Defying the odds makes this Thanksgiving particularly poignant |
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Ryan and Carole Stroup with their twin daughters, Josephina (Left) and Isabella at their Washington Township home on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. .

As we gather today to offer thanks for all that we have, there are those among us who will hug a little longer, shake hands a little harder and listen a little more intently than ever before.

For them, Thanksgiving 2014 is more than just a day of friends and family gathered around a table of turkey and trimmings.

It is a day of grateful reflection on life-changing events and extraordinary gifts from nowhere.

For the college student who cheated death, the Air Force general who helped fulfill his elderly aunt’s dying wish and the young mother whose newborn twins defied medical odds to survive, it is a day to ponder what might have been, while thanking fate and happenstance for granting them the blessings of a lifetime.

Close call

Tree trimmer Jim Valentine always knew that in his business, a slip of the hand or a momentary distraction could prove deadly.

That imagined danger became reality one day in late March when, in a split second, Valentine’s chain saw kicked back, lodging in his neck.

“I thought I was dying,” the South Side resident said.

With the saw still planted in his neck, his mind raced as rescue workers cautiously slid him onto a gurney for the life-and-death trip from Valentine’s job site in Ross to Allegheny General Hospital.

The horrified looks on the faces of bystanders did little to calm his fears.

“Everything was flashing through my head, everyone I cared about,” he said.

“I thought, ‘I’m not going to be here after this,’ ” said Valentine, 21, whose brush with death gained international media attention.

But it wasn’t his time.

The blade missed his carotid artery by less than an inch and didn’t hit his esophagus, trachea or spinal cord.

Striking any of those “vital structures” would have killed him, said Dr. Christine Toevs, the Allegheny General trauma surgeon who treated him.

Valentine’s mother, Jo Ruppenkamp, 50, who dashed to the hospital to find a horde of reporters awaiting word about her son, believes a higher force was at play.

“He definitely had an angel on his shoulder,” she said, grateful he’s thinking about a career change while recovering from his injuries.

For Valentine, it was a lesson learned at a young age about how to live the rest of his life.

“I wake up every day and appreciate being alive,” he said. “Life is different.”

Finally home

It was a mother’s dying wish that her son come home from battle.

So when the remains of Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. Charles L. Johnston Jr. are laid to rest next spring in Arlington National Cemetery, his mother’s last wish will be fulfilled — more than 70 years after his bomber was shot down over Papua, New Guinea, during World War II.’

“His mother went to her grave thinking he was going to come home,” said Johnston’s cousin, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William J. Mall Jr., 80, who grew up in Glenshaw and now lives in Fullerton, Calif.

In September, 40 years after Mildred Johnston’s death, the call came from Department of Defense officials that her son’s remains were located near where his B-24D Liberator crashed on April 10, 1944, on a mission to attack Japanese anti-aircraft sites.

Mall offered a DNA sample to positively identify his cousin, a 20-year-old radio operator from Perrysville.

“I just feel very grateful that his memory won’t be lost in some jungle,” Mall said. “To me, that’s the overwhelming part.”

And at last, he said, “I will be able to give the sergeant a final salute. He was my hero.”

Out in the cold

It was bitter January cold — the kind of cold that cuts through heavy coats and scarves like shards of glass on skin.

At just 11 degrees, it was also the kind of cold that kills.

And on most nights, University of Pittsburgh student Emily Galfond, who fell on an icy sidewalk, striking her head and lying unconscious for hours, would have been one of its victims.

Just about everything that night was a “miracle,” said Galfond, 21, a senior from suburban Washington, D.C., majoring in architecture and urban studies.

“The guy who found me wasn’t supposed to work (that day). … In the ER, they got me back to life, lost me and brought me back again,” she said. “Every single aspect came together.”

At the hospital, doctors couldn’t find a pulse. There were chunks of ice on her body.

“It was a pretty dire situation,” said Dr. Vincent Mosesso, professor of emergency medicine at Pitt.

“They gave her zero percent chance of living,” said her mother, Laurie Galfond.

Teams of doctors took turns doing CPR for more than an hour — the longest continuous resuscitation of Mesesso’s career.

“With her body so cold, we wanted to keep on trying,” he said.

Galfond’s body temperature allowed her metabolism to slow, helping to prevent some of the damage normally associated with a lack of oxygen.

“So many things came together for her,” Mesesso said. “I was amazed at the recovery she had.”

With hypothermia, the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees drops below 95. In severe cases, it can reach 86 degrees or lower.

“My body temperature was 75,” said Emily, who spent the past year successfully completing the physical side of her recovery from frostbite damage to her left foot and hand.

Now she’s focused on other parts of her comeback.

“I realized my brain wasn’t the way it used to be,” she said. “I had no short-term memory and was having trouble with word retrieval and retention.”

But she continues undeterred.

“I have to get back to normal,” she said. “I know I was very lucky.”

Rare disease

For 8-year-old Cameron Howard, the dawn of each new day is the greatest blessing of all.

Cam, as he’s known to his family, has progeria, a rare genetic condition that accelerates the aging process in children.

Only 15 children in the United States have the disease. Most live only to 13, often dying of heart attacks or strokes.

Cam knows that but doesn’t dwell on it.

Instead, he’s focused on just being a kid.

“We can’t stop him from moving,” said his mother, Stephanie, 41, as her son went from catching a football with his dad, to sliding along a coffee table to jumping onto the couch in their Allison Park home one rainy November evening.

“We don’t have a lot of rules,” she said as their daughter, Riley, 10, joined in the football toss.

“We want to make sure of his quality of life.”

They’re excited about a drug trial Cam has been participating in that could extend his life, conservatively, by a year and a half, researchers said.

But they’ll take whatever time they can get with their boy who gives a typical 8-year-old’s answer when asked if he likes school.

“Ah, no,” he said.

Weighing just 26 pounds, he said he’s looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner.

His favorite food?

“Bread,” he said.

“He’s a terrible eater,” said his father, Jason, 39, a computer programmer.

But “he’s helped us to see a lot of things from a different perspective and to make sure life is enjoyable,” Stephanie Howard said. “He’s helped us to see how incredibly good and generous people are.”

Miracle twins

50-50: Those were the odds that the unborn twins of Carole and Ryan Stroup would survive, doctors told them.

The babies were sharing an amniotic sac and placenta, a rare condition called monoamniotic-monochorionic, or mono-mono, twins.

“All we could think of was the doomsday scenario,” said Carole Stroup, 36, of Washington Township in Westmoreland County, an admissions coordinator at ManorCare Health Services in Shadyside.

Doctors wasted no time, developing a plan that included daily hospital visits from weeks 24 to 28 and a permanent move to West Penn Hospital at 28 weeks.

On Sept. 13, at 32 weeks, Isabella and Josephina were delivered by cesarean section with one further complication: Their umbilical cords were tangled, an issue doctors quickly resolved.

“This was supposed to be (in theory) my one boy, and we got two girls,” joked Ryan Stroup, 37, a student finance counselor for Education Management Corp. in downtown Pittsburgh, hoping to balance the male-female ratio in the family.

Isabella came home at four weeks and Josephina at five, joining their admiring older sisters Brianna, 5, and Karalyn, 3.

“Look at them,” Ryan Stroup said as he held a dozing Isabella. “They overcame every odd, and the odds were against them.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Staff writer Kari Andren contributed to this report.

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