A JOYful Ending
It is an image he can’t get out of his mind. “It was horrific. She just was kneeling on the ground and crying. That memory still breaks my heart. It was her baby floating in that pool, and there was nothing she could do.”
This thought of his wife, Kristin, stays with Matt Loboda, an entrepreneur and father of 5. He also lines up a lot of people to serve as lifeguards at pool parties these days. “It might be overkill, but we want to take every precaution. I take every chance I get to tell people they need pool fences.”
The Lobodas have reason to be extra-cautious.
In December 2016, Matt and Kristin were visiting from Tampa, Florida, enjoying time with extended family when their vacation took a dramatic turn. Matt was playing Frisbee golf with a group of kids. His youngest, Joy, 19-months-old at the time, was typically glued to her dad’s side. So when he noticed she wasn’t right beside him, he sprang into action — running and calling out for her.
“I heard a voice from somewhere say, ‘look in the pool,’” he remembers.
Then, he saw her. The image that so many parents dread – Joy was floating in the pool. He dove in while the family called paramedics. Matt frantically started CPR, and he knew the situation was dire. His baby girl was frozen. No heartbeat. It seemed like time stood still, but the paramedics pounced on the scene and took over.
The scene was a distraught one, but he felt a calming presence, Matt said. “It was dark and scary but the paramedics were very calm and professional.”
The detective told Matt they needed to take Joy to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “He told us that in the west, there was no better place for her to go.”
Then, all they could do was wait for news.
The family was ushered into a room. Then shortly after, a trauma physician appeared with grave words: it wasn’t good. But Joy had a heartbeat. Between the paramedics and the trauma team, they’d worked on Joy for about 30 minutes.
“They never gave up,” he said. “She was gone; and they brought her back,” Matt said.
Initially, doctors told Matt and Kristin they could be looking at 6 to 9 months in the hospital, if Joy lived. “She could have died; she could have stayed in a vegetative state; she could have lived and had major brain damage. Those were the options given to us at that time.”
An instant community
With several other children to care for, Matt and Kristin didn’t miss a beat. Much of their family had already migrated to Arizona. So to help Matt and Kristin, they tapped into the local church community whose members helped outfit their kids for a nearby parochial school. He came home that night to find bags full of uniforms from the moms at school, and meals followed.
Joy, meanwhile, was put under a medically induced coma for nine days. She was alive, but reviving her had presented its own consequences.
Paramedics had to take desperate measures to reach a main artery, and in the process Joy developed a blood clot in her leg. She needed surgery immediately to avoid losing her limb. But Joy defied predictions. Not only did she live – she healed with lightning speed.
First, Joy spent time in speech, occupational and physical therapy. “She’d had a brace placed on her leg after surgery, and needed help walking correctly. During their stay at Phoenix Children’s, Matt says everyone they encountered — from the child life specialists to Chaplain Frank to the Animal-Assisted Therapy dogs and volunteers — was loving and kind.
“Dr. Zoldos performed Joy’s emergency surgery; he was remarkable not only in his skill but in his bedside manner. All of our encounters with him were superb to say the least. I’m indebted to him for saving Joy’s leg. And our nurse, Ashley, explained everything along the way. There were no gaps; they explained everything to us,” Matt said.
Joy surprised everyone by going home after 31 days in the Hospital. That’s when it all came together and Matt and Kirstin decided they needed to officially make Arizona their new home. “Joy still had plenty of therapy ahead of her, and I couldn’t take her away from all the people who had helped her survive and heal.”
Today, aside from the scars on her legs, Matt says you would never know she’d been through such a profound trauma.
“She’s perfect. She’s a cute little blonde who is so sweet and articulate. I’m excited to see her grow because she’s so gregarious. And she’s just more joyful.” Matt and Kristin say they’re so grateful for her, and that their brood all looks out for Joy.
Matt says one day at swim lessons, Joy asked, “Remember when I died in the pool? Well, God brought me back to life. What do you think about that?”
It’s one of those moments that makes Matt stop and count his blessings. And he takes time to tell others this story, even though it is sometimes painful to recount.
“I’ve accepted I’m emotional and vulnerable and I like to live my life like that. So if telling our story can help, I’ll keep telling it. If our story can avert even one more tragedy, it’s worth it.”
“We were given a huge gift. And my heart goes out to those who weren’t.”
Willow is bouncing up and down on her bed at Phoenix Children's Hospital, and wriggling to the music. Her eyes are brighter and her small, chunky body moves with the beat. In some ways, she looks like a typical one-year-old, the apple of her mom’s eye.
Hussein was visiting his grandfather’s gravesite in Iraq when he stepped on a landmine. The explosion cost him his eyesight and his left hand. Plus, more than 30 percent of his body was ravaged with second-and third-degree burns.
Last May, 16-year-old Anthony was at a backyard family gathering in Glendale when a massive tree branch suddenly fell and crushed him. His mother Melissa pulled her son out from under the branch. He was unconscious and the left side of his face was completely crushed. She called 911.