Prayers for life after death answered for Waxahachie mom

Nine months after 21-year-old Korinna Mendez lay lifeless on her bedroom floor from cardiac arrest, she gathered with friends, family, church members and rehab workers in the lobby of Renfro Healthcare Center in Waxahachie. That was April 15.

They were there to celebrate a success that few believed would happen. Korinna was going home. While Korinna is still confined to a wheelchair, and with a long rehabilitation period ahead, her mother Maria Mendez, a Waxahachie resident, talked openly about the day that changed her family’s life, what it meant to never give up hope, and the importance of always having faith, almost a month after bringing her daughter home.

“Who dies for 20 minutes, goes to heaven, sees the Lord, then comes back?” asked Maria rhetorically. “God has great things planned for Korinna. I have faith in that.”

Faith — Maria’s pastor John Bates explained it this way.

“There’s a scripture that I teach over and over,” said Bates. “I can think of no other verse that speaks to this family’s journey than this. It’s Hebrews 11:1. ‘ Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’”

In the summer of 2015, Maria, a single mother to two daughters, was working late at home when her world was shaken. Having recently graduated with a master’s degree in counseling, she was wrapping up a week of teaching summer school at Red Oak ISD and studying to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Maria is a second grade teacher at H.A. Wooden Elementary School in Red Oak.

Tomorrow would have begun the Fourth of July weekend, and everyone was excited for the break.

“I had finally made it to bed, and went to sleep. I can remember being in bed and hearing a noise. I can’t remember if I fell back to sleep, but I heard the noise again, and it was coming from Korinna’s bedroom” said Maria. “I ran to her room, opened her door, and I can remember opening it and she was fighting to breathe.”

Screaming for her youngest daughter Yvette to call 911, she cradled Korinna’s head against her chest. With the 911 operator on the phone, Maria started chest compressions. She didn’t know it at the time, but her daughter’s heart had stopped, and that was something hard for any mother to wrap her mind around.

The rest of the night was a blur. Just vignettes. Just slices of time.

“The paramedics arrived and started giving her CPR. I got out of the way, and was frantically pacing the room, the hall, anywhere I could be out of the way but keep Korinna in my sight,” said Maria. “I can remember walking past the heart monitor laying on the floor, and it was flat-lined. No blips. Nothing. She was gone. I found Yvetta and told her we needed to pray.”

Paramedics asked about Korinna’s possible use of prescription drugs, illegal drugs — anything that could have caused her heart to stop beating.

But there were none.

Just as paramedics radioed in ‘negative on drugs,’ and after 20 minutes without a heartbeat, first responders finally got a faint heartbeat. They rushed Korinna to Baylor Scott & White Medical Center — Waxahachie.

“I went back into the bedroom, and it was devastating,” said Maria. “There were needles and packages of IV fluid littered everywhere across the floor. It looked like they had performed surgery right there on the floor.”

As Maria and 16-year-old Yvette raced out of the house to follow the ambulance, a small neighborhood girl met them in Maria’s front yard and offered three words that would stay with them for the next nine months.

“God’s got her.”

Maria’s journey of faith began years earlier. A member of the Freedom Fellowship International Church in Waxahachie, a weeklong revival was just wrapping up, and despite her devout belief in her faith, she looked for assurance that God was listening.

“I was raised in the church all of my life. I could see things happening around me. See things happening for other people, but I wondered if God was hearing me. Show me,” Maria pleaded. “Give me a sign. Let me know you’re listening.”

Oddly, one day before Korinna’s cardiac arrest, Bates told Korinna to get ready, that God was about to show the young woman her true identity. At the same time, he told Maria she needed to trust God.

Maria’s sign had come, now her faith would be tested.

“My church family was already at the hospital, and as the family waited in ICU, the doctors came out and said they were unable to find any reason at all that would have caused such a massive cardiac arrest,” said Maria. “No drugs. No outstanding medical conditions. Nothing. I can remember looking at a brain scan with the doctors, and in the corner of the scan were two words — ‘brain dead.’”

Doctors offered little hope that she would recover, saying things like “Right now, the only thing keeping her alive is the life support systems” or “There’s nothing else we can do.” Surrounded by her church family, the words her pastor told her just a day earlier began to make sense.

“God was telling me to trust him,” said Maria. “He had given me that sign.”

And by the time Bates made it to the hospital, the lobby was filling with Maria’s church family.

“The prognosis was horrible,” said Bates. “During the one week stay in Waxahachie, and after being transferred to Baylor in Dallas, it did not look good.”

Bates noted that while Maria had seen God’s work in others at the church, she had never really experienced it in her own life.

“While at Baylor in Dallas, three doctors from palliative care called her aside, and Maria, as a single mom, asked me to come with her,” said Bates. “The doctors were never mean. They were simply matter-of-fact. They talked about Korinna in the past tense. They wanted to know what she liked, and then told us that the best thing would be to take her off of life support and ferret out her organs.”

Bates was quick in his response.

“You’re not taking a fingernail from her,” said Bates. “Her brain is going to function again. She’s going to get out of that bed and she’s going to come home.”

Bates explained to Maria and the doctors that that’s the way faith works. During the coming months, the church family prayed over Korinna on a daily basis.

“We tried to have somebody from the church with Korinna and Maria every day,” said Bates. “And to be honest, Korinna’s sickness strengthened our church. We had special prayer meetings and while we are happy with where she was at, that she was alive, we know that God’s work is not complete, and we accept that on faith.”

There was that word again. The one word that Maria had questioned weeks ago was slowly becoming the word that would empower her to be an advocate for her daughter’s recovery.

Faith.

“As the weeks went on, the doctors would give us updates on Korinna, and Maria would just look at them and smile,” said Bates. “Finally, the doctors turned and asked for a translator. They just did not think that Maria was understanding the facts that they were telling her. She would look at them and tell them, ‘I understand exactly what you’re saying, but that’s not the way it’s going to happen.’”

Four months later, and with minimal improvements, Korinna was moved to the Renfro Healthcare Center in Waxahachie for physical therapy. Maria’s faith began to grow stronger as her daughter slowly improved.

Regina Henderson, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at Renfro Healthcare talked about the first time she saw Korinna.

“When she first came here, she was completely bedridden,” said Henderson. “She couldn’t speak, and was essentially immobile. You could tell that she was scared.”

Adrian Cleveland, one of the CNA’s who worked with Korinna during her rehabilitation, said that once she started, her improvement was a miracle.

“She essentially went from someone who couldn’t move at all to a point where she could push herself up. She could talk and we were beginning to understand what she was saying,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland talked about the emotions of seeing Korinna’s improvement.

“To know where she was when she first arrived, and to see her today, you would think it was two different people,” said Cleveland. “Just to be a part of that is a miracle. It just makes my heart sing.”

Henderson talked about Maria’s faith and strength during her daughter’s recovery.

“Korinna’s mother was tough. When I saw her coming, I would just think, ‘Oh no,’” laughed Henderson. “But as Maria saw Korinna’s improvement, it was like her faith took over and she knew everything was going to be OK.”

But how? How did she know everything would be OK? About five months into Korinna’s illness, Bates and an assistant pastor approached Maria. They said, “Maria, it seems like you’re angry with God.”

“I kept going to church, and it was tough because Korinna was at Baylor hospital in Dallas,” said Maria. “But I kept listening. I wanted more because I knew God had promised me.”

Raised in the church, Maria was there every Sunday, but her motivation was lacking, she said.

“I think Pastor John would tell you, ‘Maria would be the last to get to church and the first to leave,’” said Maria. “But in all honesty, I never questioned God because I asked him to show me. I never questioned the ‘Why,’ because I knew he was going to see me through this.”

And as she looks back at the past year, she knows just how true that statement has become.

“She’s already told me what she saw,” said Maria about those 20 minutes where her daughter’s heart stopped.

“Where did you go when you left?” Maria said as she turned to her daughter.

“Heaven. I went to his kingdom of love,” Korinna said.

“Korinna felt somewhat rejected because both her biological father and my ex-husband left,” Maria continued. “You can tell that she’s been hurt and feels rejected. So when she says she went to the Kingdom of Love, what she really needed in her life was a father’s love. I will often ask her who her father is, and she will say, ‘God.’”

“I asked her what she saw. She said she saw angles. I asked her if she saw God? Was he black or white or Hispanic? She said he was white.

“I had a picture of Jesus on my phone that someone sent me,” said Maria. “I asked her if he looked like this, and she started crying and said yes. If I show her this picture, she’ll immediately start crying.”

Why? It’s simple.

Faith.