There are times in our lives which, taken in totality, become moments when we say, “I made it through,” but those can also be the experiences that later show us just how precious life is. For Austin Highsmith Garces, Winston-Salem native, actress, and producer, her time in Brenner Children’s Hospital when she was 2½ years old led her to write and illustrate her first book, The Miracle Tree, to inspire children and their families going through uncertain times when dealing with an illness.
A Christmas Miracle
Just before Christmas, 1983, Austin Highsmith Garces’ mom dropped her off at the babysitter’s home. Little
2½-year-old Austin went down for a nap, but an hour later Austin woke up with a swollen, purple lump over her entire left eye. The baby sitter called Austin’s mom, and a visit to the pediatrician led straight to the ER.
“An MRI confirmed what the doctors thought; I had a condition called post orbital cellulitis, which is an infection that can have unknown origins, as it did in my case, and it was pushing my left eye out and over to the left. My doctor explained to my parents that an emergency, life-saving surgery needed to be performed immediately. Dr. Jim Thompson, who attended church with my family, performed the surgery, entering through the bridge of my nose to access the source of the infection. I stayed in the hospital a little over two weeks in post-op to receive antibiotics. The condition returned less than 30 days later and a second surgery had to be done, with an additional hospital stay of a little less than a week,” said Austin. This was not how the Highsmith family, or any family, wants to spend their Christmas…in a hospital with a very sick little girl. However, Austin’s parents, Johnny and Dawn, had a strong faith and relied on that during this time of their lives.
“When Life Gives You More Than You Can Stand, Kneel and Pray.”
“From what my parents told me, they were terrified, filled with fear and worry. My doctor told them I had a 50/50 chance of survival, because a surgery that close to the brain is very serious. My parent’s faith has always been their rock, which they passed on to each of us kids. When my dad received the news that I, his daughter, was fighting for her life, he did the only thing he knew how to do, he prayed. There was a Christmas tree at Brenner Children’s Hospital, and he knelt at the foot of the tree and prayed for God to save my life. As he prayed, he promised God that if my life were saved, he would return with our family every Christmas after that to say a prayer of thanksgiving in front of that tree. We haven’t missed a year in 35; we gather around the tree, hold hands and say a prayer. I always cry, as does my dad. It was this experience of 35 years ago, specifically that time in 1983, as well as visits to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Tampa, FL, that inspired me to write and illustrate, The Miracle Tree, Austin commented. Austin starred in Dolphin Tale and DolphinTale 2, so she would visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the location where the movies were filmed, and on her trips, she would stop by the children’s hospital in Tampa.
During one of Austin’s visits to the children’s hospital in Tampa, there was one last room to visit. “We were told the little girl in the room could possibly get sicker if we went inside, so we stayed in the doorway. When I looked at the little girl, it was like looking at pictures of myself all those years ago. She had a swollen, purple eye and I asked her mother if she had post orbital cellulitis, and she gasped and said, “Yes!” I shared my story and she began to cry. Sharing my story gave her hope and gave me the idea to make my story into a book, in hopes of inspiring more kids during their struggles,” stated Austin.
Sharing Your Story, Sharing Your Faith
“The book, The Miracle Tree, tells of my journey going into the hospital, my stay in the hospital, my recovery, and of our family’s tradition of visiting the tree each year. One of the main things I wanted with the book was to give sick kids visibility and also to break down the hospital for them. It’s a very scary place and kids can feel overwhelmed. I want kids to feel normal and give them inspiration. I have been an artist my entire life, drawing and winning awards throughout grade school, and I studied Fine Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill, so I not only wrote the book, I illustrated it, too! I want to also establish ‘The Miracle Tree Foundation,’ a 501 (c)(3), with a portion of the proceeds from my book going toward funding research and treatment for kids with rare illnesses and conditions. We hope to partner with already established organizations once we are up and running,” Austin.
Austin Highsmith Garces will be at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, NC, on May 29th, 2019, if you would like to meet her and purchase a book. For more information on Bookmarks, visit www.bookmarksnc.org.