Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Reese Wagner drowned but miraculously lived, and now he's playing on a baseball scholarship

BARTLETT, Tenn. — There was more than one miracle on ice.

“If you think the Miracle on Ice happened in 1980 with the Olympics (when the U.S. men’s hockey team shocked Russia), that ain’t the miracle on ice, this was,” Nick Huber says.

Huber was the baseball coach of the Arlington (Tenn.) Tigers in 2010, a competitive team for 10-year-olds that played in United Specialty Sports Association tournaments. Reese Wagner was on his team.

On January 7 of that year, school was out at Bon Lin Elementary School, where Reese was a fourth grader. A rare snowstorm had hit the Memphis area. Reese and three friends — Quinn Garner, Landon Hammons and Nathan Ellington — went into the woods behind their home in Bartlett, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. They came upon a frozen retention pond.

“We thought it was safe,” said Reese, who spotted a football on the water.

Walking onto the frozen water to retrieve it, Reese, Quinn and Nathan fell in. Able to propel himself from the bottom of the 8-to-10-feet deep water, Quinn pushed Nathan to the edge. Quinn raced home to call 9-1-1 and summoned his grandfather, who ran to the pond, taking a pole to fish Reese out.

“That is about all I remember,” Reese says.

The boys watched as Reese tread water for 15 minutes. His head kept bobbing back and forth — until he did not resurface. He was under water for 20 minutes.

Reese drowned.

Bartlett Fire Department first responders were quick to arrive, and a 6-foot-5 fireman tied a rope around himself and tried to rescue Reese. But he was shortly pulled out because of hyperthermia. A boat was found in a backyard, a fireman grabbed it, slid it down the hill, but it began taking on water because of a hole that had not been plugged. Poles were not long enough to reach the bottom of the pond.

When Reese’s mother, Tracey Wagner,  learned of the accident, she went to the pond and saw a hole in it.

“His hat was floating in the hole and I was just thinking, ‘This isn’t real.’ I was just in disbelief. I kept saying, ‘This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening,'” Tracey said.

Finally, Bartlett Police Department detective David Jones found him.

“I remember hearing him say, ‘I got him.’ I tried to go over there but they wouldn’t let me,” Tracey said.

There was no heartbeat when Reese was pulled unresponsive from the water, but there was brain activity.

“I suspect his heart stopped soon after he was submerged and his body rapidly cooled,” said Dr. Stephanie Storgion, a pediatric intensivist at LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. She is trained to care for the most critically ill children from neonates to 18-year-olds.

“When I arrived in the emergency department, the pediatric emergency medicine doctors and the entire team was continuing to resuscitate Reese,” Storgion said. “He had a breathing tube in his mouth and was on a ventilator which was breathing for him. He had a heart rate and a blood pressure, but still very cold and not responsive to any stimulation.

“Ice could could have cooled his brain and protected it. His lungs were very sick and we were having great difficulty in getting oxygen to this lungs … Had the water not had ice on it, his bran would likely have suffered extensive damage, even resulting in his death.”

Reese Wagner (Photo courtesy of Aaron Wagner)

Reese’s father, Aaron Wagner, a Naval commander who worked in manpower and personnel at Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tenn., got a call from a neighbor who said Reese had drowned.

Driving through Memphis streets at 80 mph, Aaron reached the hospital quickly.

“The first time I saw him in the ER he was unresponsive. His eyes were open. His mouth was open. I thought he was dead, just that look. It is hard not to envision it sometimes. The father in me, I wasn’t there to be able to protect him,” he said.

LeBonheur staff called a Boston hospital to learn protocol for cold water drownings.

One of Reese’s teammates, Hunter Goodman, got a call from Coach Huber telling him that Reese had been in a really bad accident and needed prayer.

“It was scary. We didn’t know what was happening,” Goodman said. “You couldn’t go see him or anything because he was unconscious for awhile and he was in really critical condition. I prayed that God would do whatever He could and help him in whatever way He could. None of us wanted to lose him.”

While Reese’s heartbeat became stronger and his blood pressure stabilized, his lungs were a different story.

“We did not know if he would survive, and if he did, we did not know what his chances were for neurologic recovery,” Storgion said.

Doctors decided to use a technique called Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation, a long-term heart-lung bypass to get oxygen into his lungs. ECMO removes blood and artificially removes the carbon dioxide and oxygenates red blood cells. The average amount of time that someone would be on it is six weeks.

Aaron’s biggest concern was that his son would be in a vegetated state.

“I wanted him to live and come out healthy. I wanted a quick and full recovery,” Aaron said.

Said Tracey, “I just wanted my boy to live. When I saw that his brain was working and saw the ventilator, I knew I was going to have him back. I knew at this point he would live. I didn’t know what extent of the damage he was going to have to his brain. I thought I am going to teach him how to walk, talk, use the bathroom.”

While on the machine, lung function and chest X-rays showed improvement.

“A few days later we were able to get him off the breathing machine. He was awake and talking to his family. A miracle,” Storgion said.

“The hospital could not believe how quickly he healed. They called him the Miracle Boy,” Tracey said.

Reese’s 12-member baseball team, along with 24 parents and grandparents, visited him at LeBonheur. Each player signed a baseball and put it in his bed. They wore Arlington Tigers T-shirts with his number 25 under their uniforms.

“I was so humbled by it all,” Tracey said. “I thought, ‘Who are we to have this outpouring of love and support?’ When it first happened people would recognize us to say, ‘We prayed for you.’ [Reese] would of course thank them and he would hug them. He was very appreciative and he understood.”

Three weeks after the accident, Reese walked out of the hospital.

For about a month afterward, Reese would cry in his room. When his mother asked what was wrong, he replied, “I almost died.”

“He got it. He knew how close he came and he was very appreciative of life,” Tracey said.

While it took time to get hand, eye and brain coordination, Reese has no long-term side effects. Two weeks after Reese went home, he and Aaron went to the Bartlett Police Department.

“I know your voice,” Reese said upon meeting Detective Jones. While he didn’t remember anything else, he remembered the voice calling to him on the ice.

***

On June 20, 2018, Reese turned 19. Continuing to play baseball, he finished his senior year for Bartlett High School in May. He has accepted a scholarship to play college baseball at Mississippi University for Women, a co-ed school reviving its baseball program in Columbus, Miss.

In his final high school season, Reese batted a team-leading .396, had an on-base percentage of .482 with 17 RBI, 21 runs scored, seven stolen bases with a stolen base percentage of .778, and fielding percentage of .894. He was nominated All-State in Class AAA.

Josh Stewart, the Bartlett High baseball coach, said of Reese’s survival, “It’s nothing short of a miracle. God wasn’t finished with Reese here on earth. He obviously has much bigger plans for the young man.”

The accident helped Reese further understand that God loves him.

“It was God. It was a miracle,” Reese said. “He was watching over me that day and He has something special planned for me in the future, to keep me alive. He could have let me die that day but He was on my side. God put me on this earth for a reason. I know that more now because He could not have saved me, but He did.

“I worship life a little better now. I know that God is on my side and I never quit, even during the recovery time. When I would have trouble writing, I would get mad at myself but I would just keep practicing until I actually got it.”

Hunter, who was an all-state catcher this season at Arlington High School, said, “I think the only reason he is still here is because God helped him through it. I don’t think anything else could have done it except God, so I think faith in God and all the prayers helped and saved his life.”

One of Tracey’s friends, Alisa Barnard, who is a Christian, told Tracey that she dreamed Jesus was underneath the water with Reese.

When Reese wakes up in his room, he reads the Bible verse Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous for your God is with you wherever you may go.”

“If I am down or in a predicament in life, I know that He is always with me and He can help me through it,” said Reese, who attends New Hope Christian Church in Bartlett.

Psalm 18:16-19 is also of comfort to Reese:

“He reached down from on high and took hold of me. He drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

Jesus means “everything,” Reese says.

“The Bible says, ‘Do all things unto the Lord.’ I think this is Reese,” Coach Stewart says. “I think you see Reese’s faith in everything he does. It’s exactly why he gives the effort he does and the type of teammate and young man that he is. He is a great kid. If you think of an attribute of a Godly young man, I would say it’s an attribute of Reese as well.”

A member of the Greek Orthodox Christian Church, Storgion believes that God uses doctors, nurses and other members of the medical field to help in patient healing.

“I believe that sometimes our patients are healed on this side of Heaven while others are healed in Heaven,” she said. “Reese’s family prayed for him, as did I and many of my colleagues. I believe Christ heard those prayers. In the ICU, we do see miracles and I truly believe Reese was a miracle.

“He went back to school and he went back to baseball. What a miracle to have taken care of him as a little boy who had drowned in icy water, and now to see this young man moving forward with a scholarship to play baseball. I hope to be at his graduation, see him play baseball for the Owls and maybe one day see him in the major leagues. He is a wonderful young man.”

Reese began playing baseball when he was 5.

“This is home. I have been around the game so long I have gotten to know the game so much more through my life. I eat and sleep baseball,” he says.

He has excellent speed (4.15 seconds from home to first base). He batted first in the order in 2017 and finished with a .320 batting average.

“He can do it all. He is a great defensive outfielder,” Stewart says. “His speed, combined with the fact that he gets great jumps on balls in the gaps, meaning many balls hit in the outfield he gets and others don’t. He can hit. He can run. He can play small ball and run the bases. That makes him dangerous to opposing teams. He works extremely hard and gives everything he has every day. He never complains. He never makes excuses, and most of all, he is a coach’s player and a great teammate and friend.”

On the first anniversary of Reese’s accident, his family threw a party. Every year on January 7, they go to dinner.

Tim Tebow has given him an autographed football. The New York Yankees gave him baseballs. And Jason Motte, a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Reese’s favorite team, gave him two autographed baseballs.

Before Christmas in 2015, Tracey was diagnosed with cancer. She waited until after the holidays to tell her children.

“I remember Reese’s exact words: ‘Mom, if God can heal me, he can heal you,'” she said. Indeed, she is now cancer free.

Through his ordeal, Reese learned “to always stay strong and never quit fighting.”

Seeing his spirit, Stewart said, “He’s not only the type of kid you like to coach, he’s the type of young man you hope your own kid grows up to be like.”

Editor’s note: A longer version of this story appeared in The Bartlett (Tenn.) Express earlier this year.

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