GREENVILLE — As the bell rings signaling the start of the school day, Rylie Whitten should be tuning her violin for orchestra class.
By lunchtime, she should be sitting with her fellow sophomore friends, eating and sharing laughs in the commons areas.
And after school, the 15-year-old athlete should be practicing with her teammates on the junior varsity dance team.
But as dozens of friends and loved ones gathered Wednesday evening at First United Methodist Church in Greenville, it was evident that Rylie hasn’t been able to do any of those things as of late.
For the past week, she’s been in a medically induced coma at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. Those who gathered Wednesday joined in song and prayer, hoping for a fast recovery.
On Sunday, Jan. 4, Rylie’s father, Nathan Whitten, recalls his daughter telling him she believed she had the flu. On what would have been the first day back to school after winter break, Rylie stayed home.
“She didn’t feel well, her body was aching, so we kept her home,” Nathan recalled. “But then on Tuesday, she started vomiting, so we visited the family doctor.”
She had no temperature or cough, but suddenly Rylie was in extreme pain.
Influenza and meningitis tests came back negative, but after a blood test, the Whittens were informed that an AeroMed helicopter was on its way to rush her to Grand Rapids.
“At that point, they knew she had some kidney failure,” Nathan said. “She was still coherent, still normal Rylie, but then they had to sedate her, because … it took over.”
What had taken Rylie over was toxic shock syndrome, a rare, life-threatening complication of certain types of bacterial infections.
According to Nathan, it’s only the fifth case of the infection at DeVos Children’s Hospital in the past year, and upon Rylie’s arrival, it was deemed by doctors the worst case they had ever encountered at the hospital.
The infection historically has been associated primarily with the use of super-absorbent tampons. After consulting with doctors and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, this cause appeared to be the case with Rylie.
“It shuts down all of your organs, it basically kills you … it attacks everything so fast,” Nathan said.
In the past week, Rylie has since been on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) life support machine, receiving kidney dialysis, and taking heavy volumes of drugs, all while remaining sedated. Her lungs and heart also started having issues.
But after several heart surgeries, Rylie’s vitals began to improve.
“She’s fought through everything just great … every day has been something she’s had to conquer,” Nathan said.
In the past 24 hours, Rylie has shown tremendous signs of improvement. She has been taken off of insulin and blood pressure medications and, according to Rylie’s grandmother, Michele Kocher, she will be taken off life support at 11 a.m. this morning, with the hope that she will be able to breath on her own.
“It’s happening,” Michele said. “I am just elated, there’s so much joy in my heart right now. This is a high jump, not a hurdle. Though we know we’re not out of the woods yet, we can see through the trees a little bit.”
Rylie’s road to recovery will be long, which is why many gathered Wednesday to show their support by writing messages on paper bags, lighting a candle within them and setting them outside the church.
Greenville High School junior and Rylie’s soccer teammate Mya Feys, 16, helped organize the vigil after being inspired by a message to “love others” shared during her Sunday church youth group meeting.
“Rylie is one of the most kind and gentle-hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” she said. “She’s the kind of person that makes everybody smile. If you’re having a bad day and need that uplifting person, Rylie is definitely that uplifting person.”
According to Greenville High School Principal Jeff Wright, students are updated on Rylie’s recovery every day during school announcements.
“Our school community is keeping Rylie and her family in our thoughts and prayers,” he said. “Rylie is very active in the life of our school and we miss having her in our building … we look forward to having Rylie back at Greenville High School and we hope and pray the best for her and her family.”
For Rylie’s orchestra teacher, Susan Gould, the first hour of the day just hasn’t been the same without her in class.
“As a teacher, we’re not supposed to get attached to the kids,” she said. “I find this nearly impossible, especially when I have them for years and years. I’ve shed many tears of sadness for her, her family and my own selfish feelings … I know she has a long recovery to face, but she will get better. Rylie is a very strong girl.”
As Rylie is slowly weaned off devices and medication, her father says her family will continue to take the news and improvements one step at a time.
“It’s been a huge miracle in the last 24 hours, but it’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Nathan said. “The staff here at DeVos, we could not be in a better place than with them. All the doctors and nurses, I could not feel more confident that she is in the best hands in the world.”
Nathan, his wife, Jill Williams, and their son, Kyle Whitten, will continue to wait by Rylie’s side as she recovers at the hospital. When she is capable, Rylie will be transferred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, where she will eventually begin to work on her rehabilitation.
A Facebook page titled, “Prayers for Rylie,” has more than 1,500 members, which has overwhelmed the family with encouragement.
“We greatly, greatly, greatly appreciate everyone’s support,” Nathan said. “The way we personally feel, with God on her side and the amount of fight that Rylie has in her, she’s going to make it. She’s not giving up.”
A “Go Fund Me” account was established by family member Stacy Rush and has already raised $3,872 for the family. However, Nathan says he’s not asking for any donations.
“I don’t want people to feel that they need to do that, we’re not asking for that … but that will all go directly to Rylie when she walks out of here,” her father said.