Like a rock star, 11-year-old Mackenzie Saunders returned to Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School Monday morning and received a wild welcome from dozens of her friends.

Mackenzie, known as Mack, was partially paralyzed from the waist down after being hit from behind during a soccer game late last year.

She arrived at school in a rental wheelchair with purple trim, and her first act was to get a key to the school’s elevator.

“We’re happy to have you back,” student services secretary Geri Dempesy said as she handed over the key.

Soon the breezeway in the school’s quad was jammed with squealing girls all rushing to get near Mackenzie.

“They’re thrilled to see her come back. They’re all pulling for her,” said Ernie Brodersen, the school principal.

Dad Gary Saunders stood nearby, quickly losing sight of his youngest daughter in the swirl of screaming students.

“It was five weeks ago this morning, in intensive care, and the doctor asked her to move her legs and nothing. She couldn’t move them at all. It was scary,” Saunders said.

After 34 days in various hospitals Mackenzie returned home last week and while she uses a wheelchair to get around, she can walk short distances using a walker.

“Having her dog sleep with her was special. She was very excited. And no more hospital food,” Saunders said with a laugh. “We’re excited to have her home and get our semi-normal life back.”

Her recovery has been impressive, but more work remains for Mackenzie, who will continue physical therapy three days a week at Barrow Neurological Institute of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

Her prognosis for walking again are good, but as hospital staff repeatedly told Saunders, spinal cord injuries are like snowflakes, every one is different.

Fortunately, Mackenzie has been encouraged during her recovery by an outpouring of community support.

“Ahwatukee is just such a great place to live. The community has been awesome,” Saunders said. “I can’t say enough about Ahwatukee.”

Which is good, because while the Saunders have medical insurance, it’s a policy where after 10 days they are responsible for half of the bill.

“Yep, it’s gonna be a big one,” Saunders said.

To help, the community had a carwash and bake sale on Jan. 2 that raised more than $11,000 in a few hours. In addition:

• One local company donated 150 T-shirts, which were sold at a soccer tournament.

• Mackenzie’s sister Alexa raised $1,640 at a separate carwash at a local Taco Bell, where she received numerous individual donations of $100.

• A yoga studio, hair salon and a musical group offered to do fundraisers.

The family also has established the Mackenzie Saunders Medical Fund at Bank of America, with all donations going to her medical bills.

“The love and support has been overwhelming, to myself and my family,” Saunders said.

Despite worries about money and his daughter’s recovery, Saunders has been upbeat.

He said that walking through Barrow’s, where patients recover from every type of spinal cord injury imaginable, helped put things into perspective.

“The worst case scenario was she would never walk again. But we would still have her,” Saunders said.

“Fortunately, this should have a happy ending.”

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