PALMETTO -- Lexi Antorino's life was a testament to God's mercy, love and guidance, says her mother, Sarah.
The little girl who unexpectedly survived a crushing accident when a swing set collapsed on her six years ago died this week.
Lexi was just 2 on Dec. 9, 2007, when she was swinging at Palmetto Point Civic Association Park along with two other tots.
When the swing set suddenly collapsed, the metal struck Lexi in the head, crushing her skull, breaking her neck and severing the main artery in her brain, Sarah Antorino recalled.
Never miss a local story.
The surgeon at All-Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, who operated on Lexi and stitched the severed artery in her brain, told then- 21-year-old Sarah, "I am not telling you to pull the plug. I am not God."
Antorino and her husband, Nick, cared for Lexi for the next six years, her remarkable story of survival told and updated over the years by the Bradenton Herald.
"She's touched so many lives and brought people closer to God," said Sarah Antorino, a woman of deep faith. "She showed people how to fight. She was a little fighter. She gave people strength. She made me realize how strong I am."
Lexi, 8, died at 11:30 a.m. Monday at All-Children's, when her lungs shut down
and her heart stopped after a six-day battle with pneumonia and a stomach ailment.
"Her body was just tired," Sarah Antorino said.
She would have been 9 on July 1.
Lexi was semi-comatose, used a ventilator to breathe and could not walk, eat solid food or even blink her eyes, but family and friends say Lexi was "feisty and funny" -- and, according to her mother, "If she didn't want something done, she made it obvious. People got the message."
For six years, between her traumatic injury and her final moments, she was watched over 24 hours a day by Sarah Antorino and a long list of caretakers, including Joan Lewis, a nurse with Tampa's Maxim Healthcare Services, who everyone calls Grandma Joan; caregiver Norma Melendez and her aunt, Becky Roberto; and her dad, Nick Antorino.
Lewis, who cared for Lexi for the past 5 1/2 years, cried Tuesday when talking about Lexi.
"I will remember how I used to sing to her and she actually looked like she was enjoying it," Lewis said. "She brought joy to everyone's life. She was a special little angel. She was a fighter and now she is at peace."
Lewis said her caregivers were always hopeful Lexi would get better.
"At times we would say, 'Kick your feet, Lexi,' and she would kick," Lewis said. "Up until the end, when she was in pain, I think she was happy. I danced for her. We watched princess movies and read stories."
Roberto, Lexi's aunt, also cried Tuesday as she tried to express her feelings.
"Lexi was amazing," Roberto said. "She had a spunky little attitude and her smile would brighten up a room. Every night when I would take care of her, I had my music blaring. Before her coma, she was into Lil Wayne and her favorite song was 'No One' by Alicia Keys. I am the one who always did her hair. I read her Bible Scriptures. I couldn't get out of bed this morning.
"She wasn't like my niece. She was like my own," she said. "But I know Lexi is much happier now."
Sarah Antorino is sure Lexi understood what was going on around her.
"I knew she was in there," Antorino said. "She could hear everything. She was stuck."
As a symbol, Sarah Antorino plans to release butterflies at Lexi's service, which will be 6 p.m. Saturday at Mansion Memorial Park and Funeral Home, 1400 36th Ave. E., Ellenton. Lexi will be cremated, her family said.
"I'm setting free some butterflies because my butterfly got stuck in her cocoon," Antorino said.
As family and friends gathered Tuesday at the Antorino home in Palmetto, it was easy to see Lexi was a participant in the family.
Delilah Toledo, a 13-year-old family friend, lay crying on Lexi's small mattress and wouldn't get up. In Lexi's now-quiet bedroom were her electric wheelchair and colorful posters, including Tinker Bell, the fairy.
"Sarah and Nick gave everything to Lexi," said Delilah's mom, Naya Toledo, who grew up in Oneco with Sarah.
Lexi's caretakers had to turn her every two hours. She had to be changed every two hours. She had to have an ointment put in her eyes every 15 minutes because she couldn't blink. She had a tracheotomy and had to have her throat suctioned every 15 to 30 minutes because she couldn't spit or swallow.
"When I brought her home after the accident, I was clueless how to care for her, but I prayed to God to guide my hand and He did," Sarah Antorino said. "I trained the nurses. They were trained through my hands, which were guided by God's hands."
Doctors at All-Children's told the Antorinos they were shocked Lexi had never been hospitalized again until the week before she died.
"You kept your baby perfect," one doctor told Lexi's mother.
Lexi's final moments
Since April, Lexi was having trouble digesting her food, her mother said.
"She was really fine before that, no major issues," Antorino said. "Lexi had never been in the hospital since we took her home after the accident."
The Antorinos took Lexi to a pediatric gastroenterologist, who agreed with the family that Lexi seemed pale and not herself and probably had some type of infection.
Last Wednesday, Lexi was admitted to All-Children's Hospital but she didn't respond to treatment for her infection. She began to retain fluids, her mother said.
"She had e. coli in her blood and urine," Sarah Antorino said. "We don't know why. She was crying at the hospital. The only way I really knew Lexi was crying was a nostril flair or one tear, but both of her eyes were crying. She was in agony."
Lexi began to decline early Monday morning. Her lungs were not reacting normally to the ventilator. They were slowly shutting down.
Sarah Antorino asked the nurses to give her daughter medication to put her at ease. At 9 a.m. her mother, Melendez and Roberto gave her a last bath. They used Johnson & Johnson baby soap followed by Johnson & Johnson Baby Lotion and put a clean hospital gown on her.
"She was so comfortable and smelled delicious," Sarah Antorino said. "No one had thought she was going to die. It was so unexpected. I prayed to God to heal her or take her, and that's exactly what happened. I didn't have to make a decision."
Lexi's monitor indicated that precisely at 11:30 a.m. Monday, her heart stopped.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond