As Louisville awoke to a record-breaking surprise snowscape that would bring the city to a standstill, doctors told the Schmitt family they had to hurry.
The phone call came at the worst possible time.
They had a liver for 3-year-old Michelle, who was growing increasingly ill after waiting two years on the transplant list. The 22-pound toddler would need to make it to a hospital in Nebraska by that evening. The donor’s liver wouldn’t hold for any longer.
Ed Schmitt had no idea how he’d get his daughter 600 miles to Omaha.
The snowstorm of Jan. 17, 1994, is remembered in Louisville for many reasons. What began as a prediction for a few inches of snow grew into an overnight wallop, paralyzing the city with nearly 16 inches. It exposed weaknesses in government’s snow preparedness plans and spurred reforms and investments still seen today. (Louisville Courier Journal)
Across the eastern half of the country, 70 people lost their lives in the storm’s snow and sub-zero temperatures, including at least five in the Louisville area.
After that transplant call, around 9 a.m., grandmother Barbara Schmitt called family friend and hairdresser Sharon Stevens. Sharon was a miracle worker, an ordinary angel. She had raised tens of thousands of dollars for the family’s growing medical expenses. She arranged for a private jet to fly the family from Louisville to Omaha when the time came.
Stevens then called WHAS radio and before long reporters were in the Schmitt family home in the Hikes Point area, broadcasting a call for help.
Call For Help
The original plan was to drive the child to a Southern Indiana airport where the jet would take her to Nebraska. But roads were treacherous. Kentucky’s governor would soon order the interstates closed. Abandoned cars littered the side of the road. Streets were buried — first under a sheet of ice that had frozen the day before and now beneath the heaviest snowfall Louisville had ever seen.
Matthew Glowicki of the Courier Journal reported, “In a home barely 2 miles away, Teresa Meredith stood at her kitchen sink, snowed in, peeling potatoes for that evening’s dinner.
She listened, distressed, to the pleas coming from her radio. She looked out the kitchen window at the parking lot of what was then Southeast Christian Church.
Huge, wide open space. No power lines. No trees. Perfect for a helicopter to pick up the child and take her to the airport.”
Church Parking Lot Landing Pad
The family was nearby. Surely, they could make it to the lot, she thought.
She dialed the station. The voice on the other end asked if the lot was plowed. It wasn’t. Meredith called back.
She would rally her neighbors and clear the land herself, she insisted. The station representative stepped away, conferred, and returned with an answer. The helicopter needed 100 square feet of clean space to land. They had 30 minutes.
“The clock is ticking,” the voice said.
The mother of two threw on gloves and boots.
She and her then-husband headed for the neighbours. Within minutes, the couple and five others — some older than 70 — were trudging through knee-deep snow, shovels in hand, or in Meredith’s case, a garden spade.
200 Helpers Show Up
They used their feet to measure out the impromptu launch pad in the middle of the parking lot and began shoveling.
Soon after, the church’s garage door raised and out rolled a tractor fitted with a big blade. Not long after that, reinforcements trickled in. By foot and four-wheel drive they came, beckoned by the news on the radio that hands were needed to clear a path.
When Michelle arrived in the arms of her grandmother, alongside her father, Ed Schmitt, and big sister, 5-year-old Ashley Schmitt, the launch pad was ready. By then 200 people were standing in the clearing.
The father had already gone through the transplant process with Ashley, who like Meredith was born with the relatively rare liver disease biliary atresia. No Kentucky hospital at the time could perform the transplant, leading Ashley in 1991 to her transplant in Nebraska.
Michelle and her family made it safely to the Louisville airport, and a few hours later, flew into Omaha in time for the surgery, which was successful. Her story spread from Louisville to newspapers and TV stations across the country, and soon, she was dubbed the “miracle snow baby.”
(Michelle graduated from Spalding University, get married, became a mom, and started her career in the medical field working with children. She worked with some of the pediatricians that care for her throughout the years. She passed away at age thirty in 2021.)
Ordinary Angels Movie
Based on the extraordinary true story of a Kentucky hairdresser who rallied a town to save a life, ORDINARY ANGELS will release in theatres nationwide in February 2024. Save that date on your calendar.
ORDINARY ANGELS centres on Sharon Steves, a fierce but struggling hairdresser in small-town Kentucky who discovers a renewed sense of purpose when she meets Ed Schmitt, a widower working hard to make ends meet for his two daughters. With his youngest daughter waiting for a liver transplant, Sharon sets her mind to helping the family. and will move mountains to do it.
Watch the trailer here.
I’ll have more to say in a future post about the movie. Let me know what you thnk about the story in the comments below. Thank you.
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