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Chester County Press

The love inside of Maddi's bag

05/23/2016 09:06AM ● By J. Chambless

Jenny Raimondo and her seven-year-old daughter, Maddi.

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

After spending 20 years succeeding at one job, Scott Raimondo of Glen Mills handed in his letter of resignation in the spring of 2014, so that he would be able to write the next chapter of his professional career, all on his own. He decided that he wouldn't just work in business. He would own one.

His parents had a house and a boat on the island of Isla Mujeres near Cancun, Mexico, so Scott and his wife Jenny thought that this would be the perfect time to take a family vacation with their three daughters, Sammi, Ella, and the youngest, Maddi, who was only five. Scott needed the short respite away from what had just ended and what was soon to begin, and the week was a picture postcard of rejuvenation: fishing, sun, family and glorious weather that seemed to fall like a gift from the sky.

April 20 began as the most spectacular day of the entire week they had spent in Cancun. The flight back to Philadelphia was early the next morning, so Jenny and Scott spent the better part of the late afternoon lounging with the kids at the yacht club pool, and then packing. They drove golf carts to a seaside restaurant for an early dinner, and because the approaching sunset was so spectacular, the family decided to take their party to the rooftop deck. There, they took photos of all of the Raimondo children -- cousins locked arm-in-arm, captured in the golden light. These days were what Scott needed -- what Jenny and the kids needed. Below, the deck, the street was crowded with vacationing revelers, come to drink in the same nightly vistas.

For guests who choose to dine the rooftop deck at this restaurant, they are protected from the street below by two ropes, strung through pillars, that wrap around the deck's perimeter, and on April 20, 2014, the lower rope was sagging. In the distance, Jenny heard someone say, "This was the best vacation ever." Immediately after snapping the last photo, Jenny called Maddi to her, and then everything in the world seem to slow itself down: Maddi coming toward her mother. A tiny misstep that caused Maddi to lose her footing. Maddi trying to stop her momentum but not being able to. Maddi falling, backward, managing for a blink of a frame to look directly into her mother's eyes as she vanished to the street below.

Jenny and her mother-in-law flew down the stairs of the restaurant and fought through the crowd to get to Maddi, and when they reached her, Maddi lay limp and unconscious. Jenny stared down into her daughter's eyes. Someone had called for an ambulance, and within minutes, Maddi was taken to the island's first aid center. The medics there called her situation "grave," and she was then quickly taken again by ambulance to the island's ferry depot in the hopes of getting on the next ferry over to Cancun.

Eventually, the ferry came for the 30-minute ride to Cancun, which was followed by another 30-minute wait for another ambulance to the nearest hospital.

By then, Maddi had regained consciousness, but was unrecognizable. Her head had swollen to three times its normal size, she had broken the femur bone in her right leg and bleeding on both sides of her brain. She was screaming in pain, as the doctors applied pain stimulus to maintain her consciousness and begin the first round of neurological assessments.

How do we get off the island? Scott and his father kept thinking. What is the quickest ways to get Maddi back home?

They spent the next 36 hours at a hospital that could best be described as sterile, but one that was woefully under-equipped to treat a pediatric trauma patient, let alone communicate in English to the patient's parents. In the murkiness of the nightmare that was happening in front of them, Jenny and Scott were trying to understand what the doctors were doing through the broken English spoken to them by the nurses and doctors. There were two fractures to the head, they said, and the bleeding would not stop. The only English words Jenny could understand were from a doctor, who kept telling her, “Three days. We need three days."

"That's all he told me that I could really understand," Jenny said. "I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know if they meant life or death. It was horrifying to sit there and watch them put things into her, pumping her with medicine, and all along, they couldn't communicate with me what was happening, or what they were doing."

At one point, there was so much blood loss that the doctors pointed to Maddi's leg and said that they needed to perform a blood transfusion.

"It instantly set me off into a panic," Jenny said. "I used to work at Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital, so I was quite knowledgeable about traumatic brain injury and medical scenarios. I understood a blood transfusion could be life saving but I wasn't comfortable with one about to be done on my daughter in Mexico. Clearly, they couldn't take our blood and screen it in time, so it was a game-time decision. I just had to trust them. I had to trust God. I think the power of prayer and trusting the unknown played a huge role in saving her."

At one point, the doctors told the Raimondos that they felt that they needed to do surgery on Maddi's leg, but as they were about to wheel her away, Scott's father walked up to them and said, "You're not going to touch her." The surgery for the femur could wait. The injuries to the brain could not.

Scott and Jenny called everywhere, to friends back home, to hospitals in West Chester and Philadelphia -- literally, anyone who could make a connection to the hospital they really wanted their daughter to be: the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The only connection they had to CHOP was a very remote one; a neighbor they barely knew worked at CHOP, and through a friend, a connection was finally made to her. The neighbor quickly sent an internal page throughout the hospital, and almost immediately, five-year-old Maddi Raimondo of Glen Mills became Priority One at CHOP, but now the question was, How do we get her here?

Scott and his father were finally able to make financial arrangements to obtain the services of a medically-staffed flight to transport Maddi from Mexico to Philadelphia, and two-and-a-half days after falling from the second floor of a restaurant on an island off the coast of Cancun, Maddi arrived at the doors of CHOP in Center City.

“We went from three people in the hospital who couldn't speak English to a personal security guard who escorted us right into the hospital where 20 people were standing there, telling us, 'We've been waiting for you,'" Scott said. "They did more examinations on Maddi in the first three minutes than the doctors in Mexico did in the entire time we were there. There was a feeling I had that told me as those doors opened, 'Everything is going to be all right.'”

Although Scott and Jenny finally had the reassurance that their daughter was back home and in the best care, the news turned out to be much worse. There were seven skull fractures, mixed subdural and epidural hematomas on both the right and left side of the brain, two fractured vertebrae, and Maddi's right leg absorbed a femur fracture.

Maddi stayed at CHOP for nine days. She was immobile and non verbal. Her face had darkened from all of the bleeding. The only invitation into her feelings was to look into her eyes.

To the Raimondos, the Child Life Department at CHOP was truly a Godsend and the therapist who was assigned to Maddi provided her with activities that allowed her to communicate with her parents, grandparents and sisters in games and projects that the hospital had made available to children in the trauma unit. There were coloring books, small toys, birdhouses to make. Friends sent more toys, more coloring books. These simple activities allowed Maddi to reconnect with her sisters and friends, and enhanced her ability to communicate with her doctors.

At first, the idea of giving back began very quietly for the Raimondos. The family would go shopping for crayons and coloring books to bin up for CHOP's trauma unit. Eventually, Jenny imagined that these contributions could come not just from the family, but from other individuals, agencies and organizations in the West Chester community. Single contributions soon became entire bins filled with goodies. Eventually, the Child Life team at CHOP team called the Raimondos.

"They told us that they have a wish list of initiatives, and one of them was to create a comfort bag for children who are admitted into the trauma unit," Jenny said. "They then asked us for permission to use Maddi's name, and help them fund the program. The idea was that we would help collect items and raise funds, take the bins to the hospital, and from there, the Maddi's bags would be stuffed and given out."

In November 2014, Jenny held her first Shop for CHOP at her home, which allowed guests to avoid the aggravation of visiting a crowded mall and do their holiday gift purchasing in a relaxed setting. Twelve vendors participated, and $5,000 was raised for the Maddi's Bag Child Life Fund. Last year, at the second annual Shop for CHOP, the event hosted 22 vendors and raised $10,000 for the fund.

Although the Shop for CHOP events -- a third is scheduled for November -- may serve as the primary fundraising wing of the Maddi's Bag campaign, they are by no means the extent of the cause. The outpouring of community involvement has been the engine that moves the campaign, Jenny said, and it is seen everywhere, from individual donations to fund-raising events held by organizations throughout the past year.

KICKS Academy of Dance recently hosted their second annual collection drive, and Girl Scout Troop 4871 organized a movie night at Starkweather Elementary School. Both events accumulated dozens of bins filled with coloring books and toys that were donated to Maddi's Bag. It doesn't end there; The Rose Tree Dental Group donated dental hygiene items; students at Penn Wood Elementary School gathered several boxes of gifts; Marinella Jewelry has designed a custom Maddi's Bag bracelet; and the Whole Foods in Glen Mills has donated gift cards that will be gifted -- along with a Visa gift card and the Marinella bracelet -- to the recipient of the Maddi's Bag Child Life Nurse of the Month.

“Charity is contagious,” Jenny said. “I've had so many people who have reached out to me. My daughter Sammi's sixth-grade classmates took it upon themselves to rally around National Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness in March. Now it's our turn to give back. We're working to help the other kids feel as great as Maddi felt when people reached out to her. It is our life goal to help comfort children and families when life confronts them traumatically."

Scott grew up in a Roman Catholic family. He attended Cardinal O'Hara High School, and then attended and graduated from St. Joseph's University.

"I hadn't gone to church in about 30 years, nor did I even give much thought to religion, but during the time Maddi was in the hospital, I kept receiving texts from family and friends, telling me that they're praying for Maddi and the family, and that prayers are being said for Maddi at mass," he said. "I kept hearing that the entire community was rallying around us. Gifts came to our house. Neighbors brought us food."

After 30 years away, Scott began to attend mass on Sundays, soon after Maddi got home. He still attends.

"I don't know if I buy into faith, but I felt like I had to repay those people who do buy into faith," he said. "Whenever people ask us about Maddi, I tell them, 'We're truly blessed.' I don't know if I ever felt that way before. I do now. We have a nice home. I've been fortunate to make a nice salary, and we've never had many large worries, but I never felt blessed until we had the outcome with Maddi.”

The Raimondo sisters were always close before Maddi's accident, but Scott and Jenny see that the bond Sammi, 11, and Ella, 8, have with their 7-year-old little sister is even stronger. Normally, the Raimondo home is a flurry of activity and noise, but when Maddi first walked into the front door after leaving CHOP, the Raimondo house became quieter. It still is.

"It slowed us down," Jenny said. "Our kids do activities one at a time now. It's not 'Hurry up and put your shoes on' anymore. So what if we're late two minutes? If they wake up and they're having a bad day, it's okay, they will go to school a little later. You come out of tragedy with this kind of grace. We are humbled. In a split second we saw our lives could have been changed for the worse and we are forever grateful for the miracle we were given. Never once did we have to explain the severity of the situation to the kids. Everyone has stepped in and happily embraced this new path we were presented with. Ella and Sammi are in this with their hearts."

To this day, Scott cannot bring himself to look at the photographs that were taken of his three children on April 20, 2014. The memories of them are very likely to open a piece of himself that he'd prefer to avoid, but the irony is this: the Raimondos are a family that is documented by photographs. An entire wall of their home is devoted to shots of Scott, Jenny and the girls. One photo stands out for Scott. Jenny took it on the first day Maddi returned to school, after spending months recuperating from her injuries. The young girl's eyes radiate a flash of anticipation and hope, and there is a smile on her face that is as bright as the setting Cancun sun. It tells the entire story of where she has been, and where she is now going.

"I love that photo," he said.

For more information about Maddi's Bag, visit the Maddi's Bag Facebook page, or e-mail Jenny Raimondo at [email protected].

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected] .