The day before Christmas Eve, Eden Hoelscher was practicing a bridge exercise she had done hundreds of times before. She and her mother had no way of knowing it would change the 6-year-old girl's life as she knew it.
"It was like Eden had just collapsed in the back-bend position. She was crying and said her back, hips and legs hurt," Eden's mother, Kylee, 37, told TODAY.
Kylee said that she thought the pain would pass momentarily, but knew something was off when she watched Eden struggling to walk down the hall to her bedroom. And then, Kylee said Eden couldn't get comfortable in bed.
It was about 30 minutes after her injury that Kylee said things changed entirely. Eden stopped crying and her face fell flat.
"She said, 'Mommy, I feel like my feet are asleep,'" Kylee said. "I said, 'Eden, move your legs. Unbend your legs.' And she said, 'I can't.'"
Kylee then rushed her daughter to the emergency room closest to their home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
They were at Torrance Memorial Medical Center for a few hours before being air-lifted to the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA.
At UCLA, Kylee said, an initial MRI showed signs of damage to the spinal cord. Eden spent five days in the pediatric intensive care unit, Kylee said. Steroids and medication to raise her blood pressure were administered and Kylee said doctors worked tirelessly to control her body temperature.
"They believe that she hyper-extended her spine so the artery going into her spinal cord was cut off, causing the stroke," Kylee said.
On Jan. 5, Eden was transferred to the Children's Hospital Los Angeles where she completed five and a half weeks of therapy. A little over a month later, on Feb. 12, Eden was discharged. Her mom said a week later, she was back at school.
"You have to look at her holistically and make sure she's OK, and feels good about herself," Kylee said. "That’s why we let her go back to school."
The school's teachers and administrators helped ease Eden back into kindergarten, with half days that accommodated her physical therapy in an outpatient program at Miller's Children Hospital in Long Beach, California. One day a week, Kylee said, they had a physical therapist visit their home.
Her treatment, neurorecovery physical therapy, was an activity-based program that has patients stand and move as opposed to simply accepting fate as living life in a wheelchair.
"We’ve never put the option of not recovering in our minds," Kylee said. "Every sentence that she talks about is 'OK mom, when I can walk again...' so she fully believes that she’ll be able to walk again one day."
April 4 marked her first day of intense physical therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she worked with therapists for two weeks before starting at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. A GoFundMe page has helped pay travel expenses, towering medical bills, and costs of therapy.
The therapy she's currently pursuing, called pediatric locomotor training, is an attempt to re-teach Eden's spine how to receive messages. To re-engage the lower body, therapists have her stand on objects that would feel "pokey" to the feet, and for an hour, three therapists help her walk on the treadmill with a harness that supports her abdomen.
Following that exercise, Kylee said, therapists train Eden on things like maneuvering a walker, crawling and exercises that will help regain core muscles.
Through it all, Kylee said Eden has remained the bubbly person that she was even before the accident.
"She's constantly smiling and laughing. Her personality hasn’t changed. She's always happy like that."
Though the therapy may seem intense, Kylee and her husband, Nic, were not interested in other options.
"From day one we have always focused on her recovery," Kylee said. "At home all they do is compensation therapy. That wasn’t acceptable for us. In our minds we have always seen her as recovered."
Five months later, Eden is making improvements. She has developed abs, glutes and hip flexers. She's experiencing goosebumps and now sweating on her legs. Previously, Kylee said, doctors had trouble just keeping her body temperature under control.
Kylee said the way Eden understands her injury, "her legs are asleep," and all they're doing is "trying to wake her body up."
As for life as a family, Kylee describes the recent changes as "dramatic."
"We lived in a hospital for two months," she said. "We’ve had to travel long distances for therapy. It’s made us rely on each other a lot more. It’s very lonely being the parent of a child with a spinal cord injury. It’s hard to understand what we go through on a day-to-day basis."
But Kylee, Nic and Hoelscher's 9-year-old sister, Isabella, are optimistic that she'll make a full recovery.
"She's just so full of life and excitement and basically just carries us on. This could’ve happened to us at any time. That’s the thing — it truly could’ve happened to anybody, and that’s what makes Eden's story so moving."