THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Littlest victim makes big gains
By Jackie R. Broach
Zyair Smalls lets out a happy squeal, then giggles as he sits in the middle of a blanket on the living room floor.
He appears to be enjoying his first home visit with a physical therapist, something that will now become a weekly event.
She lifts him up and plants a kiss on his round cheek, making him giggle again as a wide grin comes onto his face, flashing four new front teeth. It’s clear he’s won her heart in under an hour.
“He just moved from a sitting position to quadruped all by himself,” the therapist announces proudly.
Zyair’s grandmother, Roz Geathers, turns from her seat in the kitchen and rises with a happy gasp and a whoop.
“Go! It’s your birthday,” she sings, doing a little celebratory dance on her way over to him. “I’ve got to go and give him a kiss.”
She lifts him into her arms and he immediately latches on, focusing big brown eyes on her face.
Looking at Zyair, now 14 months old, it’s hard to imagine that less than three months ago doctors were doubtful he would live, and were predicting that even if he did, he’d have brain damage, preventing him from having a normal life.
“The outlook was very grim,” Geathers said. “They didn’t give him much of a chance.”
Zyair spent 52 days at the Medical University of South Carolina after nearly drowning in the Feb. 18 boat accident that killed his mother, Shaquatia Robinson, 19, his maternal grandmother, Lou Ann Robinson, and a cousin, Rishard Pyatt, 18.
Two others survived.
The group was headed to Sandy Island at around 9 p.m. when their boat capsized during a storm. Zyair was found floating face down in the water near one of the seats from the boat, according to Charles Pyatt, the Sandy Island resident who pulled Zyair out of the river and began CPR. The sight of the seat floating in the water was what drew Pyatt’s eye as he searched for survivors, and is likely the only reason the baby was saved, he said.
After the accident, Zyair’s recovery was slow. He couldn’t see or hear early in his hospital stay and has had to relearn all of his motor skills. When Geathers and her husband, Isiah, brought him back to their home just outside Georgetown, Zyair couldn’t sit up on his own.
“He was just so dormant,” Geathers said. “His progress was in teeny, tiny steps. Every little accomplishment is a big deal.”
She recalls the day they realized his hearing was returning when a family friend brought in a stuffed animal that played music. When it was turned on, he started tracking the sound.
On March 10, his first birthday, he regained his sight.
“Now, he’s just a handful,” Geathers said, petting her grandson’s head as he tries to get his tiny hands on her glasses, the lanyard around her neck and anything else he can reach.
“He says ‘da-da’ and gets ahold of his crib and shakes it. It won’t be long before we have to take him out of that. He can sit up on his own again. And he loves to listen to music. I don’t recall if he did before his accident, but now when you get him in the car and the radio is going, he’s like ‘ahhh’ and he’ll just smile and clap.”
Geathers said Zyair has almost progressed back to the point of development he was at before the accident.
“The only thing he’s really not doing that he was before is walking,” she said. But she expects that’s just around the corner.
Though Zyair is eating on his own and has a healthy appetite, he’s still on a feeding tube. Doctors told her they expect him to have that for another five months to a year, but Geathers’ estimate is 90 days.
“He’s doing just that good,” she said. “He’s every bit of the word ‘miracle.’ ”
Though Geathers was fearful during those early weeks when she sat by her grandson in the hospital, she said she’s not really surprised by his remarkable recovery.
“His mom was headstrong and so is his dad, so he’s got a double dose of it,” Geathers said. “It would take a little more than the capsizing of a boat to stop that little booger.”
She believes it was his mother’s determination that helped Zyair last until help could arrive, she said. No one will ever know exactly what happened that night, but Geathers’ theory is that Shaquatia tried to save her son and that’s why she didn’t make it to safety herself.
“She loved him and I honestly believe she drowned because she was looking for him and her mother. Because [Shaquatia] could swim.”
Though Shaquatia is gone, she’s still influencing the lives of the people she loved. Zyair’s father, Geathers’ only son, Joshua, 21, is in the Marine Corps, stationed at Camp Lejueune, and will soon be deployed overseas.
After the death of his fiancée, he considered leaving the Marines to raise Zyair, but Geathers convinced him Shaquatia would have wanted him to remain in the military. He thought about it, Geathers said, and decided his mother was right. So Geathers agreed to become Zyair’s guardian. She never expected to be raising another child, she said, and it’s taking some adjustment.
She’s sleep-deprived and tired, still catching up from more than 40 days of missed work. She teaches 3-year-olds in the Head Start program at Browns Ferry Elementary School.
But when she comes home, and Zyair smiles at her, it makes it all worth it, she said.
As Zyair grows up, she said, she’ll tell him about the kind of woman his mom was.
“I loved his mom like my very own,” she said. “I’ll tell him she was beautiful and she had a beautiful spirit. And I’ll tell him she loved him dearly. You very seldom saw the two separated.”
Zyair has his mother’s eyes and smile, Geathers said, and she said she sees Shaquatia in his face every day.
As Zyair grows, Geathers will also make sure he’s not afraid of the water and is a strong swimmer.
“As soon as the feeding tube is out, YMCA here we come,” she said. “I think he’ll like it. He loves the water. Taking a bath, he’s just gleeful.”
According to Geathers, the most surprising thing about Zyair’s recovery is the community support he and the rest of her family have received.
When she got back from the hospital, she had 117,000 e-mails, most of them well wishes or inquiries about Zyair. She’s still working on reading all of them. They’ve received gifts and she got more phone calls and text messages in the hospital than she can count.
Everywhere they go, people are interested in Zyair’s health and progress. She’s touched that so many people care, she said, and glad Zyair has that kind of support system in the community.
“He lost a lot,” she said, “so to be loved by so many is a good thing. I don’t think he’ll ever be vain or big-headed about it. His mother was well loved and she wasn’t like that.”
Zyair’s medical costs were all paid by Medicare and Geathers said she isn’t even sure how much they were, though she’s sure it’s in the millions. Money raised will go into an education fund the Geatherses started for Zyair.
“We don’t know what’s ahead and we want to be on the safe side,” she said.
Geathers said she’s looking forward to the event and thinks Zyair will enjoy it, because he loves music so much.
“I think he’ll be doing a lot of clapping and smiling,” she said. “And then he’ll sleep when he gets home that night, because he’ll be plumb tuckered out, which is nice for me.”
She’s planning to dress Zyair in blue for the fund-raiser because of the nicknames he acquired after the accident.
“His dad named him Stormtrooper and people in the community have started calling him little Moses,” she said. “I just call him big bruiser, because he’s such a big guy.”
Admittance to the concert is free, but donations will be accepted.