who it was, I couldn’t believe it, that a family could go through so much.”
Such was the overwhelming sentiment as news of Reid’s wreck and extensive injuries quickly spread across Calhoun County and beyond. The inspiring – if heart-wrenching – story of 5-year-old Payton Thornton, who was born with a rare genetic skin disorder, has captured the imagination of an entire community.
“I say a prayer for that little boy and his family every night,” said 59-year-old Annette Johnson of Anniston. “I’ve never even met Payton, but I still worry about him. It all just seems so … unfair, even cruel, that they have to go through something like this.”
Before this latest challenge to the family’s resolve, many of those prayers were seemingly being answered. Overcoming the impossible has become routine for Payton.
‘I almost didn’t recognize him’
Few people have seen Payton since late December, when he and his mother came home from Minnesota after he received an experimental bone marrow/stem cell transplant to help his skin begin to repair itself.
Payton has recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, “EB” for short. Children with EB are missing collagen VII, a protein that serves as the glue affixing the top layer of skin to the next. Friction — from a hug to a fall — can cause blisters the size of water balloons, which often leave behind scabs and scars. Children with EB are often confused with burn victims.
Today, when friends and family come by, Payton stands at the screen door, waving and blowing kisses. On those rare occasions when he leaves the house, he wears a surgical mask to protect him against infections lurking in the air. After the transplant, Payton’s immune system was wiped out. A common cold could kill him. If his temperature were to climb over 100.5, he would be rushed to the hospital.
But if someone were to look behind that mask, they would see the grateful, slightly mischievous grin of a boy who is learning to truly live in his own skin.
Ginger Roberts is one of the few people to see Payton on a regular basis. Two days a week, he comes to Champion Sports Medicine to work with Roberts, who is the head physical therapist. They perform a variety of exercises aimed at strengthening and loosening muscles, sharpening motor skills and honing balance.
“It’s like he’s finally found the personality he should’ve had all along, but the pain got in the way,” Roberts said. “Now he’s acting like a regular little boy.”
In the past, there were times when Payton got angry or frustrated. But since returning from Minnesota, he hasn’t cried once.
“I almost didn’t recognize him,” said Roberts, who has worked with Payton since he was 2. “And his skin … it was growing back, already smooth on his arms and chest. It was truly remarkable.”
‘He’s becoming a happy child’
March 9 marked 180 days since the transplant that may have saved Payton’s life. Children with EB of Payton’s severity rarely live to see 21. While the doctors at the University of Minnesota warned Joy and Reid to be cautiously optimistic, the results have been nothing short of miraculous.
The boy for whom four- and five-hour baths were once an agonizing necessity, who would wake up crying because he knew the pain that awaited him, now responds to bathtime with a simple “So?” because those baths only last an hour.
The boy who couldn’t spend much time outside because the sun’s brightness hurt his eyes and the heat irritated his fragile skin now has to be coaxed inside and dreams of spending the summer building a clubhouse and learning to swim.
The layers upon layers of bandages that served as soft armor against the outside world are all but gone. Only his arms and legs are covered.
The inflammation and redness has practically gone away. Payton sleeps better at night. Where he was once always tired, staying in bed until lunchtime, he’s now waking up with the sun.
“It’s all up to Payton,” Joy said. “Since he’s gotten back, he’s got a lot more energy, playing and wrestling with Parker, and that’s all he’s really ever wanted.”
But there are still concerns, still blisters, still pain. The ring finger and pinky on each hand are fused together. Because he’s starting to write, and grasping a pencil is difficult, Joy and Ginger Roberts have discussed the possibility of hand reconstruction surgery.
No matter what, Payton takes it all in stride.
“Payton keeps me in check,” Joy said. “It can be frustrating when you go for long periods without seeing blisters and then they start popping up. I get discouraged because he’s already been through so much that I want it to stop, but I know that’s asking for too much too soon.”
Payton knows it too, telling his mom, “It’s going to take time, but I’ll be OK.”
Aside from his trips to see “Miss Ginger,” the only other place Payton goes to is the doctor’s office. Every week he visits his pediatrician, Jose Caballero, for a battery of tests. When Cabellero first met Payton – suffering from the kind of disorder that most doctors only read about in books – he didn’t expect the child to live very long. His opinion has since changed.
“He’s becoming a happy child, something I never thought possible,” Cabellero said. “The child that’s been inside him all along is finally coming to life.”
Dangerous mold, and an extreme home makeover
Since Payton was born, Joy, a trained nurse, has spent her every waking moment attuned to her son’s physical condition. If he had pneumonia, she would have known.
But that was exactly what the doctors at the University of Minnesota discovered before Payton’s transplant.
“Something like that could easily kill him … even now,” Joy said. “We had no clue that he was even sick, and that’s really scary.”
It would be early March, after Payton had been home for more than two months, before the cause of the infection was found: aspergillus, a common type of mold that can be found in most homes.
“Most people are exposed to this without ever knowing it,” Cabellero said. “But for Payton, this is very serious, even deadly.”
To clean up the aspergillus, which was being pulled in through the air-conditioning unit, the Thorntons’ house was treated at a cost of $5,000. The treatment was only good for one year and wasn’t covered by homeowners’ insurance.
This sparked an outcry in the community, leading to a grassroots campaign to get the Thornton’s on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which deserving families have their homes rebuilt to fill certain needs. The network was bombarded by e-mails championing the Thorntons as possible candidates.
“I can’t think of anybody who would deserve it more,” said 33- year-old Candace Caldwell, who lost count of the number of e-mails she sent. “This boy, his story, along with the family and the way they’ve just refused to let anything get in their way, it’s the kind of thing this show is built on.”
Emotional messages like Caldwell’s got the attention of the show’s producers, who recently contacted Joy in an effort to learn more about Payton and the family’s situation. The process is very long and secretive, and even the producer admitted that it was a “long shot.” But this is a family that thrives when the odds are stacked against them.
“That doesn’t bother us anymore,” Joy said. “In fact, that’s when we think we have the best chance – when everybody else says it won’t happen.”
‘We are witnessing real faith in action’
For every silver lining, there has been a dark cloud. While Payton’s transplant is helping his skin heal, there’s a potentially lethal – not to mention expensive – fungus invading his home. Joy learns that her family is being considered for Extreme Makeover days before her husband’s accident.
“Our faith,” Joy said, “is the only reason we are standing.”
As members of Hill Crest Baptist Church in Anniston, the Thorntons are an inspiration to everyone sitting in the pews as well as the man standing in the pulpit.
“Through this family, we are witnessing real faith in action,” said Hill Crest pastor Rick Reaves. “These troubles can be seen as trials. God allows things to happen, but no matter what I’ve seen them go through – challenges or miracles – he’s still their God and they still trust in him.
“A lot of people have faith when things are going good, but real faith withstands the trials.”
Just in case they don’t make the cut for Extreme Makeover, members of Hill Crest recently built a ramp and poured a double concrete slab to help Reid get out of the house in his wheelchair.
“Their faith has made us a stronger church,” Reaves said. “And they continue to impact not only Hill Crest but the whole community.”
Right after his accident, Reid made a promise to himself to never ask why, to not question that which he cannot understand, but to put his faith and trust in God.
“I don’t know everything about the Bible, and I’m not the best Christian in the world, but I know that I have faith,” he said. “At the end of the day, I believe there’s a plan. Some days it’s easy to see – like the day we got the letter saying Payton had been approved for the transplant – and some days it’s not.
“But God has a plan for us … he has a plan for us all.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.