The Littlest Hero

By Omar Mouallem

The Shymanskis had taught their five-year-old daughter what to do in case of emergency, knowing it could save her life. They didn’t know it would save her mother and baby brother, too.

The Littlest Hero

Angela Shymanski was making great time. It was 8.30am, the kids were fed and the car was packed with all the necessities for a road trip: a pop-up tent, toys and snacks for five-year-old Lexi, and, for ten-week-old Peter, a pink blanket and seven days’ worth of clothes – all of which had been worn. No matter, thought Angela. It was 26°C in central Alberta – the hottest June 8 on record – so her infant would be fine for the eight hours home to Prince George, British Columbia, in nappies only.

The 28-year-old Canadian had driven these nearly 800 kilometres alone before to visit friends and family. Her husband of eight years, Travis, an instrumentation mechanic at an oil refinery, couldn’t come on the week-long holiday, but Angela, a swimming and first-aid instructor, was eager to show off Peter to her friends.

 

It was an important trip for Lexi, too. The morning they had left Prince George – June 1, 2015 – marked the beginning of the 100-day countdown to kindergarten. Angela was keen to fill the holiday with fun; by week’s end, Lexi had seen gorillas at the Calgary Zoo, picnicked with cousins, had got dizzy on amusement park rides and made sandcastles at the beach.

As she was driving along the Icefields Parkway, Angela missed her first turnoff, but decided to continue west on a slightly longer, more scenic route. The lost time would have been negligible were it not for a 30-minute stretch of road construction. The stops and starts had begun to bother Peter, who was now shrieking in the back-facing car seat next to Lexi’s. This calls for a nursery rhyme, Angela thought. She inserted a CD and hoped for the best.

“Zoom, zoom, zoom. We’re going to the moon. Zoom, zoom, zoom. We’re going to the moon.”

In no time, both children were slumped in their car seats. Once out of the construction zone, Angela accelerated to just below the 100 km/h speed limit. The warmth of the sun, combined with the lulling music, soon began to have a relaxing effect, so Angela opened the window, hoping the blast of wind would keep her alert. She began searching for a rest stop.

“Zoom, zoom, zoom.”

Angela’s eyes closed for just a few seconds.

 

Exactly one year earlier, Lexi was receiving the most important lesson of her young life. On this particular night, the Shymanskis were preparing Lexi for a future emergency – a cousin of Travis’s had lost his home in a flood, and they wanted to be ready for such a scenario.

Together the young family filled a duffel bag with water bottles, canned food, a first-aid kit, some cash, CPR masks, spare clothes and toys, and tucked it in a closet by the front door.

Then they showed Lexi the smoke alarms: if they start beeping, said her parents, hurry to the driveway. Don’t go searching for anything or anyone – just get help and don’t look back.

To demonstrate, the three walked barefoot to the nearest neighbour’s place, about half a kilometre away, as Travis and Angela believed that calling the emergency services wouldn’t be practical for a child with limited vocabulary and geographical sense.

Lexi absorbed every instruction. This became apparent months later, when a smoke alarm went off during dinner prep. Before Angela could reset it, Lexi was running to the driveway. She never looked back.

 

The first thought that crossed Lexi’s mind: who turned off the power? Seconds ago, it was a sunny day. Now it was dark, her neck hurt, the car horn was blaring and Peter was wailing. Lexi reached in his direction but hit a force field – her tent had flopped forward and popped open. The girl fished around the thin canvas and felt her baby brother’s hand.

Lexi stretched for the door handle, but it was out of reach, hiding under a big white pillow – one of the side airbags that now obscured all the windows. She pushed on the pins of her five-point harness, something Mummy and Daddy always did for her. Once they were unclipped, Lexi managed to wriggle out of the straps to exit the car, but when she pulled the handle, the door was stuck. Turning on her side, Lexi kicked at the door until it flopped open and the car filled with sunlight.

That’s when Lexi spotted her mother in the front seat, sleeping on an even bigger pillow. “Wake up, Mum!” she screamed. “Please wake up!” Angela didn’t respond.

Though it hurt to turn her head, Lexi looked over the side of the SUV and stared down a steep hill – it was just like the indoor rock-climbing gym she liked to visit, but with boulders the size of beanbag chairs, trees and no ropes. The only thing keeping her family from rolling down the incline was the large evergreen with which the vehicle had collided.

That would be the only time Lexi looked down, or back.

Her flip-flops had flown off in the accident, but Lexi felt no pain as she crawled over glass, rocks, branches and pine needles and up the embankment to the highway her mother had driven off. It was just as she’d practised.

 

Loni and Jeremiah Jirik were about halfway through their journey when they pulled over for a roadside picnic. They weren’t in any rush, having decided to take the scenic route through Jasper National Park. When their bellies were full and their bodies were rested, the couple, their three children, aged seven to 18, and their two dogs climbed back into the silver minivan for the final stretch.

No sooner had Jeremiah steered onto the highway when Loni yelled “Stop!” She pointed some 15 metres ahead, to a tiny blonde child in shorts and a tank top climbing out of the ditch. Jumping up and down and waving her arms at traffic, the barefoot girl seemed to have materialised out of nowhere. Jeremiah flicked on his hazard lights and pulled over.

“Help!” Lexi cried out as she ran toward them. “My mum needs help!”

Jeremiah scanned the tree-lined road. There was no-one around. “Where’s your mama?” he asked Lexi. The child pointed into the ditch, to a crushed SUV. Without hesitating, he tore down the incline in his sandals.

Lexi tried to follow, but Loni convinced her to stay back. The girl’s neck was red and bruised, and she complained that she couldn’t move it. The woman summoned Isaak, her oldest child, to assist, but told her daughters KayDea and Analiseah to stay behind – she didn’t want them witnessing a potential tragedy.

Angela Shymanski was regaining consciousness when Jeremiah came hurtling down the hill. She looked over at the stranger, her face scraped and swollen. “I’m so stupid,” she told him. “I should’ve pulled over sooner.” He could barely hear her words over the blaring of the car horn; the sound of the baby crying didn’t even register until Angela mentioned Peter.

The seat the infant was attached to had become unhinged and had flipped forward, leaving Peter upside-down in his harness, with little room between the back of the steel-framed seat and the floor. Jeremiah unlatched the half-naked baby, wrapped him in his blanket and climbed up to Loni, grabbing at the evergreen’s branches with his free hand.

His wife had been trying to phone for help but couldn’t get clear reception. She gave up and started flagging down cars; five zipped past before one finally pulled over.

The driver, Lise Lord, was en route to Calgary with her business partner, Rick Nowicki, for a meeting. Long before Nowicki had turned to financial coaching, he had been a firefighter and emergency medical technician. He knew that whoever was still inside that SUV had to be stabilised.

Nowicki was preparing to make his way into the ditch when Jeremiah reappeared with something wrapped in pink – a baby girl, he said to Loni, passing her the child before returning to Angela with the former firefighter.

“That’s my brother!” corrected Lexi, who, following a once-over from Nowicki, was lying on Isaak’s sweater while the teen held an icy bottle of water to her neck. Loni rocked the baby in her arms. About twice a minute, Peter would stop wailing, stare into the sky with a frozen expression, then shriek again. Loni, a special education teacher for 16 years, had seen this happen with her students and recognised it as seizures.

Down the embankment, Angela was now sitting sideways, trying to open the driver’s side door. She kept referring to herself as a bad mother. “Let’s not talk like that,” said Nowicki. “This could happen to anyone.” Anxious to comfort her, he opened the door, pushed aside the airbag and showed Angela her children. There, at the edge of the road, was Peter in Loni’s arms and Lexi safely in the care of Isaak and Lise.

Once Angela had calmed down somewhat, Nowicki began going over the injury-assessment checklist. The seat belt had bruised her chest; more alarmingly, the woman was complaining of severe pain in her lower back. “Can you move your hands? Can you squeeze your fingers? Wiggle your toes,” said Nowicki. Everything seemed to be working, but he still wouldn’t allow her to leave without a stretcher.

Instead, he asked Angela for her husband’s phone number – he would give it to the first responders Loni had called using a satellite radio from a passing forestry worker. While he wrote the digits on the dusty, cracked windshield with his finger, Jeremiah, worried the smoking vehicle would catch fire, was fishing under the bumper for the battery cords. He wrapped his hand around the hot wires and tore at them until the horn finally cut out. The three of them then waited quietly for 20 minutes, with only the sound of birds chirping, until ambulance sirens broke the silence. The paramedics needed ropes to get up and down the embankment Lexi had climbed alone in her bare feet.

 

Travis Shymanski had just finished lunch at his desk in Prince George when Angela called, mumbling something about an accident and about the kids being OK. In less than an hour, the 29 year old was on a plane to Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital, where his wife had been flown by helicopter. After going into shock at Seton General Hospital in Jasper, Angela had been resuscitated by doctors. She was now conscious, but she’d suffered a dozen injuries to her head, lungs, liver and back. Twenty-four hours after the accident, the situation looked slightly better for Angela. She had permanent nerve damage in her left leg, seemed to be suffering some amnesia and was told she’d likely never again do rigorous exercise – but she might be able to walk. Peter had intracranial swelling and bleeding, but after a few days of worry, it was determined he would be fine.

Lexi, who refused to leave her father’s side, had little more than a few scratches and bumps on her hands and feet. However, Travis was worried about psychological strain and didn’t want his daughter spending more time in the trauma ward than necessary, so he sent her away with his sister, then left to pick up lunch for Angela and himself.

His phone rang as he crossed the street. “Is this Travis?” asked a gravelly voiced man. It was Rick Nowicki, who had memorised the number Angela had called out to him.

Nowicki, in the city for an appointment, was calling to see how the family was doing – and to ask if he could bring flowers for Angela and a teddy bear for the child who had saved her mother and baby brother.

Lexi’s role in her family’s survival was news to Travis. His sister and Angela had told him what they’d heard from Lexi – that his daughter had escaped from the car and got help – but he didn’t know the details of her courage. “She’s a remarkable little girl,” Nowicki told him.

 

In November 2015 – while Angela, who could move with a walker, was awaiting disc-replacement surgery in Germany – the Royal Canadian Humane Association awarded Lexi a Bronze Medal for Bravery.

At the ceremony, a reporter asked Lexi about her plans for the medal. She replied that she wanted to take it to school for show and tell. However, once she arrived home, Lexi changed her mind. She decided to bring Peter to show and tell instead.

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