Akimel student partially paralyzed playing soccer

Mackenzie Saunders was injured on the soccer field but it hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for the sport, as was clearly evident Tuesday.

What parent doesn’t swell with pride as their child plays on an athletic team, showing all the attributes of leadership, physical dexterity and confidence that we all want for our children?

And what parent doesn’t cringe when their child gets hit, pushed and knocked down during the same game?

You want your child to grow and be independent, but you also want to protect them from being hurt.

Two weeks ago the Saunders family of Ahwatukee Foothills faced that parental dilemma as their 13-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, was hit during a soccer game in the West Valley.

  Mackenzie Saunders’ medical fund Donations can be made at any Bank of America branch at any time to the Mackenzie Saunders Medical Fund.

Donations will also be accepted from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, Jan. 2, at a fundraiser car wash and bake sale in the Burger King parking lot at 4805 E. Warner Road; or from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Ahwatukee Foothills Soccer Club’s annual club 3 v 3 tournament held at Horizon Community Learning Center at 16233 S. 48th St.

All funds raised will go directly to the Saunders family to aid in Mackenzie’s recovery.

The sixth-grader at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School continued to play, but quickly she began to complain about her legs hurting.

“This is the kind of thing that hits home with every parent,” said her father, Gary Saunders. “We thought it was muscle cramps or spasms or a pulled back.”

But her condition worsened and that night they took Mackenzie, known as “Mack” to her friends, to Chandler Regional Medical Center, then Mercy Gilbert and, finally, Banner Mesa where an MRI found swelling on her spine that put her in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Click here to see a slideshow of Mackenzie's progress in physical therapy.

“It was very, very, scary. She hasn’t gained movement of her legs but we are hopeful. It’s not a matter of if she will walk, it’s when she will walk,” Gary Saunders said from St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where Mackenzie was transferred on Monday. He now spends his days there and his wife, Liz, spends nights with Mackenzie in physical therapy.

“It’s been a roller coaster over the past 10 days,” Saunders said.

Fortunately, his daughter has the kind of positive attitude that only children can have.

“It could be weeks, months,” Mackenzie said. “It’s all just a waiting game. I may have to go to school in a wheelchair (but) my teachers all know what’s happening.”

In the past two weeks Mackenzie, who has played soccer since age 5, has been making progress, including lifting her knees.

“I couldn’t do this a week ago. (Physical therapy) has really been helping,” Mackenzie said.

Her father agrees.

“Things are pointing in the right direction,” he said.

But now the family faces the reality of the looming hospital bill. The Saunders have medical insurance, but it is a policy where after 10 days they are responsible for 50 percent of the bill.

“We have to pay half the bill. Yep, it’s gonna’ be a big one,” Gary Saunders said.

But the Saunders aren’t alone. The soccer community and Ahwatukee Foothills neighbors and friends have come together to help the family.

Tomorrow, Jan. 2, the Ahwatukee Foothills Soccer Club’s Sting Red soccer team, which Mackenzie plays on, will hold a car wash fundraiser and sell baked goods in the Burger King parking lot at 4805 E. Warner Road in Ahwatukee Foothills, from 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

An account has also been opened with Bank of America and donations can be made at any bank branch to the Mackenzie Saunders Medical Fund.

For Saunders and his wife, getting Mackenzie back on her feet, literally, is their prime concern.

But Gary Saunders also admitted that while soccer is the love of Mackenzie’s life, once she can walk again, he would be happy if she picked another sport.

“Daddy would rather pick another sport, like math and science, or maybe badminton. Swimming would be good,” he said.

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