It was a school morning, just like any other.
Becky Van Kirk sat in her kitchen as her father, Dr. John Van Kirk, put dishes away and asked her about breakfast. Her mother and two younger sisters were waking up.
And then, in a heartbeat, everything flew off the rails.
What happened next on Feb. 4 of this year would earn Becky a rare Girl Scout award.
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Van Kirk, starting to sag, told his daughter that he felt on the verge of passing out. She could have hesitated or panicked. Nobody would have blamed an 11-year-old for doing either.
Instead, Becky jumped up, leaned her slender back into her 6-foot-2 father and eased him to the floor. He told her to get help.
He wasn’t fainting.
A massive brainstem stroke had felled him.
His quick-thinking daughter, now 12 and a Park Forest Middle School seventh-grader, likely saved Van Kirk from serious or fatal injury.
She also may have saved his life.
Seconds counted. She woke her mother, a nurse practitioner, who sprang out of bed and rushed to the kitchen. Sue Van Kirk needed to focus on her husband without distractions before paramedics arrived.
Becky did her part. Without a tear or a question, she fetched aspirin, water and other items as requested, kept the family dog from pawing her prone father, ran to tell neighbors and watched over her sisters.
The Girl Scouts recognized her grace under pressure.
Earlier this month at the Atherton Hotel, Becky received the national organization’s Medal of Honor for her role on a traumatic Monday morning. Only 26 girls nationwide last year garnered the award; Becky’s the first from the Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania council.
“One of the things at the ceremony, everybody kept coming up to me and saying, ‘You must be so proud,’ ” Sue Van Kirk said. “I said I’m grateful. That’s the word that came to mind.”
She has another reason to say thanks on Thursday when her family and relatives gather at the Nittany Lion Inn for their holiday feast. A week ago, her husband left a Pittsburgh hospital to continue his long recovery at home.
Looking back, she’s convinced he wouldn’t have survived in the kitchen without their daughter.
“He wouldn’t have been able to call out if he had been alone,” Van Kirk said. “I feel very strongly she saved his life by being there and also by making him get down on the floor safely.”
Becky returns the compliment. She credits her mother for staying poised and setting an example for her — especially when calling 911.
“She was so calm and monotone about everything, I thought she was calling the doctor’s office,” Becky said.
A wedding the previous month helped her react swiftly in the kitchen.
During the reception, a cousin fainted from sun exposure. Becky watched her father recognize the warning signs and respond even before the man crumpled.
She also knew about her mother’s childhood fainting bouts. So when her father spoke of passing out, Becky wasn’t startled or confused.
Memory and training kicked in.
In Girl Scout Troop 41374 in State College, she earned the First Aid badge at the Brownie, Junior and her current Cadette level. She had visited the local Red Cross office and learned to treat injuries.
Most importantly, she had grown up in a family hearing about medical care and emergencies as part of routine evening reports.
“It was the topic of conversation,” Becky said. “Some households are movie buffs. We’re talking about kidneys and internal organs at the table.”
Still, all of that might have gone out the window had she less presence of mind. She thinks her father’s appearance made it easier. He lay still, not thrashing about, and answered questions. He didn’t look alarming.
His true condition wasn’t apparent — a blessing for her.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going on, which was a good thing,” Becky said.
Now she no longer has a three-hour ride to see her father. He’s home, brightening the house with his sense of humor. Told by an occupational therapist to type anything, he did just that, showing off the word.
“His muscles are coming back, and he’s getting stronger every day,” Becky said. “Mentally, he’s still smarter than all of us.”
But from her point of view, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to act as she did on a school morning gone horribly awry.
“You see someone lying on the ground, my only thought would be to help them, not run away,” she said. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”