"Laugh out loud! And raise your chest high, so people know you're proud. For it is time for your inner spirit to shine."
Amy Mantell composed the poem above in a card for her mother, Leilani O'Dell, as a Mother's Day gift last weekend. For Mantell, writing the poem was no small feat, considering just four months ago, the 11-year-old was waking up from a comatose state after two strokes. Unable to walk, speak, eat or dress herself, she went from a vibrant preteen with the world at her fingertips to a fragile girl forced to relearn everything.
Instead of going to class and playing sports like most kids her age, Mantell spends more than 30 hours a week with doctors, nurses, physical therapists and counselors to heal her mind and body. She's getting better, but her right eye is still paralyzed and learning takes time.
Prior to the strokes, Mantell led a normal childhood in Hermosa Beach. Athletically and academically driven, she played club soccer, junior tennis, biked with her family and achieved straight A's. She was described as thoughtful and compassionate.
Now, Mantell, who politely acknowledges strangers, giggles despite her troubles and loves chocolate and ice cream, struggles with short-term memory loss. Figuring out how to deal with her emotions between the brain injury and being a tween can be too hard to handle. Sometimes people stare, which can make her uncomfortable.
"I would probably stare too, because I would be curious," she said. "But maybe it would be easier if they just asked me what happened."
Putting thoughts together in real time can be confusing so sometimes she writes instead.
"Since the injury, my life is different than it usually was and I feel more pressure. Since the injury, I feel more scared. Since the injury, my thinking abilities feel more clogged up and different. Since the injury, my physical abilities are limited," she recently wrote.
Mantell is determined to get back to a world where she can play with friends, goof around with her younger brother and go to school. She wants to get back on the soccer field.
"I really admire what she's been through and how she's dealt with it ... she's really got all my admiration. I don't think a lot of us would be able to come back in the way that she has. She still has a long road to recovery," said her father, Hank Mantell.
Everything changed last Christmas Eve when Mantell lost her balance and fell at the park. Her mother thought she and her brother were playing rough until Mantell complained of double vision. Despite trips to urgent care and the emergency room, no one suspected that the young girl had suffered a stroke.
On Dec. 26, a pediatrician expressed concern about the double vision and suggested another MRI and a CT. Within days, Mantell suffered a massive second stroke during a diagnostic test to investigate bleeding on her brain and fell into a coma.
Prior to the double vision and loss of balance, Mantell had occasional headaches. Between heat and sports, her family blamed dehydration or a family history of migraines. More likely, they were early signs of arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in Mantell's brain stem that caused her strokes.
In addition to the signs of an adult stroke - one side of the face drooping, a raised arm that drifts downward and slurred speech - pediatric symptoms include seizures, headaches, a sudden loss of vision or balance, abnormal eye movements and weakness on one side of the body.
O'Dell knew something was wrong on Christmas Eve, but she didn't know how to express to the doctors how abnormal Mantell's behavior was. She said that parents should always follow their instincts and insist on answers.
Since the strokes, O'Dell relies on neighbors and friends to keep the household running smoothly. Her younger son, Ethan, goes to friends' houses after school, but he misses his big sister.
It is all much more than she anticipated.
"Initially, I just called the soccer coach and said she would miss a few practices. I just didn't get what was happening," O'Dell said.
Beyond the emotions, it is putting financial strain on the family. O'Dell and Mantell's father are separated. He lives nearby but has a long commute, so weekdays are hard. Together, they've come to rely on one income to maintain two households as she spends her days at appointments. And medical bills that aren't covered by insurance are piling up.
O'Dell had to learn to ask for help and accept it.
"It took time to realize that I can't do this by myself. I do need help," she said. "I feel like the people in the beach cities have been amazing. Her soccer team, the school, the Hermosa Beach Little League, neighbors. People have really been helping by walking the dogs and preparing meals and donating. It's making such a huge difference right now ... it started out where I thought it was going to be a short-term blip, and now I'm realizing that this is a life-changing situation. The future that I saw for Amy is not the same future that I see now. I'm really having to come to terms with what happened emotionally and mentally, and logistically figuring out how to keep going. It's really difficult."
Katie Quintas, the founder of Here to Serve, a nonprofit that organizes caring communities for families facing a medical crisis, helps her cope. Quintas relates to O'Dell on a personal level. When her teenage son was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, she was devastated. Five years later, he is in remission and enrolled at the University of Southern California, and she has dedicated herself to helping others with her nonprofit.
Quintas said donations are the best way to help. Visits and phone calls can be exhausting.
She set up a fundraising site to raise $100,000 for living expenses and healthcare.
"It's not going to be enough ... but it will help," Quintas said.
With her help and major support from Hermosa Beach residents Missy Wuertz and Cara Williams Blomstrand, the family has raised $11,000 so far. Home Depot donated safety upgrades and the Little League donated a three-wheel bike.
"I can't even imagine where we would be if I wasn't getting the kind of support that I'm getting," O'Dell said.
To make a donation, or to learn more about Mantell's story, visit www.fundly.com/amy-mantell.