MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Memorial Day, 2014, the lives of a southcentral Pennsylvania dairy family were quickly turned upside down. The story of Reese Burdette and her grandmother, Patricia Stiles, spread rapidly across a tight-knit farming community and in return, the family has been overwhelmed with support.
Reese, 7, and her sister Brinkley were spending the night at their grandparents’ home when Patricia Stiles awoke at 2 a.m., smelling smoke. A small electric fan in Reese’s room had shorted out and caught the carpet on fire, which quickly spread to her bed.
“The carpet was glowing orange and Reese was standing up on the corner of her bed that was not on fire,” Patricia recalls. She ran through the flames to grab Reese and fled from the room — she was later told by the fire department that the room had reached a temperature of 1,400 degrees.
Her husband, Michael, retrieved Brinkley from a neighboring room — neither Michael nor Brinkley were injured.
At first, it looked as if Patricia and Reese had suffered only minor burns, and the two were transported from their home near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, to Winchester Medical Center, in Winchester, Virginia, about an hour away. But by the time they reached the hospital, their conditions had worsened, and it was apparent they would need more care than the hospital could provide.
Patricia was airlifted to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C. and Reese to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
Patricia spent two months in the intensive care unit, suffering from burns to 20 percent of her body and lung damage due to smoke inhalation. She was able to return home by the end of last summer.
Reese’s diagnosis was not as fortunate. She had suffered burns to 35 percent of her body and her biggest obstacle would be lung damage, explained Laura Jackson, Reese’s aunt.
After one week in the hospital, Reese contracted pneumonia and her health suddenly “began to go downhill,” said Jackson. Reese went through cardiac arrest four times, had a collapsed lung and experienced internal bleeding.
She was put into a medically induced coma to regulate her blood and stabilize her. Throughout the entire process, Jackson said Reese remained very responsive to her family. She awoke from her coma in September of 2014.
More than a year later, Reese remains in Johns Hopkins Hospital, but is growing stronger every day, said Jackson. “She is what we call our miracle child. She is one strong, little girl.”
Jackson has been keeping friends and family updated on Reese’s health by posting updates on her Facebook page. In an early September post, Jackson shared, “In therapy, Reese is taking off! She has been able to walk without assistance of her walker and now just uses a parent or nurse for balance!”
She also shared that Reese can move herself to the side and lean forward and hold herself without assistance. Before, she would have needed a “boost” just to reposition herself in a chair.
“Her physical strength is excellent,” said Jackson, adding that her mental status is just as good.
“There was no damage to her brain and she is sharp as a tack,” she said.
Now 8 years old, Reese has developed an impressive vocabulary, reciting to her family what medications she is on and describing how certain procedures work and hospital equipment is used. “Nothing gets by her.”
Reese has had many visitors, including four Washington Redskins football players. Kory Lichtensteiger, center for the Redskins, grew up on a hog farm in western Ohio and rallied together with his friends in the Holstein community to support Reese. “He will probably be a lifelong friend of Reese’s,” said Jackson.
In June, Reese’s cow, Pantene paid her a visit. “Reese was so happy that day. We were able to bring home to her,” said Jackson. “She was so focused on that cow that I don’t think she saw anyone else in the room.”
Jackson said, like a true dairyman, “Justin (Burdette, Reese’s father) had that cow looking like she was ready for a show in Madison,” a reference to the premier World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin.
It was as if the cow knew what she was there for that day, added Jackson. She never once made a mess and she never flinched when people in the hospital came up to her.
“That cow brought her A-game.”
Reese decided, since she couldn’t be showing her cows, she wasn’t making any money. Her parents got her a little sno-cone machine so she could sell sno-cones to the hospital staff and visitors.
Even though she sold them for only 50 cents, Jackson said she made $20 her first day. When she is not open, she draws a line of customers wondering when she will be open. She calls her business Reese’s Slurries.
Working the sno-cone machine and serving customers has also helped her recovery process. On days that she is serving sno-cones, she is getting in her physical therapy from working the machines, explained Jackson.
With the transition into the fall, Reese will start selling popcorn, to which she said “we have to use real butter on my popcorn.” Jackson said, after a trial run, people were flooding into Reese’s room following the scent of popcorn.
“She’s probably the youngest entrepreneur at Johns Hopkins,” said Patricia.
Her dairy spirit
Jackson said Reese’s dairy spirit has never faltered. In a Facebook update last January, Jackson reported Reese requests “Ice cold milk” as her drink of choice.
The day her cow came to visit, Reese handed out cow fans and rattled off dairy facts to the staff. “She would make a great dairy princess one day.”
And the dairy industry has loved her back. “It started out with texts, phone calls and cards,” said Jackson. “So many people have helped our families out by pitching in on the farm while we go back and forth visiting Reese.”
In November of 2014, Jackson and her cousin came up with the idea for a 5K, “Trot for Recovery 5K.” All costs were covered by sponsorships, making all proceeds from the registration available for Reese and Patricia. Around 700 runners participated.
Claire Burdette wanted to give back to a community that has done so much to help her daughter. By May, Reese had received a total of 495 units of blood. “We wouldn’t have Reese without that blood,” Jackson said, repeating Claire’s comments.
With the hashtag #SleevesUpTeamReese, Claire put together a blood drive and social media campaign to give back the 495 units of blood that was needed for Reese’s recovery. According to the American Red Cross team page, 424 donors have pledged their blood. (Visit sleevesup.redcrossblood.org/Team-Reese–1 to pledge.)
William Nichol worked closely with the Burdette family while he was executive director of the Pennsylvania Holstein Association. Now retired, he started a fundraiser of his own.
Nichol had Pa. dairyman and artist Debbie Cornman paint Locust Grove Farm, the Pennsylvania Holstein Farm in Middletown, Pennsylvania, and is selling prints of the painting to benefit the Burdettes. Also featured is a popular Holstein bull and eight supreme females.
“Could you imagine what it costs to stay at John Hopkins? This is just something I could do to help out,” said Nichol. Prints can be purchased by contacting William Nichol at 814-238-2127. All funds go directly to the Burdette family to help with medical expenses.
Other ways to support
Individuals can also help the family in other ways, by paying for an evening stay at the hotel for Claire and Justin — Baltimore Harbor Hotel, 410-752-1100. You could also send gas cards to the family, or gift cards to a bookstore or Amazon to Reese, c/o 8656 Corner Road, Mercersburg, PA 17236.
“The most simple thing you can do, anywhere and at anytime? Say a prayer for Reese, her family and her medical staff,” said Jackson. “We know the power of prayer and know that it has brought us this far.”
“Being two and a half hours away from the hospital makes it hard to visit, but it’s what we do. Reese loves every second she gets with her family,” said Jackson. Reese has been very fortunate to have her family by her side every step of the way.
As many farmers know all too well, “the farm demands your time and can pull you in many directions,” said Jackson. “Justin and Claire have been so strong and to see their strength has been amazing.”
While there is no date as to when Reese will be released from the hospital, Patricia said, “the day she walks out of there, she will get a lot of happy and sad faces.”
The staff has become like family to Reese and her family and they have all learned so much from Reese, explained Jackson.
“I’m sure there will be a parade in Mercersburg,” said Patricia.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!