By Barbara High
Tribune Staff Writer
MOOREFIELD - May 17, 2020 started out as any other day for the Shirks; the sun was shining and their family was together. But before it was over it would be the day that would forever change their lives due to an event that would also touch and bring together a community.
Gary Shirk Jr. and his wife Monica went to church with their two children, 8- year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Abigail. After church the family went out to eat. Taking advantage of restaurants reopening for dining, they took their family and met up with others and dined outside at their local Mexican restaurant.
It was then that some family members asked them if they would like to join them on a kayaking trip. Monica said normally she would have declined, but the day was beautiful and the Shirks accepted.
Monica said kayaking is something they have done a hundred times, enjoying the popular outdoor sport over the years. They had recently even purchased their own kayaks.Their son Joshua loved to kayak, and proudly could stand up and paddle his uncle’s kayak.
The family set out to gather their stuff for their trip, and went shopping to buy a needed paddle for one of the kayaks. While shopping, they came across a smaller kids kayak and the Shirks discussed buying it for Joshua. They ultimately decided to make the purchase, knowing that when he outgrew it, his sister would then get a chance to have it.
After their purchases the family set out.
"We were kayaking with family," said Monica. She, her husband, their two children, her bother-in-law Benjamin Shirk, and their aunt were in the group. There was a total of five kayaks on the trip.
"We made sure that Joshua was in his life jacket and our daughter was in hers," said Monica. "We were particular with the life jackets we used; making sure they had the two chest straps and the strap between their leg as well." The Shirks even tethered Joshua off to his father’s kayak for safety, the way they were instructed to do. Then the family set off for what should have been a wonderful family trip, but instead one that ended in tragedy. One that would put a chain reaction of events into place that would touch the hearts of people around the world.
Within 15 minutes of pushing the kayaks out into the river, the unexpected happened. According to Monica, they came upon an area that had a huge tree with a rather large root system in the water. It was down and in an area that has a strong current and an obvious undertow.
"It just sucked us into the tree and the roots," she said. The current took Joshua and his father right into the massive roots, and their boats went in opposite directions toward the tree roots. The tether strap connecting them caught in the middle, upsetting both kayaks.
Out of the five kayaks that embarked on the family trip, all but one went down.
Everyone resurfaced, except fort little Joshua. His life jacket had caught him in the root system and was holding him under water. The tether strap is believed to have been around his face, where they later found rope burns.
The strong current took the rest of the family down the river.
A string of events took place at that time, and the family says God put everyone in place for a reason - to show the world his might.
Just up the river, the family had just passed two people fishing. The two moved out of the way across the river and waved.
Those two just happened to be first responders, with one being a paramedic. They were supposed to be on the river the day before, but circumstances changed their plans and they were on the river at that exact moment. The kayak that didn’t go down was Benjamin, which had the Shirks’ little daughter Abigail on it. Benjamin was able to paddle to shore and bring the girl to safety. Nearby campers, hearing the family’s screams, dialed 911 and ran down to help. The camper’s wife stayed with the little girl and her husband rand out to help.
The call to 911 alerted the first responders up river, and they immediately set out to help as well.
Then Benjamin had to run back up river and jump in to try to get to Joshua. The water was too swift in the area to walk out in it or even stand. Five times he jumped in the river and swam to Joshua, only to grab a limb and have it break on him and get swept back down. Each time he would run back up and jump back in to try again.
When he was finally able to reach Joshua, he could not free him because he was tangled in the roots so badly. Benjamin would work to free him as he clung to the roots himself, only to have another root break and the water send him down river again.
The fifth time he realized he was weak and struggling himself. He said he knew he couldn’t keep doing it or there would be two bodies to rescue, not just one. So he gathered every ounce of strength he had to run up that river bank again. He jumped in and was swept right to Joshua again. This time as he struggled to free Joshua, something just gave. He would later describe it as being just like it released Joshua. It did not just release Joshua, however, but the river seem to calm enough for him to stand up and lift Joshua’s lifeless body up into the arms of the awaiting paramedics who had run down river to help.
At this time Joshua had been under the water for five to ten minutes. There was no pulse, and Joshua was lifeless. Paramedics began to do chest compressions on the very tree that had held Joshua under.
As CPR was administered, the paramedic moved Joshua to the bank and continued to try and revive the 8-year-old. Still no pulse.
A rescue boat had already been deployed by this time, but could not reach the child due to the current and the giant root system in the water. Paramedics had to continue chest compressions and put Joshua back into the water to get him down to the awaiting rescue boat.
Upon arrival at the boat, Joshua was whisked away to an awaiting ambulance - all while chest compressions continued.
Still no pulse returned.
The family, still stuck on the other side of the river, watched not knowing as he was taken away.
Joshua was rushed to Grant Memorial Hospital with chest compressions continuing while in route. Once he arrived at the hospital, the team there took over life resuscitating efforts. The family called an aunt in to be with Joshua at the hospital. Joshua’s mother, who had hit her head on the tree rather hard and was bleeding at her ear, was being taken to the hospital as well by ambulance.
As the doctors and nurses continued to work on the little boy, hope began to diminish. They had now worked on the child for 40 minutes after coming out of the water, and still Joshua had no pulse. The doctor left the room to tell the awaiting family of Joshua’s circumstances.
In the room he found the aunt waiting and began to deliver the news that they were still not able to get a pulse. At hearing the news, Joshua’s aunt’s only response was that they served a mighty God, the ultimate healer… and that is when things changed.
It was at that time that a voice could be heard yelling, "Doctor stat! He has a pulse!"
After almost ten minutes in the water, and 40 minutes without a pulse, Joshua was back. To what degree was unknown, but he did in fact have a pulse and was alive!
Immediately a medevac was on its way to get Joshua, but due to storms it could not make it the entire way. An ambulance therefore took Joshua to meet the medevac in Mount Storm.
On the way Joshua was trying to breathe on his own, and his pupils were responding. He was then airlifted to Ruby Memorial in Morgantown.
Joshua arrived at Ruby in a very critical state. Lack of oxygen to the brain has devastating results; patients like this usually have a swelling period of 72 hours before peaking. Sadly, Joshua swelled for six days. The doctors said that the swelling was so bad that they feared the brain swelling into the brain stem and damaging it.
Joshua’s brain stem was not damaged in the accident, but now concerns of damage to that area was what they were facing.
Unfortunately, he was not a candidate for surgery to relieve the swelling, and as the brain continued to swell and as it began to push down into the brain stem, all they could do was watch and literally know he was in God’s hands.
Six days they waited and then the swelling peaked. Nobody knew what damage had been done, and the doctors weren’t optimistic.
His mother, however, held on to hope and faith.
"I did not allow negative talk in front of Joshua," said Monica. "I asked them to tell me straight up what they thought and away from him.
"I didn’t like what they were predicting, but I also knew that my God was more powerful," she said.
The doctors hooked Joshua up to an EEG and all they saw were seizure-like jolts. At this time the doctors told the family that Joshua was looking to be severely brain damaged and was facing living life in a vegetative state.
Yet the family knew it was not over, that God had the final say.
The following day the EEG showed some normal brain activity, the next day it showed more, and everyday continued to improve for Joshua.
In no time Joshua was breathing on his own, he was weaned off the fentanyl that he was on, and he no longer required oxygen of any kind.
The child that started on on 11 IV Pumps now was only on two medications - for his blood pressure and his neurostorming, which is commonly seen in patients with brain trauma. His pic line had been removed and Joshua only ever had two surgeries. One to install a feeding tube and one oral surgery to repair his tongue that he bit during a procedure.
"The doctors said they had never seen anyone bounce back so quickly," said Monica. "He truly is a miracle and proof that we serve a mighty God."
Joshua went from constant care and two private nurses to sharing a nurse and only getting vitals twice a day.
"They don’t do constant Ct Scans and MRIs anymore; they go by him and how he seems," Monica says, adding that the doctors say he is unpredictable at this point. "One doctor said himself that they use their knowledge to give him the best shot they can, but ultimately it is always up to God."
At this point Joshua is following commands with his eyes and legs, and some with his hands. He is able to sit up in his chair during the days, and they have even had him standing once with aid.
His mom says his personality is starting to show again. He has one nurse that he absolutely loves and is willing to do anything for her, as well as for mom - most of the time. Monica says, "If I can’t get him to try to do something, I know she can."
Joshua is able to communicate by blinking - once for no and twice for yes. His mother recalls that he had had enough of one doctor at one time, so the doctor told him, "If you want me to leave you alone, then tell me yes. Joshua blinked twice and the doctor left with a smile.
Joshua began to kick his legs at that in excitement.
Joshua has came so far from the lifeless boy pulled from the river. The boy who spent 40 minutes without life is now able to leave the hospital - 30 days after entering. He is now headed to an inpatient rehab in Morgantown, where he will receive intensive rehab.
"The hospital offered speech, occupational, and music therapy, they are more for stabilization," said Monica. "Here they will work on making new connections in the brain."
Joshua is experiencing really weak muscles in his neck; they plan to work on that first. Monica says that right now you have to help support his head like a baby. Once they help him to regain the muscles in his neck, the rest will follow. They will work on sitting up on his own and eventually walking. They will also be working on swallowing so he can learn to eat again, so he won’t need the feeding tube.
There is also a plan to give him a communication device so he can communicate without blinking. And although he is beginning to make sounds again in an attempt to communicate, speech will be a necessity to work on.
As far as the family, they are holding strong in their faith. Monica says she is doing good with God with her. "I could not have handled this without God.
"We also had an amazing community support; it has been overwhelming in a good way," she said, adding that they have "been praying and there has been such an outpouring of love."
The family has been staying with Joshua in Morgantown since the accident. "We were given the use of a townhouse close to the hospital, so the family can be together and take turns staying with Joshua so he is never alone."
Monica says the story of her son has spread wide and far. She has received messages and letters from people all over.
"Joshua’s story has touched so many, and it’s a testament to God’s strength," she said. Monica asked that people not forget what happened to her son, because he still has a long way to go and they need to keep the prayers coming for him as he continues his journey until he is completely healed.
In a recent post on Facebook, Monica says the Bible tells us that to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord. Monica says she believes that when Joshua is fully healed he will be able to tell us amazing things that God has said and done for him.
"My son was dead for 40 minutes, God is capable of anything," she said.
Monica believes " you can’t ever county anything out when God is involved. Joshua is a miracle, he had no infections, no pneumonia in his lungs, he was never shocked, not once. Simply, God wasn’t done," she said.
"God has never been not good to us. He is using Joshua’s story to give him Glory."
As far at the tree with the root system that held Joshua under water for so long, it has now been removed. Although the DNR office put up signs warning of the tree, there were many incidents with other kayakers. So local E R Excavating out of Moorefield took it upon themselves to remove the tree from the water before Memorial Day for the safety of those on the river.
"This story could have happened to anyone," said Monica.
Yet as this story unfolded, and everyone was in the place they needed to be for the part they played, as the call came in on the scanner and the community knelt as one and bowed their heads to pray for this little boy and his family, one thing was certain… You never know what’s going to happen when God shows up and apparently all things are possible with him.