Watching little Max run around, you’d never know he cheated death last summer.
“We don’t see any difference in him at all,” Jennifer Pierson said of her 4-year-old son.
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He’s taking swimming lessons now and shows no fear of the water, she said. Given what he went through, that’s no small achievement.
On July 26, Max was taking a walk with his grandfather along Gypsum Creek, at the end of the 8300 block of East Gilbert, when Max broke ahead. He slipped on the slick grass and rolled down the embankment into the fast-moving water.
His grandfather also slipped on the grass and fell down the embankment, his daughter Jennifer Pierson said. By the time he got back up, he had lost sight of Max.
Among those to respond was Officer Darren Sundquist, who raced from Kellogg and Woodlawn to the west side of the creek – even though the 911 call had come from the opposite side. He scanned the water, then asked others along the bank if they saw a boy in the water. They shook their heads no.
Sundquist ran south along the bank perhaps 200 yards until someone pointed to the water.
“When I saw him, he was completely under” the water, his shorts caught on some jagged rocks, Sundquist said.
Max was face down and unconscious in more than 2 feet of water. Carefully picking his steps from one rock to another, Sundquist waded out and lifted Max from the water.
It wasn’t until later, he said, that he realized how deep the water actually was.
“Money in my back pocket was wet,” Sundquist said. “It was a lot deeper than I even expected.”
For his efforts, Sundquist is being honored Thursday by the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police with the Silver Award, given for “extraordinary action which directly contributed to the significant prolonging or actual saving of a life.”
Max’s story seemed unlikely to have a happy ending. He wasn’t breathing when Sundquist pulled him from the water.
Sundquist has young children of his own, and he said it was wrenching to see Max submerged in the creek.
“You don’t want to see any kid go through that,” Sundquist said. “For him to be so small and helpless – and not be able to do anything …”
Although medical crews got his heart started again, Max wasn’t breathing on his own.
By the time he arrived at Wesley Medical Center, his mother said, “he was still very deeply in a coma.”
Doctors tried to be optimistic, she said, but in hindsight “they were not hopeful at all.”
Max wasn’t responding even after nearly an hour of treatment in the emergency room, she said. He was kept sedated for a few days before they slowly brought him out of the coma to check his responses.
When he woke up, “he started talking immediately,” even though he still had a breathing tube, she said.
“He had his eyes locked on mine,” she said. “You could tell he was still in there.”
Sundquist said Max’s parents later told him that doctors found deadly bacteria that the boy had ingested while in the floodwater. That – more than the near-drowning – is why he didn’t leave the hospital for 10 days after he fell into the creek, his mother said.
Pierson said she was happy to learn Sundquist is being honored for his efforts.
“He went above and beyond the call of duty,” Pierson said of Sundquist.
But the officer said he was simply doing his job.
“There were a lot of things that lined up and worked out just right” for Max to survive, he said.
It all happened so quickly, Pierson said, that the family has never really had a chance to say “thank you” to everyone who helped save her son.
“I’m not sure that there’s a day that goes by that we’re not grateful that it somehow turned out OK,” she said.
Seeing Gypsum Creek that full last summer wasn’t anything new to Roy Boren, Max’s grandfather.
“We’ve seen it that full two or three times,” said Boren, who’s 74. “It used to run pretty full down there when my daughter was little.”
Jennifer admitted she still can’t believe “this horrible accident” occurred at the creek that was such an integral part of her childhood. The Gypsum down the street is a narrow rivulet of water with banks that are very different from each other. The west side slopes gently to the creek’s edge, but the east side – running parallel to Mansfield Street – is much steeper.
Boren admits he doesn’t reflect much about last summer’s close call.
“I’d just as soon forget it,” he said.
But Max remembers.
“He has made comments a couple of times about falling into” the creek, Pierson said. “We were hoping he’d forgotten it.”
Yet he has no qualms about crossing the footbridge over the creek. The brush with tragedy seems to be a footnote in his young life, she said.
Two months after the incident, Max’s parents brought him to the Patrol East Bureau to meet the police officer who pulled him from the water.
“It was shocking” to see the boy acting so normally, Sundquist said. “He has a lot of energy.”
Every now and then, Sundquist said, his work will take him past Gilbert Street. He’ll wonder for a few moments how Max is doing and what he’ll do with his second chance at life.
“I want him to go ahead and live his life,” Sundquist said. “I have done what I needed to do.”
In his 15 years as a police officer, he said, “it’s probably the happiest outcome, for sure.
“I’ve seen a lot, obviously, and most of them are just not the best of outcomes.”
After surviving a near-drowning and numerous deadly bacteria, Sundquist said, it’s clear to him Max has a special purpose in life.
Maybe he’ll even run for president some day, he said.
“I’d vote for him,” Sundquist said.