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Fund-Raiser Is Held for Gaby

Girl, 8 1/2, is still hospitalized in a coma.

It's been nearly a month since Gabriella Saavedra, 8 1/2, fell ill and almost three weeks since she's been in a coma at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. And her worried parents, Fidelia and Edwin Saavedra of London Towne, remain by her side in the Intensive Care unit.

BUT DOCTORS there are still mystified by what's happened to the Centreville girl. Gaby, as she's known, took sick on July 14; she spiked a fever and began having pains in her head and neck.

Her condition deteriorated rapidly and seizures followed. And after a week of tests at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, she was transferred July 22 to Children's Hospital. Hoping to stop the seizures and prevent any possible brain damage, doctors there placed her into a medically induced coma.

They wanted to bring Gaby out of it before now but, unfortunately, whenever they've tried to do so, the seizures returned. But they're preparing to give it another try.

"They are going to be waking her up slowly, in the next couple of days, and she is currently stable," said Carol Trujillo, Tuesday afternoon. A resident of the Rocky Run community, Trujillo is taking care of Gaby's sister Annie, 7, while their parents are at the hospital. And Edwin Saavedra keeps her posted about Gaby's condition.

She said doctors still don't know what caused her illness. "They figure it was probably some kind of virus," said Trujillo. "But they don't know where she got it or what the results will be."

However, there is a bit of good news. Over the weekend, doctors received the results of an MRI and a spinal tap they performed on Gaby. And, said Trujillo, both tests revealed "no sign of any brain damage from the seizures."

Religious people with a strong faith in God, the Saavedras haven't asked anything of the community, except to pray for their desperately ill daughter. But with the cost of Gaby's medical care likely to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — and both Edwin and Fidelia minimum-wage earners — friends have established a bank account to help her parents pay her medical bills.

Some contributions have already come in. Those, plus the grassroots efforts of some local residents, have so far yielded almost $3,000 for the normally cheerful and outgoing girl.

Gaby is a rising third-grader at London Towne Elementary and, Saturday afternoon, the London Towne PTA had a donation table at the first annual Summer Festival held by the London Towne Homeowners Association in a park next to the school.

BRENDA SMITH of Sully Station brought her children to the festival, made a contribution and said she also planned to send a note to Gaby's mom. "I just want her to know that we're thinking of her and praying for Gaby," she said.

"I came out to donate and give some support to the family," said Smith. "My kids go to Cub Run [Elementary], and Gaby was in preschool with my son R.J., who's now 8. She was his first friend there."

At the time, she said, R.J. was about 2 1/2 and not yet talking, so he was in the preschool program as a special-education student. Gaby, as a regularly developing child, was there to model speech. "He liked her so much and wanted to talk to her so bad, that he finally spoke," said Smith. "He'd point to her, and I'd say, 'Who is that?' and, finally, he had to say 'Gaby.'"

Saddened by what's happened to her now, she said, "It's such a strange thing. It was just such a shock [to hear about it]. She's just a delightful child, and we wish the best for her and her family."

Trujillo, an instructional aide at Bull Run Elementary, said Smith isn't the only one who wants to express his or her feelings to the Saavedras. Gaby's plight has also captured the hearts of total strangers.

"When I checked on the bank account, I found that people have been sending cards and notes with their donations," said Trujillo. "They're saying their prayers are with the family, they pray for a full recovery and they hope their donations will help with the medical expenses." As of a week ago, she said, the account contained about $2,600.

London Towne PTA President Donna Shank said the Saavedras' relatives are in Bolivia, so there's no other family here to help them. "It's just the two of them, and they're so dedicated," she said. "They're taking shifts at the hospital [at Gaby's bedside], and Fidelia is trying to clean houses when Edwin can watch Gaby. But they're also incurring expenses from having to commute back and forth to [Washington,] D.C. where the hospital is."

She said Saturday's fund-raiser yielded $365 for Gaby, and all of it came from the heart. "We were very moved by the generosity of those who gave at the festival," said Shank. "One boy, who said he was one of Gaby's best friends at London Towne, opened up a small money bag and emptied it into our collection box. It seemed as if it were all of his own money."

SHANK SAID several children also came to the PTA table to share personal stories about Gaby and why she was so special to them. And Annie and many other children colored pictures with get-well messages for Gaby.

The PTA members also passed out flyers about Gaby at Saturday night's open-air "Movies Under the Moon," sponsored by Cox Communications, at Trinity Centre in Centreville. And several people gave contributions for her.

Shank and Trujillo have also come up with another idea. "This morning, Donna and I made some donation jars for Gaby," said Trujillo on Tuesday. "We're going to see if we can place them in local businesses." Also on the horizon:

* Another fund-raiser is planned for this Saturday, Aug. 13, from 9 a.m.-noon, when a car wash will be held at the Centreville Square Mobil Station at Centrewood and St. Germain drives, off Route 29 in Centreville. All proceeds will go to Gaby's account at Chevy Chase Bank.

Trujillo organized the event and said it's a joint effort involving the London Towne school and community and members of her church, Clear River Community Church, which meets at Stone Middle School.

* Fitness Together, a Chantilly gym with custom weight-loss programs, is holding a "Go the Mile for Gaby" weight-loss challenge. Touched by Gaby's story in the newspaper, owner Wendy Shepherd is having 40 clients participate, and Fitness Together will match the total weight loss of the winning team, in dollars, to help Gaby's family. Morning clients will vie against evening clients, for six weeks, beginning Sept. 1. Call 571-323-2223.

* Tax-deductible donations to the fund toward Gaby's medical bills, payable to Gabriella Saavedra, may be sent to her c/o Chevy Chase Bank, 5613 Stone Road, Centreville, VA 20120.