SALEM, Va. (AP) — Savannah Day tumbles across the mats at Fame All Stars in Salem, planting her feet after each flip as if to defy an illness that will sideline her during her team's first cheerleading competition in December. Instead, the Read Mountain Middle School eighth-grader will check into Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center for brain surgery — her 14th operation in as many years.
Savannah won't arrive empty-handed. She and her sisters, 17-year-old Sierra and 6-year-old Chloe, are gathering 500 toys, one for each child who also will spend the Christmas holiday in the Ohio hospital. Rather than focus on her own complicated health problems, she and her family adopt a simplistic view.
"We figured out if we do a toy drive, it would help more, and if those kids couldn't have a Christmas, like us, then it would help," Savannah said.
The toy drive idea came almost immediately after the girls learned Savannah's surgery is scheduled for Dec. 12 and her hospital recovery would stretch until Dec. 26. Her mom, Michelle Day, learned the dates about three weeks ago and delivered the news with her daughters on the drive from their Blue Ridge home to cheerleading practice in Salem.
"The girls did some talking. They asked the owners here and the coaches, 'Will you help us raise toys for the kids there at Christmas? Why don't we at least take a smile to them when we go.' That is how the toy drive was born," Day said. "By the time I picked them up at 8, they had already decided."
She called the hospital to find out how many toys they would need. "That was 500. The girls said, 'Then we'll just ask more people.' And that's what they did," she said.
So far, they've collected 75 toys. The sisters do not doubt they'll surpass their goal. After all, that's Savannah Day's way.
She was born 10 weeks too soon with intestines so damaged that most of them needed removed. Her childhood was a series of surgeries and illnesses, dogged always with cautions that she'd be slow to develop. Savannah blew past the milestones; crawling, walking and, yes, cheering, before expected. When she started sixth grade, her mom began to relax, thinking the worst was behind them.
Then one day, the middle school called with a message no parent is prepared to hear. "They said they needed me to come immediately. They were going to send her by ambulance to the hospital. They thought she had either been drugged or had a stroke," Michelle Day recalled.
Years of observations of a series of similar mystifying events — headaches, blurred vision, inability to speak, half her body going numb and useless — finally yielded a diagnosis.
"Hemiplegic migraine," Day said. It's a rare form of migraine. Few doctors are experienced in treating it. And it's genetic.
Day searched for specialists who could not only help Savannah but determine whether her oldest daughter, a junior at Lord Botetourt High School, and her youngest one, a kindergartner at Colonial Elementary, are susceptible. She discovered a pediatric headache center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and made an appointment.
All three sisters carry the gene, Day said. Four concussions that Sierra suffered following blows during cheerleading were probably hemiplegic migraines, Day said. Her oldest daughter's illness appears to be triggered by blows, unlike the randomness of Savannah's. How the disease might affect Chloe won't be known for several years, as onset typically coincides with puberty.
As the sisters age, they stand a good chance of beating the hemiplegic migraines; episodes tend to vanish or lessen in intensity at adulthood, Day said. Meanwhile, medication can control the frequency, and if that were simply what ailed Savannah, she could outgrow them. But the MRI in Cincinnati found something else.
"It's called a Chiari malformation 1," Day said. In Chiari malformation, the cerebellum's tonsils herniate into the spinal canal and can block the flow of spinal fluid. As Savannah continues to grow, so does the deformity, her mother said.
As word spreads about Savannah's unusual health problems and her unusual response to them, people in Botetourt County and beyond have joined to help collect toys or hold fundraisers to offset the family's travel and medical expenses. Summer Underwood, a teacher at Read Mountain Middle School, started the first drive.
"I designed a T-shirt so that she would know how many people are supporting her," Underwood said. The teacher wanted Savannah to find comfort in the shirt and know that her school was cheering her on during her recovery. Also, Underwood said, "Savannah was very concerned about the financial strain on her family. I didn't want her worried about that."
At first, 305 shirts were sold through the middle school. When others heard, more orders followed.
"It's very surreal," said Michelle Day. "I feel like I'm in one of the pay-it-forward movies because every time the girls do something nice for the hospital, I feel like someone does something nice for us."
Though Day tries to limit media attention and keep the girls focused on their ordinary activities, the family has found the toy drive serves as a welcome distraction from thinking about the upcoming surgery, the 14th of Savannah's life, but not the last. Once she recovers, Savannah will need yet one more intestinal surgery.
"It doesn't really hit me because I've had so many surgeries before," Savannah said. "It's just normal to me. I just keep going on with life."
Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com