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Gaby Shows Improvement

Opens eyes; still has long way to go

There's good news this week about Gabriella Saavedra, the little girl who's captured the hearts of the local community with her valiant fight against an unknown illness.

Although still seriously ill in the Intensive Care Unit of Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., she's finally coming out of the coma she's been in since July 22.

"She's starting to slowly improve, a little each day," said Centreville's Carol Trujillo, who's caring for Gaby's younger sister, Annie, 7, while their parents are at the hospital. "She's moved a foot and a hand and she's waking up."

A rising third-grader at London Towne Elementary, Gaby, 8 1/2, was enjoying the summer with her family until a mysterious illness attacked her on July 14. She began running a fever and having neck and head pains.

Her condition quickly worsened and she started having seizures. At Children's Hospital, doctors medically induced a coma to prevent further seizures and hopefully avoid brain damage.

UNFORTUNATELY, though, whenever they tried to bring her out of it, Gaby would suffer another seizure and they had to put her back into a coma. But this time — much to the joy of her parents, Fidelia and Edwin Saavedra of London Towne — things are different.

"Her seizures have not started again, as of [Tuesday] morning," said Trujillo. "And Edwin is really encouraged by that." Trujillo said Fidelia came by her house, Tuesday, to take Annie home with her for the night, and gave her the latest update on Gaby.

"Fidelia said she's got her eyes open," said Trujillo. "And when Fidelia tells her, 'Gaby, it's me, Mommy — squeeze my hand,' she does it. She's had no seizures since Saturday night, so this is the most improvement she's shown since the beginning."

Trujillo, of the Rocky Run community, said doctors still don't know what led to the child's mysterious illness. They suspect some type of virus, but don't know what it is, specifically, or what caused it. She said doctors advised the Saavedras that Gaby will require "a lot of rehabilitation for speaking and walking."

Nonetheless, added Trujillo, "After so long with no change, I'm just ecstatic. And Fidelia's really happy; she said she thanked God, all day and night. She's now walking the hospital hallways at night, praying for the other children there, because she feels God has now answered her prayers about Gaby."

Meanwhile, since neither parent has been able to work since Gaby's been in the hospital — and finances were tight before then — the local community has rallied 'round, trying to raise money toward her medical bills.

In Saturday's 95-degree heat, some 50 adults, teens and children participated in a fund-raising car wash at the Mobil station in the Centreville Square Shopping Center. Working were Rocky Run community residents; London Towne Elementary staff, teachers and students; Bull Run Elementary students; and members of Trujillo's church, Clear River Community Church, where Fidelia used to do custodial work.

THE VOLUNTEERS helped out in a variety of ways. Some soaped, scrubbed, rinsed and dried the vehicles. Others — including London Towne Elementary Principal Andy Camarda, new Assistant Principal Jon Mitchell, fifth-grade teacher Brian Moose, kindergarten teacher Karin Drinkuth and PTA President Donna Shank — walked along Centrewood Drive, collecting donations and drumming up business.

Trujillo stood along Centrewood holding up last week's issue of Centre View to passing motorists and saying, "This is the little girl you read about," and people gave her contributions, too. Added London Towne administrative assistant Amee Shea: "Others saw the 'Car Wash for Gaby' signs and would pull up and say, 'Here's some money. What else can we do?'"

Trujillo said the donation containers filled up quickly and business was great. And she was thrilled with everyone's unselfish giving. Said Trujillo: "People who didn't even need gas or a car wash would come over and put in money while they were at the median in their cars, waiting to turn."

But when it came to generosity, no one could top Mike Katounas of Centre Ridge. He doesn't know Gaby or her family, but her story touched his heart — so he drove his truck to the car wash and presented the volunteers with a check for $500.

"I'm a painting contractor, and I understand her father is a painter, so it really hit home with me," he explained. "They could use the money better than I could, and I know that every little bit helps. I just hope she comes out of it and I hope [the Saavedras] will find a way out of their financial troubles."

In addition, one man left his business card with Trujillo's husband David and said his company wanted to pay the Saavedras' rent for awhile. And with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills facing them, this offer will surely come in handy.

The car wash volunteers turned out in Saturday's blistering heat because of their concern for Gaby and her family. Voice filled with emotion, London Towne GT specialist Karen Ambrose said she had Gaby as a student in first grade.

"Gabrielle is just a wonderful child, and the whole family is so supportive of each other," she said. "Annie was supposed to be in my Young Scholars program, this summer, for students identified early as potential GT students. But then this happened and she couldn't participate."

Calling Gaby's family "just incredible," Ambrose recalled how Edwin would pick up his daughters after school. "They're such pleasant people, always smiling," she said. "You can tell they have a lot of love for each other and respect for the school."

ALSO HELPING was assistant building supervisor Debbie Payne. "I knew Fedelia — she worked for me and with us," she said. "We consider her part of our London Towne family, and I wanted to support the family in any way I could. The London Towne custodians will be praying for her."

Assistant Principal Mitchell was delighted "how many people came out from the community to help Gaby." And Principal Camarda considered himself "one small cog" in the effort and wanted to participate like everyone else — "as a member of the community, not just a principal."

"What's really cool is to hear people's sentiments about Gaby," he said Saturday. "Their words are as touching as their actions." Besides donating, said Camarda, they're saying, "I really wish she could get better right away." In addition, he said, "Some random person dropped off three cases of water for the workers. She said, 'It's the least I could do.'"

Third-grade teacher Missy Doshier came to the car wash "to support Gaby and the community and have a good time with all the people from London Towne. It's a good cause, and we really want Gaby to get better." Her friend Jane Ramirez, also participating, added, "Anything to help Gaby's family is super-important so they won't have to worry about the medical bills."

Rama Avadhanam, the school-based technology specialist, had Gaby in her computer lab. "She's a wonderful student and a sweet and caring girl," she said. "We're all praying for her and her parents, every single day, and we hope she comes back to us soon."

Meredith Martinez, 9, said Trujillo's daughter Hope "told me about Gaby and how sick she was, so I wanted to help. I washed cars and dried cars. Washing the tires was the hardest part because you had to get in between all the little tire-things and, sometimes, [the dirt] wouldn't come out." And the best part? Replied Meredith: "Squirting Hope with the hose."

A PLEASED TRUJILLO said the car wash raised more than $2,300. "It was fantastic," she said. "And from the donation bottles we've placed in businesses around town, I was able to deposit $188 into Gaby's [medical-expenses] bank account on Tuesday."

These two sums, added to the mailed contributions coming in from the community, have now brought the total in this account to more than $8,000. But with Gaby's medical bills mounting every day — and many more to come — her family is still greatly in need.

How to help:

* Fitness Together, a Chantilly gym, is holding a fund-raising "Go the Mile for Gaby" weight-loss challenge for six weeks, beginning Sept. 1. Call 571-323-2223.

* A bake sale will be held Saturday, Sept. 17, from 9 a.m.-noon, in front of the Stone Road Giant Foods store in Centreville.

* 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.