FIRST PERSON

Houston Mom Fights to Save Her Daughter From the Storm

Little Harper would run out of oxygen if her mom couldn’t get to a hospital in time, so that’s when she held the baby over her head and waded into the water.

via Facebook

Ajshay James thought she and her daughter were safe living so close to Houston’s largest hospital.

Harper was born prematurely, so she relies on oxygen tanks and an electronic monitoring system for her health. When Ajshay heard Hurricane Harvey was headed toward Houston, she invited her friend—another single mother with an infant son—over to her house near the Texas Medical Center to hunker down on Friday.

“Typically we don’t get it that bad,” Ajshay told The Daily Beast. After a night of hard rain and thunderstorms, she woke up to sunshine Saturday. “I thought everything was great.”

The friend and son returned home. Ajshay said she made food, then lay down for a nap with Harper.

“We woke up, and the water was at our door,” she said.

As they slept, bands of heavy rain flooded the already saturated yard of their one-story home.

“I knew we needed to get out,” Ajshay said.

Over the next two days, Ajshay carried Harper and their bulky medical supplies from boat to boat, fire truck to ambulance, as they desperately tried to reach a hospital that could treat the 23-month-old baby.

Ajshay first posted on Facebook asking for a rescue team, but nobody turned up. The first refuge was her neighbor’s two-story home across the street. The neighbor came over to carry Harper’s medical equipment. They covered the monitor, tubes, and a suitcase in garbage bags, and stuffed plastic bins with oxygen tanks.

Ajshay waded through 5 feet of water, carrying Harper above her head. Harper grew agitated and began to squirm, so Ajshay sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to calm her.

Once they reached the house, Ajshay said she called 911 over and over again, desperate to reach somebody who could take them to a hospital, but the response time was given in hours. Then her phone died.

Soon after, she heard a knock on a door. A group of local volunteers had come by to see if anybody needed help. Ajshay said she told them that Harper needed to find another supply of oxygen before the tanks ran out. The volunteers left to find a boat.

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An hour later, the volunteers came back with two boats, loading all the medical equipment in one and Ajshay and her daughter into the second, both wearing ponchos made from trashbags. They headed toward a house at the entrance of the neighborhood where flooding was less severe.

When they arrived around 9 p.m., it was pitch black. A half hour later the house lost electricity. They waited by candlelight until suddenly two boats crewed by seven people pulled up to the house.

“We were a little startled,” Ajshay said. “There was this bang on the door and somebody yelled, ‘Are you guys OK in there? You in there?’ They were our heroes.”

They loaded into the boat along with an older woman and her grandson who Ajshay told rescuers were extended family so they could stay together. However, the boats couldn’t fit Harper’s medical equipment, so they left it behind.

“If we just took a couple tanks, we had enough to get to the hospital at least. That was my prayer,” Ajshay said.

The boats took the evacuees to a parking lot where a fire truck waited for them, but Harper’s health began to decline.

“She was shivering. I didn’t know if she would seize,” Ajshay said. “It was very scary. She was just very quiet and cold. I just wanted her to be safe.”

The four of them climbed into the fire truck, with Ajshay clutching her shivering daughter and oxygen tanks between her legs.

“The water was spewing out of the side,” Ajshay said of the fire truck. “It was like parting the Red Sea.”

The fire truck pulled onto Interstate 610, where it met up with an ambulance. Ajshay said the highway looked like a parking lot, filled with stranded cars. A paramedic gave Ajshay his jacket, and then they headed toward a hospital.

That’s when the paramedics learned that the Texas Children’s Hospital downtown, where Harper usually received care, had flooded.

They rerouted to another hospital, Pearland Medical Center, but changed course because the water was too deep. Once more they had to navigate. When they arrived around midnight Sunday, they learned the hospital lacked equipment that could fit a child Harper’s size. Ajshay and Harper spent the night and boarded another ambulance, this time to a pediatric hospital in West Houston. The 50-mile trip took four hours.

“I was just praying to God, ‘Please let us make it,’” Ajshay said.

They arrived at Texas Children’s in Katy at around noon on Monday. The staff gave Harper medical care and a fluffy stuffed dog—the only toy she now owns.

“We lost all of our toys, we lost everything,” Ajshay said. “I’m just trying to figure out where to go from here. It’s a lot. I don’t have an answer.”

Ajshay set up a GoFundMe campaign to assist with her hurricane recovery.