On February 29, 2016, Kristal Carlson’s worst nightmare became a reality when her 2-year-old daughter, Eden, fell into the family’s backyard pool while she was in the other room.
“Panic set it when I saw her in the pool, floating face down,” Kristal, 40, tells PEOPLE. “I pulled her out, but she was cold. I was desperate to revive her, so I started CPR and continued until the ambulance arrived.”
Kristal and her husband, Chris Carlson, 44, of Fayetteville, Arkansas, were told that their daughter might not make it — and if she did, she would have severe brain damage.
But Eden, now 3 years old, not only survived — she’s now thriving thanks to an experimental treatment called hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
“It’s a miracle,” says Kristal. “It’s like a mix of God and science.”
In the hours after Eden’s near-fatal drowning, Kristal and Chris— also parents to India, 21, August, 19, Canyon, 16, and Roman, 14 — watched as “20 hospital staff” at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock tried to resuscitate her.
“She was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, but her organs were failing,” says Kristal. “But little by little she improved, and she was on a ventilator for nine days.”
By the time Eden came off sedation medicines, it was obvious to her parents that she had severe brain injury.
“She was not responsive, and her body was stiff,” explains Kristal. “She couldn’t move and we were told she would be in a vegetative state, possibly forever.”
Eden suffered an anoxic brain injury due to lack of oxygen to her brain after she fell in the water.
“We were told there was nothing to be done, medically, for her and they began talking to us about longterm care with a wheelchair and feeding tubes,” says Kristal. “But we just couldn’t accept that.”
The parents began doing research and stumbled upon a treatment called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a well-established treatment for decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The therapy, also used to treat serious infections and wounds, involves taking in pure oxygen in a pressurized room or through a tube.
“We thought in our heart of hearts, that our little girl could recover,” says Kristal. “And we were right. “
About five weeks after the accident, Eden’s parents sought advice from Dr. Paul Harch of Hyperbaric Medicine at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, who suggested the parents administer oxygen to her through a nose-tube for 45 minutes, twice a day.
“Within hours, her parents saw a clear change in her movements and awareness,” Dr. Harch tells PEOPLE. “By the following morning, she could stare for a short period of time and had gaze preference.”
And three weeks after that, Eden and her family traveled to New Orleans, so she could start hyperbaric oxygen therapy — where she sat in a pressurized chamber for 45 minutes, five days a week.
“After a couple of sessions, she could speak in small sentences and her vocabulary grew,” says Kristal. “Then she started holding her head up and could sit up on her own and by the last few sessions, she was taking her first shaky steps.”
Eden was a “spunky, sassy” toddler before her accident — and her parents are ecstatic that her big personality is coming back.
“She is almost 100 percent recovered,” says Kristal. “It’s miraculous, we are so inspired by this whole process.”
Eden, who is still working on building up her core body strength, uses a walker to get around. She’ll undergo around 50 more short-burst treatments with Dr. Harch — but her parents are hopeful for a full recovery.
“She’s on track cognitively and physically for kids her age,” says Kristal. “We hope her story inspires parents to never give up hope, even if doctors are telling you no. Keep fighting for your kid.”