Ready to soar, her heart filled with song, it seemed as if the lithe teenager could almost touch the sky. But within moments, she would only reach for hope.
“I remember a guy coming to the main cabin office and asking me to demonstrate the swing because I’d been on it another time at the church camp,” Cassidy Almquist of Kennewick said as she recalled the towering equipment. “I said, ‘Oh sure! I know how to do it and it’d be really fun,’” all part of being on the volunteer team.
The high-flying swing was a steel cable linked to two huge pine trees standing yards apart. The thrill of the ride comes when the participant is hoisted into the air, even higher than a telephone pole, and then swings between the trees.
“The last thing I remember is running to the swing,” said Cassidy about July 15, 2013 – a sunlit day eclipsed
Climbing the ladder with her harness in place, another volunteer had fastened Cassidy in place.
“They hooked me to the release cord and not the harness buckle,” the 19-year old vocalist said as she related what others remembered. “So when they got me up high and I pulled the release cord, thinking it would just release to swing, instead I fell.”
In horror, young campers and their leaders watched helplessly as Cassidy, like a child’s discarded ragdoll, was flung to the ground below. Her melodious voice stilled.
“There was a guy at the camp who was a volunteer fireman who’d seen her fall,” said Cassidy’s dad, Mark, who later talked with him. “When he got to her side she had all the signs of someone who is dying.”
“He said, ‘God we need a miracle!’ and the fireman instantly felt the presence of God surround him,” Mark said.
Then the prone figure sparked with life – and Cassidy took a breath.
While the wail of the ambulance pierced the Pendleton, Ore., campground, distraught bystanders moved children aside, only to see an alarming scene unfold.
“So the ambulance comes – the swing is on the other side of a creek – and it gets stuck trying to drive across,” said Mark about the distressing delay. “The EMTs ran across, put her on a backboard and then into a pickup truck on that side, and drove her across.”
While the emergency team worked frantically to stabilize Cassidy – her singing duo friend Jantzen Filbrun by her side – a helicopter buzzed overhead with nowhere to land. Adults and teens leaped into action, tearing down fences to clear a space.
Rotor blades whirring, Cassidy was lifted into the air transport and flown to the Tri-Cities as her father sped from his Montana business trip and her mom, Kari, rushed from home to Kadlec Medical Center. The news that greeted her was devastating.
“The doctor told me her spinal column was severed and she’ll never walk again and she’s going to Harborview – all in one breath,” Kari said as she remembered the vivid moment. “My first response was to turn from the doctor and run down the hall. My friends and family followed me and then I collapsed on the floor.”
Rushing across the state to Harborview in Seattle, family gathered while teams of doctors attended to Cassidy’s crushed body. Time was suspended. Prayers went heavenward. Then word came of her condition.
Based on the MRI, the surgical doctor also believed Cassidy’s spinal cord was severed, T-12 vertebrae shattered, among other injuries. He explained how he was going to repair what he could; the operation would be hours long.
“He didn’t offer any hope of her walking again,” Kari said with renewed emotion at the memory. “I looked at him after he said, ‘This is going to be a big surgery’ and I said, ‘You don’t know how big our God is.’”
Tense moments and tears followed. But two hours into what would be a 7 to 8 hour surgery, the doctor reappeared. What he had found was a spinal cord intact.
“We were overcome with thankfulness and hope,” Mark said with a catch in his voice. “Maybe she can walk again. My thought was God doesn’t have to make a miracle out of nothing, now he just has to heal.”
Cassidy’s severely broken arm and leg both required extensive surgeries, including a reconstructed elbow during her lengthy hospital stay. There was also worry about her head injury from the extreme fall.
“We honestly didn’t know for about 10 days if she had brain damage,” Kari said. “When she came out from under the medication, her first question was, ‘Are the children at the camp OK from what they saw? When she asked that question we knew her brain was OK and still connected to her heart.”
And her heart is still connected to her faith and the worship music she loves to sing.
“I wasn’t sunshine and roses everyday, but I think my relationship with God helped me from being depressed,” Cassidy said about the long journey since the accident, one filled with intense physical therapy. “I felt like God gave me a lot of peace. And I have hope in Christ that I will one day walk again!”
In June at her high school graduation, Cassidy stood free of her wheelchair for the first time publicly. Surprise and applause rose from the audience as her footsteps, one by one, moved her toward the podium, her father coming alongside when nervousness got the upper hand. Standing strong at the end, Cassidy reached at long last for her diploma, her determination and faith taking her there.
Now on any given day, Cassidy's heart soars with hope -- and her song of praise touches the sky.
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