The recent birthday of 5-year-old Ireland Meyer was more than just a birthday celebration.
Despite a long list of medical difficulties in her young life, the Dec. 15 birthday was a time for Ireland to share an extra big smile with her family and friends.
After years of being admitted and discharged from various children's hospitals, things are finally starting to look up.
"It's like she finally caught a break,"?Ireland's mother Shanna Meyer says.
Ireland was born with a long-gap esophageal atresia and her esophagus wasn't able to develop all the way to her stomach.
This led to many other medical difficulties throughout her five years, including the need to be dependent on her vent and trach and developing chronic lung disease.
However, on Oct. 18, the Meyers brought Ireland in for surgery at the Cincinnati Children's hospital. The 10-hour long surgery was to reconstruct the esophagus using colon interposition.
The surgery was a success and Ireland was able to return home to her family the day after Thanksgiving.
Doctors have attempted elongating her esophagus seven or eight times since she was just 3 months old.
"She was left with very little esophagus,"?Shanna says. "She also has paralyzed vocal cords and airway issues."
Before the surgery this year, the family would also have to make several visits to Mankato or the Twin Cities to have her tube changed.
Now, things are starting to look up for Ireland and her health.
"We have a long way to go but I think we've come a long way,"?Shanna says.
Ireland's family, 14-year-old brother Deven, 7-year-old brother Wes and her parents Sean and Shanna, could very easily be discouraged by the long journey they've been on. But, they choose to be thankful.
"Her brothers have gone through a lot too,"?Shanna says. "It's easy to become consumed with a kid with special needs."
The Meyers are trying to give the rest of the family a little more one-on-one time now. But, brother Wes doesn't harbor any hard feelings. In fact, Ireland is his little princess.
"The boys have learned so much compassion through Ireland's journey, too,"?Shanna says.
The family had spent more than a year staying at the Ronald McDonald House where Wes had made a lot of friends going through various medical issues.
"So, Wes told me he wanted to grow his hair out and donate it,"?she adds. "I told him to go ahead but didn't know if he'd actually go through with it."
The 7-year-old went through with it. He grew out his red hair and was able to donate nine inches.
"They have seen a lot of things for kids their age,"?Shanna adds.
Ireland, the one taking them all on this journey has experienced the ride first-hand, yet continues to be a ray of sunshine for the Meyers.
"She has brought our family so much joy,"?her mom says. "She has taught us that everyday is a gift."
Ireland has also taught her family the power of prayer.
The Meyers have received so much support and prayers from the community going through this journey.
"I have a friend that always says prayers are free,"?Shanna adds. "And, it has been all these prayers that have made the difference, there is no other explanation."
Even though an outsider may view Ireland's medical issues as a problem, her parents think of it as nothing but a blessing.
She has touched doctors lives, other patients lives and has met many wonderful people along the way.
"We have had more than one doctor tell us that they have learned so much from Ireland,"?Shanna says.
There was another little girl that the Meyers had met, and she had the same diagnosis as Ireland. Because the nurse had seen the symptoms before with Ireland, they knew how to handle it right away.
"These doctors gave up a lot of time to help get Ireland better,"?Shanna adds. "They always had her best interest at heart."
So, now thanks to an outpouring of support, prayers and talented patient doctors, things are starting to settle down a bit for Ireland.
"It feels like a big weight has been lifted right now,"?Sean says.
The family, after all they have been through, hopes to think of a way they can pay it forward to someone else.
"Even finding a way to give a little bit to someone else, can help them out a lot,"?he adds.
They are also going to enjoy the fact that their daughter has continued to thrive.
And, Ireland is going to continue to be the little celebrity that she is.
"Even when Ireland was in rough shape she would be blowing kisses to the paramedics,"?Shanna says.
Recently Ireland has been able to be off of her support for about an hour at a time which she hasn't been able to do before.
"She has so much energy now,"?her mom says. "She is just always busy."
Ireland was even able to go outside and play in the snow for the first time in her life this winter.
"Even though the doctors say it's not likely, we're hoping that by next September, Ireland will be able to go to school,"?Shanna says.
Many people have asked how the Meyers have stayed so strong throughout all of the ups and downs.
Their answer is simple:?"we had to."
"We have just taken it one day at a time,"?Shanna says. "That's all you can do."
Through their journey they have also learned another very important lesson.
"Everyday is a gift with your kid whether they are special needs or whatever," Shanna adds. "And, the situation could always be worse."
And of course, Ireland learned to continue smiling. After all the trips to different hospitals and many appointments she seems to remain the most upbeat of all.
"She's a celebrity and she knows it,"?Sean says with a smile. "But, she is finally on the up and up."