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Without limits: Estacada woman helps son defy medical odds


Faith, family, support and an extraordinary dog help Will Carter surpass doctors expectations

Estacada resident Crystal Carter is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. Carter gives credit to her son for helping her stay that way.

“Little things like the dishwasher breaking, he says ‘Oh, well.’ And I think ‘Oh, well. You’re right. It is a little thing,’ “ Carter said.

Her attitude is all the more impressive considering what she’s been through since she got the call “every parent dreads” on July 26, 2008.

Her son, Will Carter, then 16, had a massive heart attack while attending a festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre with his youth group. The attack stemmed from a congenital heart defect that had gone undetected.

Life Flight transported him to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. During the flight he went into repeated cardiac arrest.

Crystal and her husband, Rob, drove throughout the night to get to their son.

When they got there, a doctor told them it was unlikely that Will would survive. As the Carters heard the terrible news, their son was in the battle of his life.

“During open heart surgery my husband and I just put him back to God because there was nothing we could do,” she said. “We said if we get to keep him, we’ll take him in whatever form he’s in.”

And survive he did.

“And he’s come so much farther,” Crystal said. “He’s truly a miracle.”

The heart failure had prevented oxygen from reaching his brain for so long that he fell into a coma for months after his life-saving surgeries.

And the result was permanent brain damage.

“He wasn’t expected to do anything. Nothing,” Crystal said.

Doctors told Will’s parents that their son would likely be blind, never walk again, be able to recognize anyone, and would lose the ability to talk.

He has since proven these dire predictions quite wrong.

He has vision problems but is far from blind, his legs are strong and only walks with assistance for balance, and he does indeed talk.

He goes to concerts, camping and to Highland Games. He hopes to become a volunteer.

Will is still fed through a stomach tube, but Crystal explained that, “It’s his dream to go to Ireland and drink beer.”

Crystal has promised Will that when he gets his feeding tube out, the whole family will travel to Ireland. He’s started saving money for the trip.

Doctors have not given the Carters a time frame for when the feeding tube will be able to come out, but the Carters are used to surpassing doctors’ expectations.

“I don’t allow others to put limits on him,” Crystal said.

Although Will’s condition made it necessary for him to remain in hospitals for years, the Carters knew they wanted their son home.

“We didn’t know how we were going to do this... but we knew we wanted Will home,” Crystal said. “So we stepped out in faith and God provided every need.”

The Carters received a grant to help make renovations to their home to accommodate Will’s medical needs. Their church, Estacada Community Fellowship, also helped out financially.

The Carters added “Will’s wing” to their Estacada home. The wing includes a large shower to accommodate showering on a stretcher and a door wide enough to allow for the passage of a wheelchair.

They also installed an apparatus to help lift the 6-feet-3 Will into a sitting position. But by the time he came home, he already could stand and sit so he’s never had to use it.

The church brought meals to the family two nights a week for a year after Will came home.

“It humbles me to know people love us that much. And love Will that much. But he’s easy to love,” Crystal said.

She’s thankful for her family’s strength throughout the ordeal.

“(Rob) is the best husband and father that ever walked the earth,” Crystal said of her husband. If it hadn’t been for him she said she would have “folded a long time ago.”

The Carters’ daughter, Chelsea, stayed home to help the family for two years after Will’s heart attack. She even offered to forgo college in order to stay and help her family.

Chelsea is about to receive a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Pacific Northwest College of Art.

She still comes home once a week to help out.

Crystal also feels blessed by Will’s “other mothers” — the nurses and caregivers who provide Will with care.

“I’m so blessed to have the help that I have,” Crystal said.

Crystal also credits an exceptional dog for helping her son’s recovery.

Crystal first saw Riley the dog while Will was living at the Providence Child Center for Medically Fragile Children.

Shocked by the magnitude of what had happened to her son, Crystal stepped outside of her then comatose son’s room to weep.

She happened upon a big brown dog visiting with children at the hospital.

She begged the hospital staff to find a way to get the dog to visit Will, even though he lived in Team One, where the children with the most medical needs live.

Dogs technically weren’t allowed there.

A few days later, Riley the dog and his owner, Ron van Dongen, appeared in the doorway of Will’s room.

Riley was rather new to the pet therapy world. Nevertheless, Crystal asked if Riley could get into Will’s bed.

The dog got gently into the bed and lay at Will’s feet careful not to disturb the tubes he was attached to.

Crystal said that at the time Will was heavily medicated to keep him from going into full body spasms.

She described the terror of watching her son writhe in pain and scream soundlessly when seized by the spasms.

“That very first visit with Riley brought a peace to his darkened room that, until then, had been a den of anguish,” Crystal wrote. “It was the first time that I actually saw Will’s body relax. Each time Ron and Riley would come back, Riley would creep a little higher in Will’s bed until he was lying full body next to him.

“I will never forget the sight of seeing my precious son put his face into Riley’s neck and smell him. It truly was the first outward sign that Will showed of being aware of the presence of something other than Mom and Dad.”

The nurses turned a blind eye as van Dongen brought Riley to visit Will more and more frequently.

Van Dongen became fast friends with the Carters.

He and Riley would accompany Will and Crystal to Will’s doctor and therapy appointments.

Van Dongen, his partner, and Riley continued to visit after the Carters were finally able to bring Will home.

Tragically, by that time, Riley had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

“It was Will’s turn to return the love and support as he accompanied Riley to his treatments. We were there with Ron and David as Riley was ushered into heaven by the kind doctor at Dove Lewis,” Crystal wrote.

Van Dongen and his partner have since adopted a rescue dog named Elliott.

Today, 21-year-old Will beams ear-to-ear whenever his mother speaks with him.

“Will. His smile. I get to wake up to that every day. He’s taught me more about faith than I ever thought I’d learn,” Crystal said.

Crystal, a former Eagle Creek Elementary special education professional, hopes to help others faced with similar shocking life changes.

She was forced to leave her job in order to take care of Will full-time after his heart attack.

Crystal said her former career helped prepare her to be able to cope with Will’s needs.

Before Will’s hear attack, she worked closely with a medically fragile little girl whom she still keeps in contact with.

“Probably the greatest lesson she taught me was to allow her the independence,” Crystal said of her former student. “We’re trying to help (Will) be as independent as he can and if I’m doing everything for him he doesn’t have the opportunity to learn skills to be independent.”

The Carters aren’t going to let Will’s trauma stand in the way of his happiness either.

“I want him to know that just because he has physical and developmental challenges he is going to lead a full and happy life with purpose and that God has a perfect plan for him,” Crystal said.