Two Sundays ago, 21-month-old Olivia Smith fell from her chair, lodging a colored pencil through her eye socket that penetrated about 5 1/2 inches into her brain, nearly reaching the back of the skull.
But a freak accident that could have ended in the worst way has resulted in what some are calling a miracle. Olivia was released from the hospital Wednesday morning, and according to her family, she's likely to fully recover.
"These things don't happen," said New Boston Fire Chief Dan MacDonald, who was first to respond to the call. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Olivia has suffered three separate strokes, affecting her right side and potentially her long-term cognitive processing. But mother Susie Smith, 30, who has three girls and a son on the way, said because of Olivia's young age, doctors think it's possible she will overcome the damage.
"She is so strong," Smith said during a gathering at her home with the emergency responders who arrived to help the day of the accident. "She's a fighter. If she wants to do something. she's going to do it. She's amazing."
When first responders arrived at the rural New Boston home on 57 Pine Road Jan. 6, Smith was shocked by what had happened and felt ill. A second ambulance took her to Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, where Olivia was also transported.
Smith, who's 20 weeks pregnant, turned out to be fine, but 30 minutes later Olivia was flown by helicopter to Boston Children's Hospital. An X-ray showed the pencil had deeply penetrated the brain.
Doctors didn't remove the pencil for several hours, mapping out a plan. When they finally took out the pencil, without the need for surgery, they realized what had happened was a unique case.
"The neurosurgeon said if you were to sit down and map out a way you would want a pencil to go through the brain, that's what you would have happen, because it missed everything," Smith said.
The pencil managed to miss not only the eyeball but also several of the brain's vital areas, including the optic nerve and the major arteries.
After eight days, Olivia was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Though doctors said she might be there for six weeks, she ended up staying just one week.
What culminated in a miracle began as a nightmare; Olivia's parents first feared they could lose their youngest child. Then they were left wondering to what extent the accident would affect her.
Olivia's father, Tyler Smith, said the first two days were the worst.
"For two days she didn't really have any progress. She was opening her eyes but she wasn't talking or responding or smiling or anything," he said.
But by Friday night, he said, everything started to change.
"She started to crack a bit of a smile, very small, only on that one side, then a little later I got her to laugh and she said, 'Daddy,' which was an amazing moment."
Although Olivia is acting like her old self, a long road of preventive care and visits to specialists lies ahead.
Chief Dan MacDonald kept repeating the mantra: "It's actually a miracle story."
"With all the other stuff we have going on, I think everyone can use a miracle story every once in a while," he said.
MacDonald said one of the difficulties of small-town emergency response is that everybody knows each other. He coached Susie Smith in basketball when she was 12 years old.
"In a small town I think it's a much more stressful situation because of the fact that you tend to know the people," he said. "You go there, then you may drive the wife or the mom to the hospital, (and) you may stay there with them because you know they don't have anybody else."
Doug Lewis, a firefighter in Hopkinton, Mass., and a neighbor of the Smith family, said Olivia's father asked him to pray for the girl.
"So I did recite the rosary, actually several times," Smith said. "I asked the Blessed Mother and Jesus to heal the child, and I think it was that night, (Tyler Smith) gave me a call and told me about the rest of their day."
Lewis said as a firefighter he encounters tragic incidents on a regular basis. Thankfully, this one turned out differently.
"Anybody in the fire service is always going to run into situations like this," Lewis said. "As tough as some of the people in this world are, things like this are going to hurt you."
Lewis has established the Olivia Cecilia Smith Benefit Fund to help the family shoulder the financial burden of Olivia's treatment.
"I didn't want to see them go broke," Lewis said. "They're a young couple, they're in a fairly new house, they've got bills just like everyone else, so I just wanted to do my part."
The account is at Citizens Bank in Goffstown. Those who wish to contribute by mail can send checks to:
Olivia Cecilia Benefit Fund, P.O. Box 351, Goffstown, NH 03045 firstname.lastname@example.org