For three Chattanooga families who nearly lost loved ones this year to accident or disease, the holidays - illuminated by a new perspective - are even more merry and bright.
John Rogers of East Ridge found that almost dying in an ambulance this fall reaffirmed his and his family's faith and gave him a newfound determination to be kind and to appreciate life's daily joys.
"Every single breath is a blessing," he said.
For Shawn Porter of East Brainerd, her baby's survival is more than enough of a Christmas gift. Her daughter, 1-year-old Bailee, is now thriving after almost dying from infant leukemia last winter.
And for Signal Mountain resident Patti Cole, whose teenage son almost drowned after breaking his neck jumping into a lake this summer, the holidays are focused on her faith and gratitude for her son's almost complete recovery.
"I'm just grateful to be celebrating Christmas with my family. It just could have been so different," Cole said.
CHANGE OF HEART
Two months ago, John Rogers had just finished dinner when he felt an unusual pain in his upper back, between his shoulders. Then the pain began moving to his upper chest.
"That's when I knew I was in trouble," said Rogers, 57. "I said, 'We need to go to the doctor right now.'"
He took an aspirin - a first-line treatment for a heart attack - and his wife drove him to Parkridge East emergency room a mile away. He was put in an ambulance for transfer to Parkridge's main hospital, where interventional cardiologists could break up a complete blockage in his artery.
But on the way, John's heart stopped. Paramedics quickly started CPR and defibrillation, shocking his heart into life again.
Rogers remembers not being able to breathe, feeling the electric shocks on his chest and thinking to himself, "So this is what it's like to die."
"I prayed and asked the Lord to take care of my family," he said.
At the hospital, Rogers was rushed into the cath lab and his blocked arteries opened.
"This case was special in that, had the hospitals not worked so closely together, he would not have made it to Parkridge downtown to the cath lab," said Dr. Dannis Hood, interventional cardiologist at Parkridge.
Since his recovery, Rogers' outlook on life has been sunnier.
"I was impatient with people. I would be curt and short," he said. "I decided from now on I'm going to be a blessing to anyone I come in contact with.
"I make a conscious effort to try to be pleasant to people, rather than to be curt. Life is short, and we can either be negative or positive. I choose to be positive instead."
His 15-year-old son, Sam, said he's noticed differences in his father's attitude toward life and in his own attitude toward his dad.
"Honestly, he's a lot more pleasant to be around," Sam said. "We really value the time we have with him even more now. You used to take it for granted, but when you get a scare like that, it just shocks you into realizing how important it is, the little time you do get with the people you love the most."
A BABY'S RESILIENCE
When 3-month-old Bailee Porter arrived at the T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital emergency room one year ago, her body was overrun with leukemia cells and she was days away from death.
"Her liver, her spleen and her bone marrow were doing nothing but producing leukemia," said Dr. Jennifer Keates, her pediatric oncologist at T.C. Thompson.
If Bailee's parents hadn't seen her lethargy and paleness, they could have lost their baby just days after celebrating her first Christmas last year, Keates said.
One year later, Bailee's turnaround has floored her doctors.
"It's amazing," said Keates, who called infant leukemia one of the most difficult illnesses to treat.
"It's stunning to me that a child could show up at our doorstep with such a severe disease burden ... and the fact that she could do well and remain in that durable remission is a tremendous gift."
Once at the hospital, Bailee almost immediately began daily chemotherapy. Her leukemia went into remission within a month. Over the past year, smaller doses have kept the disorder at bay.
Bailee's mother, Shawn Porter, said watching her first baby cry and vomit and being unable to comfort her was wrenching.
"I know her body had to be sore but, of course, she couldn't talk. That made it especially hard to know how to comfort her," she said.
Bailee has continued to grow and develop, but will receive low-dose chemo for at least one more year. Starting in January, she'll only need spinal taps every few months, instead of monthly, to check that the cancer has not re-emerged.
Porter said this year's holidays have brought a well of emotions to the surface.
"Oh man, I cried just because she saw Santa Claus and took her first picture with him," she said.
Porter lost her job at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee because of her extended absences, but she said the simple joy of spending the holidays with her husband and daughter has special meaning.
"Her making it this far is really a blessing," she said. "I don't have a list of [gift] requests this year, just as long as she's happy and here."
The looming 47-foot drop into Chickamauga Lake didn't deter 16-year-old Cutler Cole from launching his body off an overhanging rock and into a back flip this summer.
The Signal Mountain High School student completed the flip in mid-air, then realized he was still much too high above the water.
Cutler hit the water on his back and neck, striking the surface with such force that two vertebrae in his neck broke into pieces.
Underwater, Cutler couldn't move as he sank toward the bottom of the 60-foot-deep lake.
His friend Lawson Kennamer, in the water a few feet away, pulled Cutler to the surface. Lawson and another friend, Andy Rosen, pulled Cutler into the family motorboat.
Then pain set in. Though Cutler could move his legs, his arms were useless and nerve pain radiated through his body.
On that day six months ago, Cutler began a journey from near-drowning and partial paralysis to an almost complete recovery that his mother Patti Cole says is nothing short of miraculous.
"It could - and should have been - much, much worse than it was," she said. "I'm just so grateful."
After surgery at Erlanger hospital to fuse three vertebrae in his neck, Cutler started working to regain the use of his arms. He spent a week at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and continues to get therapies at D1 Sports Therapy.
Nerve pain still tingles in his hands, but Cutler now has almost normal use of his arms and hopes for continued improvement. He's not supposed to play contact sports or do anything that could harm his neck.
Luckily, Cutler said, his main sport is cross-country track.
The experience has reaffirmed Cutler's deep faith in God and revealed a new appreciation for life and his own mortality, he said.
"I'm definitely wiser in my choices now. ... I try to be the better person," he said. "Be thankful for what you have, in case it's gone all of the sudden."
Contact staff writer Emily Bregel at ebregel@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6467.