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Oakdale gymnast, 11, bounces back after injury

OAKDALE — The Cunha family thought they'd be spending Thanksgiving — and Christmas — in the hospital with their daughter.

Instead, 11-year-old Hailee came home Wednesday night, three weeks after suffering a severe brain injury while practicing gymnastics.

About 6 p.m. Nov. 4, Hailee was practicing a giant — a move in which the gymnast swings completely around a bar — at Elite Gymnastics in Modesto when she lost her grip and launched herself through the air.

"Her coach actually got to her before she landed and caught her lower body," said Hailee's father, Mark Cunha. "He probably saved her life."

Still, Hailee landed on her head. Although she was alert and talking, her coach called for an ambulance.

"We got the call about 6:15," Mark Cunha said. "He wanted to get her to the hospital, just to make sure everything was OK."

The Cunhas headed to Modesto to meet the ambulance at Doctors Medical Center. But as they drove along Briggsmore Avenue, they got another call. The ambulance crew was diverting to the closer Memorial Medical Center, where a helicopter would take Hailee to the University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Even at that point, the Cunhas didn't panic. Both Mark and his wife, Jimmie, had been emergency medical technicians and knew that medics often act with an abundance of caution.

That changed when Mark Cunha saw his daughter. "She was all blown up, especially the right side of her face," he said. "I took her hand and said, 'Daddy's here. You have a bad owie.' I don't know how much she understood, but a tear fell down the side of her face."

Hailee's brain was bleeding; she needed immediate surgery. She came out early the next morning, only to be wheeled back into the operating room when the bleeding didn't stop.

Several days of uncertainty followed as the family settled into a new routine. Jimmie stayed with her daughter during the day; Mark took the night shifts. He returned during the day to Oakdale. The couple's 13-year-old son, Chase, stayed at their house with relatives.

Progress was slow

Mark Cunha described the time as "four to five days of nothing." Hailee remained unresponsive, and doctors would not give the Cunhas a prognosis.

"With head injuries, usually the progress is slow," Jimmie Cunha said. "They weren't going to try to give us false hope."

One night, Mark Cunha was holding his daughter's hand when her fingers started moving. And he remembered a game they used to play.

"I tried to get her to thumb-wrestle me, but I couldn't remember the start (one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war)," he said.

Hailee seemingly tried to help, holding out one, two and three fingers. "I went running to the nurses and said, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but I need the thumb war song.' "

Then he remembered another tradition — when the Cunhas are out walking, father and daughter link pinky fingers.

"I said, 'Let's do the pinky shake,' " he said. "And she did it. That's when I knew she was in there."

Remarkable recovery

Hailee's progression from that point has been remarkable, her parents said. She opened her eyes and slowly started talking, responding to questions. After 11 days in the intensive care unit, she was transferred to the pediatrics ward.

"The first day she walked, she was really unsteady," Mark Cunha said. "Three days later, I was after her to slow her down."

It wasn't immediately clear how much damage the injury caused Hailee's brain, if she could read or do simple math.

Jimmie Cunha said she tried to be nonchalant when asking Hailee to read something or multiply 2 times 5. With the eye-roll of an 11-year-old, Hailee answered, "10."

After 21 days in the hospital, Hailee was released.

She has to wear a helmet anytime she leaves the house, because she has a flap missing from her skull to relieve the pressure. Or, as she put it: "I have a squishy part where only skin and liquid is protecting my brain."

Hailee doesn't remember the fall or anything from her first weeks in the hospital. What she does remember is hours spent staring at the clock.

"I was so bored," she said.

Getting home, she relished "yummmier food," she said. And sleep. After weeks of fitful sleep that lasted only a few hours at a time, Hailee slept for 10 hours straight Wednesday night.

She's not thrilled that one of her parents has to be with her at all times, even sleeping in her room at night.

"I like my privacy," she said.

In about a month, when the swelling goes down, doctors will replace the flap on her skull.

She undergoes speech and physical therapy, but her parents are hopeful she'll return to her sixth-grade class at Sierra View Elementary School in time for its third trimester in February or March.

Hailee also wears a collar to stabilize ligaments torn when she fell. That is set to come off early next year.

Other than that, her parents said, she's going to have to be careful with certain activities such as contact sports. Eventually, she'll want to return to gymnastics, which she practiced for hours each day after school. Her coach said she has a spot at the gym anytime she wants it, helping with some of the younger children.

"It's her passion," Mark Cunha said.

Oakdale residents, the gymnastics community and even strangers have rallied around the family, providing donations, meals and support.

"We have dinners through January," Jimmie Cunha said. Mark Cunha is on vacation through December, but his fellow firefighters in Sunnyvale have taken his shifts into February so he can be with his daughter.

Tremendous support from team

Three days after her accident, Hailee's teammates had their regional competition. They wore specially made shirts in her honor, and a teddy bear represented Hailee.

"Each kid who won a medal came over and put it on the bear," Mark Cunha said. The team then went to Davis to visit Hailee.

"The support we've gotten from everybody is just incredible," Mark Cunha said. "It's humbling."

Doctors told the Cunhas that brain injury patients sometimes lack focus and impulse control. In Hailee, that manifests itself as a more direct manner of speaking from a formerly quiet, humble child.

"She'll say things like, 'Aren't I stupendously sensational?' " Jimmie Cunha said.

"She told me I was going bald," Mark Cunha said.

It's likely that will change as Hailee's recovery continues over the next few years. But even if it doesn't, the Cunhas are thrilled at how far their daughter has come so quickly.

At the end of a conversation Thursday, Hailee was asked if she had anything to add.

"Don't you think I'm beautiful?"

Yes, she is.

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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