These toys are not just mere dolls, cars, puzzle, or games. These toys are the calm to their storm. The soothing remedy to relieve some of their pain. These toys are their hall pass to being ordinary kids again. They are Santa’s Workshop, relieving the burden of Christmas shopping for the patients’ families. They are a playroom where patients get to escape their hospital beds to play and pretend. These toys are a “happy for every owie” when they must endure some type of treatment that is uncomfortable to help them heal. These toys are a part of a children’s journey. A part of their story.

Shae is our “why” as we collect toys during this holiday season. Our friends at Studer Family Children’s shared Shae’s story with us, and we’d like to share it with you.

Shae Burleson is a happy 9-year-old girl. She loves fishing, the beach and going to the fair. She lights up the room when she walks in. (And not just because of her shiny pink shoes that sparkle with every step.)

You’d never know that a year ago, she spent 118 days in The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart.

“It’s still hard,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve ever told the whole story.”

On September 23, 2016, Shae was in a terrible car accident while heading home from school. In the ambulance, paramedics told her to try to stay awake. The last thing she remembers is being wheeled into the hospital.

Twenty-three days later, Shae woke up, ‘connected to a bunch of stuff.’

Over the next four months, her doctors, nurses and volunteers became like family. Shae would spend Halloween and Thanksgiving in the hospital, undergoing a total of 8 surgeries to repair the extensive damage caused by the accident.

“I had a feeding tube, an ostomy, and tracheostomy … it was such a relief to have all that gone,” Shae says. “Now, I just have my scars.”

And a wonderful outlook on life.

With a smile, Shae says the best thing about being in the hospital was all the attention. “I used to play with my nurses,” she says. “I’d ring the bell, but I didn’t really need anything.”

She got everything she needed and more during her stay – which included two months in the PICU.

Shae says what she’s been through makes her cry. But it also makes her feel strong and brave. She wants to take care of babies when she grows up, because she figures she ‘pretty much learned everything’ she needs to know during her time in the hospital.

Shae’s aunt, Sharon, who works at Sacred Heart as a respiratory therapist, was by her side through it all.

“These doctors and nurses really affect these kids’ lives,” Sharon says. “Coming from a tough background, she wants to grow up and take care of babies because of what she’s seen.”

Sharon admits she, too, has changed because of what she witnessed.

“Seeing the other side, I was amazed,” she says. “You already know the people you work with and how skilled they are. But when you see all the extra things they do that they don’t have to do, it’s just incredible.”

Extra things like braiding Shae’s hair and painting her fingernails during recovery from another surgery, making a little girl feel beautiful when she’s learning how to change her own dressings or throwing up for the fifth time that day.

“It made a difference because I knew that was above and beyond what they had to do. I saw the extra,” Sharon says. “Any nurse can come and give medicine or take vitals. You can tell they do it because they love what they do. It gave me a lot more pride to know I’m a part of that.”

Shae’s Dad and Aunt Sharon took turns at her bedside, where she had a team of doctors and nurses checking on her all the time. She grew especially fond of Dr. Weidner, who ‘put her back together.’

“I’m very thankful that they saved me,” Shae says. “And I love all of them. I love all of them. I’m just living a regular life now.”

From physical therapy to wound care, Shae was never alone. When she began to feel better, her teachers and classmates would bring her schoolwork. Even her principal came to read books to her.

But there’s one visitor who stands out in her mind. ‘Bob the Paramedic’ gave Shae little prizes every day. When she was finally able to leave the floor, he wheeled her down to Wendy’s.

“I just want to walk with him and talk with him,” Shae says. “I miss him.”

One day, Shae’s cousin came to visit. They went outside to draw with sidewalk chalk. Shae wrote her name, as big as she could. After all this time – through rainstorms and sunshine – her name is still there.

“I think the hospital liked me, so it just won’t let me go,” she laughs.

How did this little ray of sunshine keep her spirits through the storm? She says it was the support she received from the hospital, family and friends.

The power of prayer also gave her hope, according to her aunt.

“We baptized her right there in the hospital,” Sharon shares. “We had prayer groups going like you wouldn’t believe.”

Birthday wishes, too. For his birthday, Shae’s dad said the only thing he wanted was for her to live. He told her she would be his gift every year. Today, the family has another gift to celebrate – a baby sister.

Right before the holidays last year, Shae had another surgery before going home. She was wheeled straight from recovery to outside, where she watched Santa arrive by helicopter. She also attended the lighting of the big Christmas tree.

Santa asked Shae what she wanted. And when she was finally able to go home, she got it – not one, but two American Girl dolls from her friends at Sacred Heart. Room 350, where Shae had spent so many nights, was filled with balloons and stuffed animals.

But there were a few things she was happy to leave behind. Shae graciously donated her wheelchair, walker and all her supplies to the Studer Family Children’s Hospital.

Just like her name still in chalk on the sidewalk, Shae has left her mark in our hearts.

You can help! All Pen Air locations are collecting new, unwrapped toy donations Nov. 1 – Dec. 1, or you can stop by our drive event Dec. 1 from 10 am – 2 pm at Walmart on Creighton Road. You can find out more details and check out the wish list here.