Eight years ago, teacher Patty McKimmey welcomed a new group of bright-eyed kindergarteners. It was her 12th year teaching at St. Norbert Catholic School. But this class was different. There was one student missing: her daughter Madeline.
Madeline was born with a rare neurological disorder that has left her unable to speak, see or walk. So as Patty did her best to smile throughout this first day of the school year, inside she longed for her daughter to be seated among her classmates.
In June Patty got her wish. Madeline joined the class of 2020 as an honorary 8th-grade graduate.
It was a beautiful, healthy pregnancy. But when Gary McKimmey held Madeline in his arms he quickly noticed his precious newborn’s eyes didn’t open. Without a word, doctors noticed, too. Within 10 days, Madeline suffered her first seizure.
Then the diagnosis came: Madeline had Aicardi syndrome.
As Patty prayed at CHOC that everything would be OK, in walked a familiar face. Fellow SNCS parent and case manager Paula Noden.
“I prayed that Madeline would be healthy,” Patty says. “It wasn’t answered in the way I had hoped; it was answered by God placing people in our lives who made our situation more peaceful and calm.”
Paula, a case manager with Regional Center of Orange County, knew the McKimmeys needed resources. She introduced them to nurse Diane Seger, a former nun who has remained by Madeline’s side since her diagnosis.
“She loves Madeline like she’s one of her own,” Patty says. “To see her with Madeline is absolutely beautiful.”
Madeline has grown up in a faith-filled home, surrounded and supported by her parents and four older siblings. She can spend weeks on end at CHOC. Three times her family has been summoned to say goodbye.
“Your daughter really has a will to live,” Gary recounts Madeline’s doctors saying. “She’s extremely tough. Whatever you guys are doing in your home is working.”
A CLASSMATE CONNECTION
Over the years Madeline has visited her mom’s classroom. Patty tells the kids her daughter has good days and bad days, just like they experience themselves.
“The kids look at Madeline with such a purity of heart,” Patty says. “I share a lot about this child I love, pictures of our family and personal stories of Madeline.”
Students learn kindness and empathy. Some form a bond with Madeline, like fellow 8th-grade graduate Jacee Baumann.
In 4th grade, Jacee gave Madeline bright hair bows for Christmas. Other years, it was “Frozen 2” socks and floral headbands, and last December, a stuffed animal.
“Throughout the years I haven’t seen Madeline that much because of her health,” Jacee shares. “We have a connection for sure, that’s never changed for me. I still think of her like I did when I first met her in kinder—as a friend.”
LOVE MAKES EVERYTHING OK
“We are a normal family with a disabled child,” Patty says.
She and Gary refuse to pity themselves. They credit God with giving them the strength to manage their family together.
While Gary handles soccer tournaments and coaching duties and travels for work every month, Patty’s place is with Madeline. It can be isolating at times, Patty admits. But Gary is there to make dinner, take over nighttime care duties and encourage his wife to enjoy time with friends. They acknowledge what’s most important: their faith and how they handle their journey.
“We literally have a living angel in our house that God has blessed us with,” Patty says. “I pray that when Madeline gets to heaven she’ll help the rest of us get there, too.”
When SNCS principal Joe Ciccoianni introduced the idea of Madeline participating in the June graduation, Patty and Gary were touched.
“The beauty of these families thinking of Madeline—someone without a voice, who couldn’t walk or run on campus, that people wanted to do this for her—was incredible,” Patty says. “How could we not say yes?”
So the McKimmeys loaded into their SUV and joined the other cars in the school parking lot for the 6 p.m. ceremony.
“Madeline doesn’t speak but there’s a presence, mannerisms—you can tell she’s absorbing things,” says Patty. “She can feel the love.”