Family of girl who nearly drowned in Erie Canal copes with new challenges

Rev. Jon T. Clanton talks to his daughter Selah in her bedroom in their home in Zephryhills. Selah suffered brain damage last year when Clanton lost control of her stroller and it fell into the Erie Canal.
Rev. Jon T. Clanton talks to his daughter Selah in her bedroom in their home in Zephryhills. Selah suffered brain damage last year when Clanton lost control of her stroller and it fell into the Erie Canal.
Published Aug. 17, 2013

ZEPHYRHILLS — For the past year, this has been Selah Clanton's life.

The 9-year-old spends most of her day in a wheelchair or hospital bed, in a room painted purple. A teddy bear sits at the head like a sentinel. A doll wearing a purple hat is cradled in her left arm.

A nurse has put the doll beside Selah, who can't talk or eat or walk. A tracheal tube keeps her from choking to death on her own saliva. Another tube inserted into her stomach delivers a vegetable-based food.

Nurses, provided by insurance, work around the clock. They change her position every couple of hours to prevent bed sores. They tap her mouth to provide oral stimulation. They dress her in shirts with sparkles and put matching ribbons in her pigtails. They keep her teeth brushed and diapers clean. They park her wheelchair in front of Sesame Street. Twice a day she gets fish oil as part of a clinical trial.

They do all this in hopes that one day the little girl who nearly drowned in the Erie Canal a year ago will regain some of the function that her parents had begun to notice three months after they adopted her from an orphanage in Ukraine.

"She loved to eat," her mother, Yvonne Clanton, 47, recalled. "She liked pizza and bananas."

Like 6-year-old Sarah, whom the Clantons adopted from the same orphanage, Selah had severe developmental delays. She didn't smile and kept to herself.

"We called her the grumpy grandma," said Jon Clanton, 49, pastor of a small church and a chaplain at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. "She walked like a penguin."

Selah would come up to Yvonne and hold onto her skorts. When Jon would come home from work and play with the couple's other four kids, Selah would approach and want to interact.

"It was really sweet to see the change starting to take place," Yvonne said.

Even at age 8, life was still full of firsts for Selah.

When the Clantons put her on a swing, "she was laughing like it was the greatest thing she'd ever experienced," Jon said.

A couple of hours before a glance at his phone made Jon lose control of the stroller, Selah smiled as she got her first taste of lemonade.

• • •

The family had gone to Rochester, N.Y., to see an eye surgeon. He had given cornea implants to one of their two biological sons, 8-year-old Samuel, who was born with a rare condition marked by blindness, small stature and other delays. They hoped he could do the same for Sarah, who was also blind.

The Clantons loaded up their brood. There's Stephen, 16, and the three 8-year-olds, Samuel, Selah, and Shad, who was adopted from China, as well as Sarah.

Sarah's tests got delayed, so the family ended up with a free day. The older kids found things to do. But two of the younger kids were getting antsy, so Jon took them for a walk in the double stroller. They had to be back by a certain time to drive another family to the airport.

Jon's watch had broken. Yvonne planned to pick up an inexpensive one at the store earlier, but she had just had foot surgery and was sore. She'd do it later, she thought.

During the walk, Jon let go of the stroller and glanced at the time on his phone. That's when the stroller began rolling toward the canal. He raced after it, but it went in the water. He jumped in.

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Jon dove to the bottom and grabbed the stroller. He pulled it up and tried to find a place to hold onto. Finally he saw a weeping willow branch that stretched over the water and grabbed it. Some medical students who heard his screaming came running and pulled the stroller from the canal. They got Samuel out, but Selah was still tangled in the straps.

Samuel and Jon escaped without serious injury, but doctors gave Selah little chance to live. She lay in a deep coma for about eight weeks. Then she opened her eyes. Doctors told the Clantons the law gave them the right to decline further care and let her die.

"I said, 'We're going to stand before God one day," Yvonne said. "We are not going to let our child succumb to pneumonia, and we're not going to starve her to death."

Selah was released from the New York hospital in December. After about a month in a rehab center, the Clantons took her home to Zephyrhills.

• • •

For a while, the family harbored guilt about the accident. If only Yvonne hadn't forgotten to buy the watch. If only they hadn't volunteered for the airport run, then time wouldn't have been an issue. If only Stephen had gone on the walk too.

"We all blamed ourselves, but we realized there's enough blame to go around," Yvonne said.

For now, they do everything they can to care for Selah, who is in a persistent vegetative state similar to Terri Schiavo, the St. Petersburg woman who died in 2005 after spending years at the center of a legal battle to remove her feeding tube.

The Clantons are now fighting their own battle. Recently, Blue Cross Blue Shield refused to continue paying for a nurse. The Clantons have filed an appeal.

The insurance company won't comment on the case, citing privacy laws.

Yvonne says she cannot care for Selah alone. She needs constant attention, and three of the other children also have special needs.

The Clantons try to focus on the future, but some days are difficult.

"It's so surreal," Yvonne said. Sometimes she dreams that Selah wakes up. Then Yvonne wakes up to realize the day will be just like every other.

Certain events touch them in a way they never had before. She and Jon both felt intense sadness at the report last week of the 2-year-old Tampa boy who drowned after wandering away from his family.

Recently Jon took some of the kids to see Man of Steel.

Shad said, "Why is Daddy crying over a Superman movie?"

On the screen, Clark Kent was rescuing a busload of drowning children.