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Local Girl, 8, Seriously Ill

Hospitalized and in coma with mysterious ailment.

His heart is full and his wallet nearly empty, but Edwin Saavedra — a Centreville husband and father of two young daughters — has but one request.

"I JUST want to ask everyone to pray for my child," he said Tuesday. "She doesn't need anything more than that."

His daughter Annie, 7, is fine; but his firstborn, Gabriella, 8 1/2, is desperately ill. Stricken with a mysterious illness that, so far, has even baffled her doctors, she's lying unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Gaby, as she's known to family and friends, is a rising third-grader at London Towne Elementary. She and her father, mother Fidelia and sister rent a townhouse in the London Towne community.

"They are such a loving, wonderful family," said Amy Shea, secretary to London Towne Elementary Principal Andy Camarda. But now, she said, their world has been turned upside down and "they're devastated. And all their relatives, except for one cousin, are in Bolivia."

Until recently, Gaby was enjoying her summer vacation from school, swimming, going to the movies and playing with friends. But she took sick, July 14, and her condition rapidly deteriorated.

"She had a fever, a pain in her neck and a headache, so I took her to the doctor," said her father. "The doctor said, 'Give her a lot of fluids.'" So the Saavedras did that, but to no avail; Gaby's fever worsened.

"The next morning, when she woke up, she had a seizure," said Edwin Saavedra. "It was very scary because I'd never seen anything like that before. Her mouth was open on one side and her eyes were standing still. She was shaking and drooling and having a hard time breathing. She wasn't responding to anything, so I called 911."

An ambulance took Gaby to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital where, said Saavedra, blood, urine and spinal tests were performed. "Her brain was swollen," said Shea. "Our assistant principal, Sigrid Ryberg, went to visit her at the hospital [last week], and Gaby had six seizures in a half hour, so it's really serious."

But doctors couldn't find the cause.

"AT FAIR OAKS, they say, 'We cannot do much for your child,'" said Saavedra. "They gave her an EEG [electroencephalogram] there, and it was worse than her first one so, last Friday, they transferred her to Children's Hospital."

There, doctors placed Gaby into a medically induced coma in hopes of stopping the seizures. "They put her brain to rest," said her father. "They're giving her lots of medications and trying to figure out if the swelling in her brain has gone down."

"[On Tuesday], I spoke with the neurologist, and he said, 'We're going to start to wake her up, little by little, starting on Friday,'" said Saavedra. "And hopefully, we won't see anymore seizures."

Meanwhile, people at Gaby's school are also worried and are rooting for her to get better. "The whole London Towne community is completely behind Gabriella," said Principal Camarda. "She's in all of our thoughts and prayers. We're hoping, through our combined efforts as a community, that we can help her pull through. We care deeply about her."

"Every teacher she's had [here] has either visited or called the family," said Shea. "Years ago, her mom worked as a custodian for London Towne, so we've known this family since the girls were 1 and 2."

While Gaby's parents remain at her bedside in the hospital, little sister Annie, a rising second-grader at London Towne, is staying with family friend and neighbor Carol Trujillo of the Rocky Run community. She met the Saavedras at her church, Clear River Community Church, which meets at Stone Middle School.

"Fidelia was the custodian there, about a year ago, and we met," said Trujillo. "Edwin would come to the service with the girls. My husband is Mexican-American and, whenever Edwin needed help with official paperwork, he'd ask David for help. And we're so in love with their children; Annie and Gaby are happy, loving, little girls."

Normally, she said, the Saavedras are hardworking people who support themselves. But since Gaby fell ill, they've been unable to work.

"Their financial situation is going to become dire very soon," said Trujillo. "Fidelia cleans homes, but she isn't working now because she and her husband have been trading shifts in the ICU. Edwin painted houses, but injured his shoulder and had to stop." Shea said he was getting ready to start a new job, July 25, but couldn't because of Gaby.

SO A FUND has been established to help the family with her medical bills. Tax-deductible donations payable to Gabriella Saavedra may be sent to her c/o Chevy Chase Bank, 5613 Stone Road, Centreville, VA 20120.

Trujillo said her heart goes out to the Saavedras because "they're in a foreign country with no employment and trying to understand the medical jargon. The special thing about them is their faith in the Lord, and they're calling on everyone they know to pray for Gaby."

As for Annie, Trujillo said she's usually playful and giggly but, at times, she's "close to tears," wondering when she'll get to see her parents and sister again. "So I comfort her as best I can," said Trujillo. "She misses Gaby and talks about having a party for her with a piñata and a cake when she gets home."

At school, said Annie, "Gaby likes to do art, like me, and she won a medal for her painting of an Indian boss. She also made a sculpture of a dinosaur and her babies out of clay." The girls also enjoy playing tag and computer games, and Annie said Gaby "shares her toys with me."

Her father came home awhile Monday to rest and spend a little time with Annie. But, he said, "The house was different. One child was there, but the other wasn't. It's very hard. I just have to be positive and have faith."

The family attends New Jerusalem Evangelical Church in Falls Church and, said Edwin Saavedra, "We taught Gaby good manners and to believe in God. She loves to go to church, and we were teaching her to memorize Bible verses and to pray before meals."

Before she went to bed, said her father, she'd say her prayers and ask her parents to anoint her forehead with some oil from Israel. Voice breaking, Saavedra said, "Right before she went to sleep, she'd always tell me, 'I love you, Daddy.' And I miss those words now."

"She's such a good girl; I cannot believe this has happened," he said. "Right before her fever began, I took the girls to Fair Oaks Mall and to the movies to see 'The Fantastic Four.'" He also took his children and two of Gaby's friends to a community swimming pool, where they had fun laughing and jumping in the water.

"I was playing tag with my daughter Gaby, and she asked if she could climb on my back so we could play 'shark,' and we did," recalled Saavedra. "She was always smiling and full of life, but now everything's changed."

UNTIL RECENTLY, the girls had a Shih Tzu puppy. But since it had bitten Gaby a few times, doctors hoping to find the cause of her seizures suggested it be put to sleep and tested for rabies. "I said, 'OK, it's my children's lives, or the dog's," said Saavedra. "So I took the dog to the shelter."

Unfortunately, the test results were negative. "They still haven't figured out what's wrong," he said. "They think maybe it's a virus that went to her brain." In the meantime, he and his wife are keeping a vigil by Gaby's bedside and praying for her recovery. Said Saavedra: "I have to keep my hopes up that everything will be OK."