More than 30 years ago, Austin Highsmith Garces’ father, Johnny Highsmith, prayed for a miracle — and got one. And now, Garces has turned that story into a children’s book.
Garces, an actress from Winston-Salem, will be at Bookmarks in downtown Winston-Salem on Wednesday to read and sign copies of the book, “The Miracle Tree.” The book tells the faith-based story of a little girl who faces a scary hospital visit.
When she was about 2½, right before Christmas, young Austin took a nap and woke up with an eye swollen shut and turning purple.
“Mom took me over to Forsyth Pediatrics, and they sent me right to the ER (at what is now Brenner Children’s Hospital). They did an MRI, and my eye was being pushed out of its socket and over to the left, a very aggressive case of post-orbital cellulitis.”
That condition, which she described as a localized severe infection behind the eye, led to emergency surgery, with her family being told she had a 50-50 chance of survival.
“Dad went down to the Christmas Tree in the children’s ward and prayed,” she said. He asked God to save his little girl, promising to return to the hospital every year if He did.
She survived, and since then returning to that tree has become a Highsmith family tradition, even now that she has been in Los Angeles for almost 16 years. She arranges a return visit every year during the holiday season.
“We have not missed a year in 35 years, we have gone to that Christmas Tree and prayed,” she said.
In her acting career, Garces is perhaps best known for the “Dolphin Tale” films, family-friendly movies in which she plays a member of an aquarium rehab team that helps nurse injured dolphins back to health. Those films led her to work with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, which in turn led to visits to children’s hospitals. While there, she shared her childhood story with young patients, who were encouraged by the fact that she had recovered fully from her childhood illness. Her costars encouraged her to share the story further.
“I thought, why not write a children’s book to help these kids, and as a gift to my dad,” she said. “It can give sick kids visibility and maybe help them and inspire them.” Thinking back to how scary her hospital stay was, she wanted a way to reassure children that they weren’t alone in such experiences and could endure.
She originally thought about getting somebody to illustrate the book for her, “but I’m a very impatient person,” she said. “And I thought, I’m an art major, why don’t I draw it?” She ran the illustrations by her husband, actor J. Teddy Garces, and her mother, Dawn, but kept the project a secret from her dad until the big reveal last Father’s Day.
“The Miracle Tree” was released on Easter Sunday by Doce Blant Publishing. She wanted to come back to Winston-Salem, where the story is set, for one of her first book signings.
Garces plans to continue writing and illustrating children’s books, with several ideas for inspirational stories in mind, and hopes to eventually turn “Miracle Tree” into a live-action children’s movie. “I feel we have a shortage of children’s films,” she said. “We want to show it to sick kids so they can feel like they’re seeing themselves.”
She also continues to have a busy acting career, having starred in the recent “Scream: The TV Series” and guest roles on such shows as “SEAL Team,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “NCIS,” “Big Love” and “Criminal Minds.” She frequently appears in cable TV-movies, ranging from wholesome holiday fare such as “Hometown Christmas” to films with such lurid titles as “Nanny Seduction” and “Psycho Granny.”
She occasionally hears people make derogatory comments about Lifetime or Hallmark movies, but she is quick to defend them.
“There’s a lot worse you could do with your life than give people entertainment and joy,” she said. “People love them. With Hallmark, people want something they can just sit back and relax and enjoy with their family and that makes them happy. If I’m going to contribute to that, absolutely, bring it on.”