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Suddenly...Sylvia

Five Years After a Devastating Accident, Sylvia Prado Is Defying the Odds and Learning Again

December 10, 1996|MIMI KO CRUZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a deliberate blink of her eyes and a dryly exhaled laugh, Sylvia Prado reveals her amazing secret: She is an alert, bright and fun-loving person.

The world had thought otherwise.

At 13, Sylvia was struck by a car as she crossed a street near her Santa Ana home. She suffered major head injuries and was labeled severely disabled--mentally and physically.

But Jeanie McCabe, her special-education teacher at Santa Ana Valley High School, understood the message Sylvia had to struggle so hard to deliver.

McCabe was humming a song while feeding her 16-year-old pupil when she noticed Sylvia's eyebrows arching up and down. "I said, 'Gosh, is my singing that bad?' And Sylvia blinked her eyes," says McCabe, recalling the communication of three years ago.

"I said, 'Does that mean yes?' And, she blinked again. I told her, 'You don't want me to stop singing. You want me to get singing lessons.' And she laughed."

The display of humor convinced McCabe that Sylvia, trapped inside a body that was keeping her from expressing herself, was indeed a very capable child.

McCabe says she became confident that Sylvia, now 19, eventually could do the things--such as speak, communicate, sit up, feed herself and, most important, learn--that doctors and former teachers had said she would never do.

Since then Sylvia has made great strides in all those areas--with constant care and attention from her parents and sister, with McCabe's dedication to teaching her and even with help from her father's co-workers, who pitched in earlier this year to help buy the special talking computer that lets her communicate with words.

*

Most victims of head injuries, according to the American Medical Assn., show signs of recovery for only up to five years.

And the Prado family recalls being told after the accident that Sylvia, once an able-bodied child with dreams of becoming a police officer, forever would be in a vegetative state.

The bleak prognosis came shortly after she was hit by a car while crossing Warner Avenue on Feb. 12, 1991. Sylvia, returning home from a neighborhood grocery store, was in the striped pedestrian crosswalk when a driver swerved around a stopped car and struck her. The driver was given a citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian; Sylvia, unconscious, was rushed to the hospital.

"She was in the middle of the street, bleeding from her eyes and nose," recalls Veronica, Sylvia's sister, now 16. "I yelled, 'Sylvia!' She was just stretched out. I kept yelling to the paramedics, 'Don't take her!' I thought she would never come back if they took her away."

*

Magdalena Prado weeps as her daughter tells the story.

"The doctors told me that she could hear but couldn't understand and that she would never move again," says Prado, 52. "They told me she probably would never be able to see either."

But Prado, at Sylvia's bedside for one of the three daily exercise routines she takes her daughter through, says she is filled with hope and faith: "I exercise her arms and legs every morning, afternoon and night for about half an hour because it will help her to walk one day."

Her mother tucks Sylvia into bed about 9 p.m. and wakes at 11 p.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. to turn her so her daughter won't get bedsores. Sylvia's sister helps with her daily care--the two share a bedroom.

Five years ago, Sylvia could not sit up or control the saliva that constantly drooled from her mouth. Her arms were pressed against her body, her fingers tightly clenched. She was fed through a tube connected to her stomach.

In recent weeks, however, Sylvia has graduated from pureed food to finely chopped meals, fed to her by family members at home and by McCabe at school. She can sit upright in her wheelchair, doesn't drool, can spread her fingers apart and can lift her arms without help.

And she is beginning to see.

A massive blood clot in Sylvia's brain that had caused her eyes to be crossed was removed three years ago. Now she is learning eye movement.

"Sylvia's not blind, and now her mom and I are teaching her to move her eyes," McCabe says as she moves her index finger side to side in front of Sylvia--whose eyes follow McCabe's finger.

McCabe picked up training tips from school vision, speech and physical therapists who work with Sylvia once or twice a week. Sylvia's mother learns the therapeutic exercises from McCabe and applies them at home.

"M-m-m-a," Prado says as she closes and opens her daughter's mouth in an effort to train her to form the sound. With her mother's fingers guiding her lips, Sylvia responds: "M-m-a."

Prado says Sylvia once was adept with language.

"I remember when Sylvia was 8 years old and I took her to the store," Prado says. "She saw a woman who only spoke Spanish and couldn't understand the cashier. Without hesitation, she went to the woman and translated for her.

"She loved to joke around. When her father would come home tired from a hard day at work, Sylvia always made him laugh."

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