When Chelsea Banton was born five weeks prematurely, doctors predicted she had 36 hours to live.
Proving them wrong was the first miracle for Chelsea, now an Independence High School freshman.
“She spent the first four months in a neonatal intensive care unit,” recalls her mother, Colleen Banton of Mint Hill.
Before Chelsea was 2, she was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, the first of several dangerous run-ins with the illness that have made her a familiar face in Presbyterian's pediatric intensive care unit.
Among other health problems in her medical history: hydrocephalus, requiring a shunt in her skull and, later, several shunt revisions; life-threatening viruses; and, this past July, fluid retention that required more than a week's hospitalization and three liters of liquid to be drawn from her body.
Prayer has helped sustain the whole family.
“We had been praying every day, my oldest daughter and I and Chelsea,” Colleen Banton said. “…Praying for a miracle.”
That miracle, Colleen believes, came Nov. 5 – seven weeks after Chelsea was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.
What originally seemed like a bad cold nearly killed her.
“She was on life-support from the moment she got there,” her mother said.
That was Sept. 21. Over the next six weeks in the hospital, Chelsea faced one threat after another: pneumonia in her left lung, then her right lung, then sepsis, blood clots, staph infections, E. coli, a collapsed lung and feeding problems.
In late October, doctors met with the family to discuss “a plan of action,” Colleen said. One of the decisions she had to make was whether she would take Chelsea off the ventilator. Earlier, doctors had removed Chelsea from the ventilator several times, but had replaced it when the struggle to breathe became too difficult for the teen.
But a family meeting Oct. 31 was a turning point.
“At that point, the family… agreed that when she did come off the ventilator again, (they) weren't putting it back in,” Colleen said. “Whatever happened, would happen.”
On Saturday, Nov. 1, “they took her off the ventilator and she did good,” her mother said. “She was breathing on her own.”
The next day, “her stats went down,” and doctors put her in an oxygen mask.
But over the next few days, Colleen noticed her daughter “wasn't getting better. Things were kind of lingering.”
And Chelsea, who had been having anxiety attacks and crying throughout her hospital stay, was having more of them.
“I said, ‘She's been through enough,'” Colleen remembers. “I said, ‘Can we just take her mask off? She's been through enough.'
“I wanted to do what the Lord wanted me to do. And I really felt like I've had her for 14 years, and if it's time for her to go to heaven, then I know she'll be healed.”
The mask didn't come off immediately, though. They waited until family members had a chance to come to see Chelsea – perhaps for the last time.
On the afternoon of Nov. 5, as family and friends prayed about the decision, a nurse practitioner called Colleen's attention to a monitor showing the door to the pediatric intensive care unit.
“On the monitor, there was this bright light,” Colleen recalls. “And I looked at it and I said, ‘Oh my goodness! It looks like an angel!”
Colleen pointed her digital camera at the monitor to take a photo of the image, but the “first picture wouldn't take.”
She tried again and succeeded. The image gave her a peace that stayed with her when hospital staff removed Chelsea's oxygen mask.
And then, “when they took the mask off of her, her stats went as high as they've ever been.
“Her color was good, and the doctors and nurses were amazed,” Colleen said. “The nurse practitioner who saw the image in the monitor said, ‘I've worked here 15 years, and I've never seen anything like it.'”
Chelsea was removed from intensive care on Nov. 14 and went home three days later.
Her mother believes it was a miracle – attended by a very real angel bathed in light at the door to the pediatric intensive care unit.
“What was so ironic… is it was a rainy day,” Colleen said. “It had been overcast all day. And the sun only came out at that point.”
To those who doubt her story and photograph, Colleen Banton says: “If they doubt it, that's fine. … But I know what I saw, and the picture's untouched. I didn't make it up. That's just something that I believe.
“I believe that more people have changed since this happened. I know I have. I look at things differently than I used to – because I know God is in control.”
On Christmas Day, Chelsea will turn 15 – another miracle considering all of the medical trials she's faced, according to her mother.
“I'm learning,” Colleen Banton said, “that every day she's alive is a miracle.”