A 2-year-old girl and her family were reunited Thursday with the off-duty Aurora cop who saved young Abby's life in the wake of a horrendous accident as they drove to a pumpkin farm near Joliet.
It was the first time Nick and Jessica Schmidt of Montgomery and their daughters, Abby and 5-year-old Emma, had the chance to thank Sgt. Bill Rowley, who was heading to the same pumpkin farm with his family when he happened upon the accident. He used CPR to keep little Abby alive until paramedics arrived.
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"Thank you falls short, but all we can really say is thank you," Nick Schmidt said during a brief ceremony at the Aurora Police Department. "Not more than a few hours go by in a day where I don't think about how grateful I am."
The October day had started routinely enough for the Schmidts, who were heading for the farm when a distracted driver blew through a stop sign at roughly 60 mph and broadsided their minivan at the intersection of Grove and Caton Farm roads in Joliet.
Schmidt's wife and oldest daughter were seriously injured in the crash, but when he looked at Abby in the back seat, he feared she was dead. She was unconscious, he said, and not breathing.
"I knew it was not good and it was a strong possibility (that Abby did not survive)," he said. "I didn't want to think that, but reality was hitting me that this was a very, very, serious thing going on."
Rowley, meanwhile, was taking a different, but more scenic, route to the pumpkin farm that brought him upon the accident scene. A frantic passer-by, who already had stopped to help, banged on his window and asked if anyone knew CPR.
"When we come to work, we put on our uniform and we get our mind ready to do just about anything we think we're going to encounter," said Rowley, who joined the Aurora department in 1999 and was promoted to sergeant in 2007. "But it was a Sunday and I was just driving along and wasn't really thinking about anything other than the pumpkin farm, so it was a surprise."
"When I saw Nick and Abby, he handed her to me and I put her on the ground and did what I could until paramedics showed up. Those are the people who did the work. I just helped keep the motor running a little longer."
Abby was taken to a hospital in Joliet and eventually flown to Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn where she was treated for a broken jaw, broken collarbone, cracked vertebrae, a fractured skull and cuts to her liver, kidney and spleen.
She spent more than a week in the intensive care unit and a total of 18 days in the hospital.
Her sister, Emma, was taken to the same hospital and spent four days in intensive care.
Abby is still recovering, the Schmidts say, but both she and Emma showed more than a little energy during Thursday's reunion that also included a visit from Santa Claus.
The girls wasted no time taking advantage of their first chance to sit on Santa's knee, quickly letting him know their lists include a pony and an iPad.
"They're doing great. Emma is doing fantastic," Nick Schmidt said. "She went back to school while we were still staying at the hospital with Abby."
"As you can see, Abby is doing really well. She still has some healing to do, but overall she's doing fantastic."
And her dad will be forever grateful Rowley chose to take the scenic route.
"We just know (Rowley) was there for a reason on that day," Nick Schmidt said.
Rowley, a former CPR instructor, said any police officer in his situation would have done the same. But he stressed the value of learning CPR.
"(CPR) is not hard to learn. Certainly it's easy and the time commitment it takes to learn it obviously can pay off," he said. "The more people that know it, the more equipped we can be to help others."