By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The community came to know Ella Cain for the January house fire and the critical burns that nearly took her life.
The staff at St. John's Hospital in Springfield also knew the story of the fire and the injuries that laced the little girl's body, but they also knew the girl. They knew that "The Hot Dog Song" calmed her before her bandages needed changing. They knew all her favorite characters from Minnie Mouse to Dora the Explorer, her dazzling blue eyes and her spirit.
That spirit won her St. John's Hospital's 2012 Saints Inspired Award. The fire survivor, now 2 years old, was celebrated along with the adult patient of the year, Jackie Aper, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield on Thursday night.
Peggy Curtin, president of St. John's Children's Hospital, said Ella emulated the kind of spirit that motivates the hospital staff to work in the medical field.
"We have this wonderful 2-plus-year-old angel who kind of serves as our little inspiration," Curtin said. "That's what keeps us going. She's our hero."
Ella's short life has been full of heroes. When the fire began in her home, her older brother, Grady, struggled to pull her from the crib. When his attempts failed, he alerted his mother, Sarah Ginster, who with other family members also struggled to reach the baby.
Quincy firefighters Justin Twaddle and Eric Becks eventually retrieved the little girl from the burning bedroom. Twaddle gave Ella two quick rescue breaths, but with Ella's never waning spirit, she'd already begun breathing on her own. So many fought to keep Ella alive, and that passion continued as she arrived at the hospital.
Lauri Mueller, a registered nurse who cared for Ella her first three nights in the hospital, and her co-workers saw a fight in Ella. Curtin explained drive like that ignites a sense of passion in the staff, which advances the quality of care in the hospital as a whole.
"It's what inspires us to deliver that care, and it's really how patients battle whatever brings them to the hospital," Curtin said.
The little fire in Ella burned brighter than the flames that almost took her life. As Ella gripped onto this world in what Mueller described as a touch-and-go manner, the staff rallied around the baby.
"Everyone came together to save that little girl's life," Mueller said. "If you didn't believe in miracles (before this), you should now."
The staff's love for Ella continued even after she left the hospital in July. The nurses and doctors watched via Facebook as Ella's family's new home came together. They answered Sarah's reasonably frantic phone calls when something just didn't seem right.
While Sarah imagined the staff would always remember Ella, the award surprised her. It's been nearly a year since the fire, and the staff at St. John's Children's Hospital has cared for several other children since then.
"We know that they didn't forget about us, but there's been so many other kids since us," Sarah said.
Just as the staff hasn't forgotten, Ella's family won't forget the staff. With three daytime nurses and three nighttime nurses, Ella had the hearts and the attention of the St. John's staff. At the award ceremony on Thursday, Mueller delivered a moving speech about Ella's fight for survival. She hopes everyone at the celebration will hear her version of Ella's story and recognize that the little bundle who blew kisses at Mueller from the hospital bed, truly is a miracle.
"It makes you appreciate life," Mueller said. "It makes you appreciate your job, because you're doing something and making a difference."
She was there during Ella's first night in the hospital, and she cared for her each night for a month and a half. Sarah recalled that Mueller used to sing "The Ants Go Marching In" while giving Ella her medicine.
"She used to make up little verses to keep her distracted," Sarah said.
Mueller admits she didn't know all the words. "The Ants Go Marching In" was the first children song that came to mind as she tried to soothe her patient.
"I remember thinking, I hope she pulls through," Mueller said.
Even today, Mueller still revels in learning of Ella's progress. The survivor has missed several milestones developmentally, but she's scurrying to catch up. Mueller and her co-workers are grateful that Ella's family has been so open with her progress.
"That's the best gift of all, to see how great she's doing," Mueller said. "That she's smiling, she's laughing, she's walking."
While Ella is St. John's Hospital's patient of the year, for Mueller and the staff that knew Ella well, she's the patient of a lifetime.
A lifetime they helped save.