With courage and grace, Reese comes home after 22 months
By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from FARMSHINE March 25, 2016
Author’s Note: It has been almost a month since Reese’s homecoming and she is getting back to the precious rhythms of life on the farm: Greeting her little sister off the bus on sunny afternoons, feeding her prize cow’s new calf, riding the gator with her grandfather, having tea parties with sister and cousins on Sunday afternoons, getting together with school friends, still attending school virtually via “Double,” her robot, even going to the dentist! Her journey continues to inspire. I am grateful for the opportunity to interview Reese and her mother and grandmother on the quiet first Monday after her arrival home Friday, March 18, 2016. Get ready to be inspired by this young lady, and by her family and the local farming community and worldwide dairy community who continue to think of her. Thank you to Jean Kummer, Laura Jackson and Jennifer DiDio for providing some of the photos here.
MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Nina Burdette tells the story of granddaughter Reese teaching her cow Pantene to lead when she was a calf five years ago. Reese was four at the time, and Nina told her “Don’t let go.”
“That calf pulled her around, and at one point she was flat on her back holding on, until that calf wrapped itself around a post,” Nina recalls she had rope burns on her hands.
Reese never let go.
So it was two years later, on May 26, 2014, when Reese arrived at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where she would spend the next 662 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) recovering from burns over 35 percent of her body and smoke damage to her heart and lungs after a fire at the home of her grandmother Patricia Stiles, who also recovered from significant trauma carrying her from the burning room.
Reese never let go.
Today, she is back home at Windy-Knoll View farm in rural Franklin County, Pa., with her sister Brinkley and their parents Justin and Claire Burdette, and of course her cow Pantene and her three heifers Pretzel, Panzee and Pardi Gras.
Over and over, Reese told her doctors: “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”
Words spoken from the heart of a true dairy farmer. “Oh she has her mind set on that, just like her mom and dad,” says Nina. “We call her the junior manager.”
Driving through Mercersburg to the Burdette home on Monday, purple still proclaimed Reese’s homecoming parade from the preceding Friday. Purple and white cows stood in yards and driveways, purple balloons, welcoming TeamReese banners, home-made signs of love and support, purple bows tied to trees, poles and fence posts all along the route of young Reese Burdette’s drive home from Baltimore to Mercersburg — the 200-mile trek her family has traversed between the home farm and their second home at Johns Hopkins for nearly two years.
Reese had set a goal to be home for her 9th birthday, which she celebrated with family and friends — at home — on Sunday, March 20.
“Friday was surreal,” said Mom, Claire, during Monday’s Farmshine interview as Reese sat in the next room attending school via her robot, screen and headphones. Brinkley, 5, had also gone off to school that morning, and Reese was eager to be on the porch in a couple hours to see her little sister get off the bus — something she had envisioned for months.
A return to the ordinary rhythms of life on the farm is just what this child has longed for as she recovered from that fateful day.
Friday had dawned brisk and sunny as Claire and Justin and Brinkley waited with Reese for morning rounds. “When the doctor said ‘you’re free to go,’ it felt so good to hear those words we had waited and prayed to hear for so long,” Claire recalls.
A sendoff party was attended by hundreds the night before at Johns Hopkins where Reese has become quite the celebrity in what everyone referred to as “the sunshine room” where there was no room for worry. She shared her games, was known for her aim in shooting foam darts at a deer on the doorway, and had a machine for making snowballs and popcorn for sale with lines out the door to her room some days. Her PICU room had been transformed into a rehab that looked as much like home as possible for the past year. Toward the end of her stay, Reese surprised her family with a video of her journey.
“She’s not afraid to talk about the fire,” said Claire, noting that the hospital has learned from Reese as they tried processes for the first time with her burns. Jim tells of the time she consoled a grandmother whose granddaughter was getting a tracheotomy, explaining to her there is nothing to fear. She had become quite the advocate for her own care, face-timing Dr. Kristen Nelson about medicines and earning the name “Dr. Reese” among the residents in training (RTs).
In fact, Dr. Kristen, as she is known, is quick to point out that, “Reese has surprised me in so many ways about perseverance and strength and hope and grace and bravery, and I am forever a part of her life.”
On Friday morning, an entourage of 25 doctors, nurses, RTs, and custodians, escorted her to the white SUV sporting the large purple bow.
And so, they began their journey back home to a new normal.
Claire said the sight was “amazing. There are no words to describe riding up and seeing people after people after people.”
A sea of purple lined the streets. “There was so much joy… and tears. People were waving and hugging each other,” she said.
The local fire company brought every piece of equipment for the homecoming escort. They drove through the high school, where the band played, and then through the middle school and through two elementary schools where children and adults lined the streets and filled the parking lots and rooftops with banners and balloons and smiles and waves.
In town, the First National Bank closed for 15 minutes as every employee, donning purple, came out to cheer Reese homeward as the Burdette family drove by. The John Deere dealership, car dealerships, and other businesses decorated profusely in purple to welcome their hometown hero.
“I thought she was going to jump out of the car, she was so excited. Of course, we had to stop at the barn first,” Claire said with a smile. “She wanted to see her cow Pantene, and the new heifer calf she had on Tuesday.”
Reese had already named the calf Pardi-Gras because she was born during Mardi-Gras, and last week was a ‘Pardi-Gras,’ of sorts, for the two dairy families of Waverly Farms and Windy-Knoll-View… Reese was finally coming home.
“Only Reese would get another heifer calf,” her mother noted. That’s three heifers in a row for Pantene. Reese smiled at the thought. “Ha! My dad’s been getting bulls!”
Her Momo and Papap — Jim and Nina Burdette — had spent much of the past two years at the hospital. Jim says he had envisioned Reese’s homecoming a thousand times.
“It is such a great relief to have her home. We went up to the parade in town, and then beat it back home quick,” Jim said. “I wanted to be here on that porch looking down and seeing her pull in.” After which, he says, “I promptly beat it down the stairs to see her.”
He had spent some time getting Pantene all cleaned up. “We knew that’s who she’d want to see first,” Jim said. “It was too cold to take Reese into the barn, so Justin brought Pantene out to the car.”
It was a poignant moment for Justin as a father to see his young daughter greet her special cow — the cow she had shared with hundreds of Johns Hopkins staff through a photo book Nina made and through a visit by Pantene, along with coolers full of chocolate milk, at the hospital last year during June Dairy Month.
Having seen Pantene and her calf, it was time to get home. Within minutes, she was sitting proudly in her purple chair, reading with her sister, talking of everything she wanted to do.
“She fell right back into life here, as though she never left,” Claire observes.
Having ‘face-timed’ from the hospital during milking, Reese knows her cows and fought to come home to them.
“I spoiled Pantene,” a smiling Reese admits. “She leads good for me, but not so good for anybody else. You know, once a cow gets to know you, she really likes you.”
The purple sign proclaiming “Keep calm and love cows,” that hung in her hospital room, now hangs at home, next to the words from a song the medical staff would hum before every surgery: “Every little thing gonna be alright.”
The dairy community, local community, faith community and the medical staff that have become like family, have all rallied to support Reese not just because her injuries were so severe, but to celebrate the inspiration of the toughness and grace with which she has persevered, and the way God has worked in her life and through her to help others.
“It feels really good that maybe we have given something that people want to give back,” Jim says with emotion. “So many people have done so many things to help this family. We knew Justin and Claire needed to be with Reese and we would do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going for Reese to come home to.”
Their part-time employee went full-time, they hired another helper, and Nina got back into milking again, sore knees and all, but they would never have made it these past two years, says Jim, without the help of others.
“We are part of a good and kind dairy industry and the best small-town America you can find,” Nina adds. “People taking care of people.”
Claire tells of the thousands of letters and messages her daughter Reese has received. Letters that told stories of how Reese’s battle back from the fire inspired others to face their own battles. She tells of three women in the tri-state region who each sent a card to Reese faithfully every week for nearly 100 weeks. In fact, Reese asked the nurse to check her mail before departing Friday. Claire said every piece of mail has been saved, and as Reese faces new goals and challenges, the letters will be read and re-read.
And the way people rallied to help with medical bills through selling and re-selling cattle, and the various groups and clubs and fund drives too numerous to list here.
The challenges will continue. “We’ve closed one chapter and opened another,” says Claire of her daughter’s journey which continues now at home.
Getting her completely off the ventilator will be the next challenge. But she is home and off to a good start. By her second day home, she was already pestering her Papap to get her back out on the Kubota to pick up her driving lessons right where she left off two years ago. She wanted to ride through the fields and tell him every weed she saw. She wanted to walk through the cattle, and tell her Dad and Papap what they should do with this one or that one.
Her next goal? “I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in the All-American at Harrisburg in September,” she said with a radiant smile.
Asked what she would want to say to readers more than anything, she replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
All smiles, Justin and Claire Burdette bring their daughter Reese to the front door of home after 662 days of surgeries and recoveries at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Jean Kummer
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First stop before stepping over the home threshold, was the barn to see Pantene. It was a bit cold Friday, so Justin brought his daughter’s cow right to the car window. Photo by Jean Kummer
Getting back to the rhythms of daily life at home, Reese takes a break from the screen that transports her to school via robot every day for a picture with her mother Claire Burdette. Photo by Sherry Bunting
The families of Windy-Knoll View, Mercersburg, Pa. and Waverly Farms, Clear Brook, Va., join the crowds of hometown folk lining the streets of Mercersburg for Reese’s homecoming parade. Photo by Laura Jackson
Jim Burdette envisioned this day thousands of times over the past 22 months. He knew he wanted to be on the second story porch watching his granddaughter come home. But then he beat it down the stairs for a hug. Photo by Laura Jackson
Reese’s cow Pantene had a sign of her own for Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Laura Jackson
Pantene’s third heifer calf Pardi-Gras was born just three days before Reese came home. Photo by Jean Kummer
At the one end of Reese Way (left), put in between the two home farms when she was born, is Reese’s home. At the other end of the lane (right) is the entrance to Windy-Knoll View. When the Fast Signs company that made all the TeamReese signs came to put this one up, Jim Burdette told them, “Don’t cover the farm sign, Reese will love seeing Pledge, Pala, and Promise here to greet her.” Photo by Sherry Bunting
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The land is awakening. Cattle are out grazing. A special cow has a new heifer calf. And a special young lady — ReeseBurdette — has returned home to the joy of her farm and everyday life after 22 months of recovery at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Sherry Bunting
Reese and Brinkley share a special moment at the hospital on the morning of Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Jean Kummer
Justin and Claire Burdette with daughters Reese and Brinkley before Reese’s most recent surgery before Christmas. Photo courtesy Jennifer DiDio Photography