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Community Welcomes Hailee Home
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As her older brother Chase, at left with camera, films the moment, Hailee Cunha, center, is mobbed by friends, classmates and gymnastics teammates at her ‘welcome home’ pizza party after being released from UC Davis on Nov. 25. - photo by Marg Jackson/The Leader

Three weeks to the day — and almost to the minute — that she suffered a near fatal head injury in a gymnastics accident, 11-year-old Hailee Cunha got out of the family car and walked in to a crowd of well wishers at her Oakdale home, just in time for Thanksgiving.

It couldn’t have been a better outcome for the Cunha family, who almost lost Hailee when she slipped out of straps while doing a gymnastics maneuver on Nov. 4, taking a fall that resulted in a serious brain injury.

What followed was a blur of doctors, emotions, highs and lows, with the Sierra View sixth grader initially in a ‘touch and go’ situation.

“We’re just really, really thankful,” mom Jimmie Cunha said as she and her husband, Mark, arrived home with Hailee on Wednesday, Nov. 25. The crowd that greeted the family included son Chase, 13, filming the arrival and doing interviews with the dozens of people from the gym, Hailee’s school, the neighborhood and the community as a whole.

“She’s a miracle child,” Jimmie added, noting that Hailee was born with a blood disorder that resulted in complications when surgery was done to relieve the pressure on her brain from the accident.

She had a piece of her skull removed and will return to UC Davis later to have it replaced.

Jimmie said when she got the call that Hailee had taken a fall and was going to the hospital, she wasn’t overly concerned because she assumed it was just to have her checked out. But the paramedics evaluating her on the ride to a hospital in Modesto realized the situation was more serious and called for the helicopter to have Hailee airlifted to UC Davis.

“If they hadn’t done that,” Jimmie explained of the first responders’ decision to get her to UC Davis, “she wouldn’t have made it …”

Dad Mark Cunha said even though Hailee was unconscious for a few days, he felt hope when, grasping her hand, he did a familiar game of theirs, thumb wrestling, and she responded. He then asked her to do their pinky shake and, when she responded to that, Mark said he knew there was some reason for optimism.

“I thought, ‘she’s in there’,” he said.

Doctors did not want to promise anything, knowing that she had been through surgeries to reduce swelling on the brain, and not knowing the extent of any brain injury she may have suffered from the fall.

“She had two operations … she almost didn’t make it through, she was in ICU, on a ventilator, she was pretty much unresponsive for four to five days,” he explained.

Mark and Jimmie took turns staying with Hailee at the hospital, Jimmie going during the day and Mark taking the ‘night shift.’

The family has reason to be doubly thankful this year, as Mark is just getting back on his feet after being injured in a car accident.

Now, though, the focus is on getting Hailee back to full strength.

After regaining consciousness, she began to progress rapidly, helped out by being in shape as a gymnast. Doctors warned that the prognosis could be dim, the future uncertain. But Hailee defied them and her recovery happened in leaps, not steps, to the point where she could go home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It’s really great,” said older brother Chase, who admitted to missing his sister while she was hospitalized.

“Seeing her for the first time, that was the worst,” he added of his initial visit to the hospital.

Wednesday night, with the crowd gathered outside the family home, Hailee arrived with her mom and dad to the welcoming party worthy of a rock star or visiting royalty, signs and cheers greeting her as she emerged from the family car. A brief moment of embarrassment, tucking her head into her father’s chest, was followed by a regal walk up the driveway, as the crowd parted to let her though to the garage, where piping hot pizza awaited.

Hugs all around, Hailee greeted her friends, classmates, teammates from her gymnastics squad, relatives, neighbors and well-wishers. Her teammates wore shirts they had specially made for a competition they went to without her; the front asking ‘Who’s In The House?’ and the back answering the question with ‘Hailee’s In The House.’

Teammate Kyndall Vargas, 10, was happy to be part of the welcoming party.

“I’ve known her since I was three and she’s a very nice girl,” Kyndall said. “She’s strong … it’s just easy to believe in her.”

Coach Jim Trost said Hailee’s recovery has been both “uplifting and joyful.” He was also there, every day, at the hospital with her.

“Progress, progress, progress,” he said of seeing her improve. “She’s such a neat little kid … we’re so thankful.”

Taking in her ‘celebrity’ status with a smile, Hailee sought some help from dad Mark in removing the helmet she wears to protect her still-soft head, to show the scar. She will wear the helmet until she has the piece of bone removed to reduce the swelling in her brain replaced and she also has to wear a neck brace constantly for the next 12 weeks because of ligament damage in her neck from the fall.

She was very happy to be home, even though she wasn’t quite expecting the welcome home party.

“Eating yummy food,” she said of what she was looking forward to the most.

And as far as what she missed while she was gone?

“My dog Boomer,” she said with a grin.

She also admitted missing her brother and said they usually get along, except for a couple of areas.

“We just fight over the dishwasher and the front seat,” she said.

Mom Jimmie said when Hailee is stronger, there are plans to visit the ambulance squad personnel that made the life-saving decision to have her flown to UC Davis, along with visiting the helicopter crew. She also will return to the hospital, probably after the first of the year, to have the surgery to replace the bone fragment in her head.

Physically, she is doing well, her mom said but does have some short term memory problems. They also will work out a way for her to get caught up at school, and she hopes to return to Sierra View by early 2010.

“She’s doing amazingly well,” her mom said, noting that this year was “the best Thanksgiving ever.”