On February 28, 2008, doctors performed a C-section, working with 80 percent of Macie's body outside the womb while her head and upper body remained inside and blood continued to flow from her placenta. Keri McCartney remembers nothing of the procedure; she told me she was given seven times the normal dose of anesthesia so that her uterus would stay completely at ease during the surgery.
"I just saw her little foot, her little leg," Keri McCartney says. "To see the size of the tumor next to her little leg just broke my heart."
In the days following the surgery, Keri McCartney had a short conversation with her husband, Chad. "The first thing I asked was, 'Is Macie alive?' He said, 'Yeah, she made it.' I said, 'Did they get out the tumor?' He said, 'Yeah, they got the tumor.'"
Macie stayed in her mother's womb for another 10 weeks before being born again on May 7, 2008, this time tumor-free. Three years later, a six-inch scar runs down her tailbone and over her bottom, stitched up from recent plastic surgery. Two drains hang from her side, serving as pouches for any fluid resulting from the procedure. She may not be able to sit normally for a while, but last week's plastic surgery was the final scheduled operation for Macie McCartney. The three-year-old tells doctors and her parents that she wants to have a butt that looks like her sister Mya's.
Today, the little girl is playing with farm animal toys -- rabbits, cows, zebras, chickens, anything but snakes -- in her aqua-blue Disney fairies T-shirt and purple-sequined headband. She is minutes away from being discharged from Texas Children's Hospital for what will likely be the final time. Upon hearing this news, I offer her a high-five. She doesn't reciprocate, although she does smile, still not quite sure what to think of me.
Her mother reflects on Macie's upcoming release. "I think you're just reminded about what's important in life and how blessed we really are and have been," she says. "We don't have all the Christmas preparations ready by any means, but we're just so thankful that we can have hope."
Meanwhile, Macie still believes in "him."
"Oh my gosh, you'd better get ready," Keri McCartney tells her youngest daughter. "Is that Santa?"
I can hear my father's bells jingling down the hall of the 11th floor. Macie McCartney's ears perk up at the sound of "Ho! Ho! Ho!" He is a few doors away, but she smiles, continuing to paint her Christmas tree, looking out the glass window of the play center. Then, just as he has done for the past 34 years, he barrels in, banging the sleigh bells on his belt, wishing anyone within a few feet of him a Merry Christmas. Macie jumps up, her tubes still sticking out from underneath her shirt. The expression on her face -- bright, curious, infinitely happy -- was the one I had as a kid whenever the Santa with the familiar-sounding voice came back into my life right before every Christmas.
My father showers Macie with gifts. She smiles, still curious about the man in the red suit. In exchange, she gives him the Christmas tree painting, which includes just about every color except red. She signs her initials at the top.
"Santa loves you," he tells her, hugging her. She gives him a high-five, and I accept the fact that a three-year-old will more readily give a high-five to Santa than to some reporter in a sports blazer. Minutes later, the mother and daughter are discharged from the hospital. Their family's Christmas present has arrived a couple of days early.
Macie McCartney believes in Santa Claus. And if she does -- well, I do, too.
"So how did that go?" my father asks me later, wanting to hear about my reporting. "Did it go well?"
"Yes, it did," I tell him. "Thank you, Santa."
Image: Allen Kramer/Texas Children's Hospital.