All around the waiting room of the neurological critical care unit, tired faces stared out from the row of seats.
Some tried to occupy their time watching TV. Others flipped listlessly through magazines. Any time a door opened or movement came from the care unit hallway, the group held their breath hoping for some news about their loved one.
Audrey Eckart remembers the feeling of helplessness of being in the waiting room. For more than two weeks, the 13-year-old Whiteland girl sat with her family in the sterile lounge of IU Health Methodist Hospital while doctors worked to save her uncle’s life.
“No one had anything, and during those first two or three nights, no one wanted to leave,” Audrey said.
To help ensure other families get some measure of comfort during that trying time, Audrey and her friend, Molly Roller, founded their own service project. Lee’s Lifelines puts together care packages of food, hygiene items and a Bible for people waiting at the neurological critical care unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital.
The two Clark-Pleasant Middle School eighth-graders have delivered more than 1,800 bags since 2011, raising donations and the care-package items themselves.
Their efforts have helped those struggling with a loved-one’s injury, said Amy Brower, manager of clinical operations at Methodist’s critical care unit.
The messages have come pouring in to the Lee’s Lifeline website. People who have received a bag at the hospital are often taken aback, but touched, at the kindness of strangers.
“You knew exactly what we would be feeling and going through at this time. Thank you so much for blessing me and my family,” wrote a woman named Sandy, who received a bag while her mother received treatment following a stroke.
“Visits to hospitals are never fun. We are from Louisville, so, it was our first visit at Methodist. While hospital visits are stressful events in our lives, the stay was made much better by all of the medical personnel and your group,” wrote another couple.
Audrey and Molly draw strength from those comments.
Lee’s Lifeline is named after Lee Eckart, Audrey’s uncle. A logging accident in 2011 nearly ended his life and brought his entire family rushing to IU Health Methodist Hospital’s neurological critical care unit.
Lee Eckart, a logger, was cutting timber in Camp Atterbury when he was struck by a falling branch. The branch, about 6 inches around, had been caught in the limbs of other trees around him.
Lee Eckart never saw it when it came crashing from 70 feet above him and landed squarely on his skull. The impact crushed his helmet and protective visor. Investigators found the branch later. Lee Eckart’s tooth was embedded in it.
He remembers getting hit and was conscious enough to try and walk it off. After a few steps, he fell flat on his face. As he tried to lift his head off the forest floor, it became clear how injured he was.
“It sounded inside my head like a bag of crushed ice. That was when I knew I wasn’t going to walk this off,” he said.
Somehow, Lee Eckart was able to hit his radio button, alerting his supervisors that something was wrong. They found him propped up on a log. That’s the last thing he remembered for the next two weeks.
Lee Eckart was airlifted to IU Health Methodist Hospital. Calls went out to his wife, Barb, who frantically called the rest of the family.
The branch had shattered Lee Eckart’s face, leaving his lower jaw the only unbroken bone on the front of his skull. Doctors told his wife, Barb Eckart, and the rest of the family that he would never see again, if he even survived the ordeal.
Surgeons put him in a medically induced coma and performed an eight-hour operation to reconstruct his face. Lee Eckart has eight metal plates holding the front of his skull together. But he would live.
“He’s a miracle. They call it the ‘widowmaker’ when something like that happens. He shouldn’t have survived,” Barb Eckart said.
During that tenuous time, the Eckart family spent every available moment in Methodist Hospital.
Audrey remembers when they learned about the accident. In a matter of minutes, they rushed to their car, grabbing their purses and their phones. For the first night, when Lee Eckart’s condition was uncertain, they were hesitant to leave the neurological critical care unit even for a soda or bag of chips.
“When we arrived for my brother’s accident, we were doing two things — waiting hours for any sign of hope from the doctors, and we were notifying family,” said Jim Eckart, Audrey’s father and Lee’s brother. “You feel a certain sense of desperation such that you really don’t want to walk away from the waiting room for fear of missing the news you’ve been waiting hours to hear.”
Audrey also looked around the room and saw others just like them, struggling with the injuries of their loved ones. A mother and father had accepted that their son was going to die and comforted each other. An elderly woman’s husband had suffered an aneurism, and she was distraught.
She saw all this and wished she could make a small gesture to help them.
“Those first couple of days were rough. So having something to comfort them — food, some snacks, anything we thought would help,” Audrey said.
Lee’s Lifeline started taking shape during that two-week period. Audrey had been nominated earlier in the year to attend a youth conference called the Power of Children by teachers at Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School, where she was a sixth-grader. Kids from all across Indiana learned to make a difference in their communities by starting nonprofit groups.
The conference was conducted shortly after Lee Eckart’s accident. After attending, Audrey was sitting in the Methodist waiting room melding the lessons she had learned about community service with the difficulties her family was going through.
She figured a care package containing food such as pretzels, granola bars, mints and water bottles would be nice. Including a single-use toothbrush, with toothpaste already included, would also be useful for long hours in the hospital.
To help her, she recruited Molly, one of her close friends. She enthusiastically agreed to help, and Lee’s Lifeline was formed.
“I thought it was a really cool idea and a way to make a difference,” said Molly, a 14-year-old Whiteland resident.
Their first responsibility was to raise money to support the project. Working first among family and friends, then to area churches and civic organizations, the girls shared their vision for Lee’s Lifeline.
They secured donations from groups such as the Franklin Lion’s Club and Morgantown First Christian Church. At a series of garage sales sponsored by the Johnson County Extension Homemakers, they raised more than $1,000, selling old clothes, toys, furniture and anything else they could scour from their parents’ attics.
“It’s neat they started with something they had experience with. They had an incentive and a desire. She had empathy to the people in that unit because we’ve all been there, and she knows what it’s like to be on that side,” Barb Eckart said.
Audrey and Molly also had to get clearance with the leadership at the neurological critical care unit at Methodist. Brower wholeheartedly gave her approval to the project. She even helped line up volunteers to pass out the bags every day to the families.
They spend 30 to 45 minutes to put together a shipment of 120 bags. Audrey and Molly have set up an assembly line in the Eckart’s basement and keep their supplies in the house.
They take a shipment to Methodist every five or six weeks. Their appearance has made them minor celebrities in the critical care unit. Families who have received the bags seek them out to thank them. Many are grateful for the toothbrushes, and one woman came up recently to say the Bible they provided is still in their room, Molly said.
“We were up there today, and one lady called out, ‘The little blue bag ladies are here,’” Audrey said.
The girls plan on continuing their services at Methodist for the foreseeable future. They have more fundraisers planned, including garage sales and presentations. Donations are also accepted on their website.
Audrey and Molly also are investigating taking the program to other hospitals in Indianapolis, such as Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
“They’ve gotten to the point where they can talk to anybody. It’s been a neat process to see,” said Bryn Eckart, Audrey’s mother.
Despite his injuries, Lee Eckart proved to have a miraculous recovery. He spent two weeks at Methodist, and another two at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. Intensive physical and occupational therapies, as well as reconstructive surgeries, went on for months. But by May, he was back at his job logging. He even walked the 500 Festival Mini Marathon that same year.
He has been impressed by the drive his niece and her friend have shown in putting together Lee’s Lifeline. He’s an enthusiastic supporter, and even though a tragedy was the impetus behind it forming, he’s happy to have his name attached to it.
“It’s very thoughtful of them. To think beyond themselves, it’s pretty rare for people their age. It’s not all about them. They’re thinking about someone else,” Lee Eckart said.