Bella Melendy, 7, was lying flat on the couch of her Keene home Wednesday, her eyes glued to the TV and an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Her grandmother, Julie Mainey, said that’s how Bella had spent most of the afternoon.
“She used to run around and sing and be a free spirit. That’s all changed,” she said.
Bella has made significant strides since her sledding accident eight months ago, but Mainey said her personality is “drastically” different.
The activities she used to love, like playing outside, are just too much for her most days. She gets confused sometimes and has headaches. She’s sensitive to light and has mood swings, all symptoms of her traumatic brain injury.
“Physically, Bella looks fine, but a lot of people don’t know what’s going on inside her head,” said Bella’s mom, Crystal Melendy. “We don’t know when [the symptoms] will fade out or be gone completely.”
But as Bella continues her recovery, she has the community’s support. She and her family will be the beneficiaries of the next Red Cap Run, a race to help local families in crisis.
“How does [their] story not pull on your heart strings? This little 6-year-old girl going out, having a good time, and her life is changed forever,” said Red Cap Run director Sara Alderfer. “Bella is the one dealing with the traumatic brain injury, but everyone in their family is struggling with that accident.”
It happened Feb. 17, when Bella went sledding with her family on Horse Hill Road in Marlborough. She hopped on her sled and disappeared behind a hill, according to Crystal. Bella’s older brother, Damien Malcolm, then 9, discovered her unconscious at the tree line.
Bella, who was airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, fractured her skull, suffered a small brain bleed and had ligament damage from the accident.
She had to wear a neck brace for months and had short-term memory loss, among the other effects of her traumatic brain injury.
She also had to stay home from 1st grade for the rest of the year, but a tutor from the Keene School District worked with her from home.
In June, doctors let Bella remove the neck brace and said as long as she kept improving, she could return to Franklin School this fall as a 2nd-grader.
Luckily, she did. While Bella continues to have symptoms, Crystal says she has progressed enough to be back in the classroom.
But sometimes, it takes its toll. There are days where the fluorescent lights, the classroom chatter and the difficulties of learning are overwhelming for her.
“She’s allowed to go to the nurse’s office to rest, and, if need be, she’s allowed to call me or [the teacher] can call me to come get her,” Crystal said, noting this has happened several times.
Even so, doctors remind Crystal and Mainey that Bella’s survival was “a miracle.”
“I thank God she’s here. I thank God every day,” Mainey said. “He could’ve taken her.”
Running for a cause
Organized by Body & Soul Runners, the nonprofit group and running club, the Red Cap Run began as a fundraiser for the family of Keene resident Kenneth C. “Kenny” Valenti Jr., who was killed in a work-related accident in 2014. Valenti was known for wearing a red hat, inspiring the race’s name, Alderfer said in 2018.
Since then, the run has helped four other area residents and their families, including Jennifer J. Goguen McGrail, who had advanced breast cancer; Susan L. Wells, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Lisa Lancey, of Richmond, whose husband, Calvin, died in a motorcycle crash that left her with a shattered pelvis; and Aiden Beers, a Sullivan boy who was born with spina bifida and needed surgery.
McGrail and Wells, both of Keene, died in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Alderfer said Bella was one of “five or six” people to be nominated for this next run — the highest number of nominees the event has received to date — but the organization’s board of directors still chose her unanimously.
The sixth annual 5K, which can also be walked, is slated for Saturday, Feb. 8, at 10 a.m. in Keene. There will also be a one-mile kids run.
A pre-race celebration, on Friday, Feb. 7, and a post-race celebration will be held at the Courtyard by Marriott Keene Downtown in Railroad Square. The Marriott will donate proceeds from the events’ drink and appetizer sales to Bella’s family.
“On one hand, we try to raise a lot of money for the family, but they also always appreciate the fact there is this community of people behind them, and they aren’t in it alone,” Alderfer said. “That’s the thing we want to do for the Melendys.”
Crystal, who said she’s “in shock” Bella was selected, is still unsure what she’ll put the money toward. A new car for the back-and-forth to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon for Bella’s appointments is an option.
But, aside from the financial support, Crystal said what she’s really excited about is using the run’s publicity to shed light on the importance of wearing helmets when sledding, just as someone would when skiing or riding a bike.
“I’ve never seen someone wear a helmet when sledding, but, when you think about it, you’re going about 30 or 40 miles per hour down a hill,” she said. “Please, please, just wear a helmet.”
The online registration for this year’s run is not yet active, Alderfer said, but those interested can visit its Facebook page, Red Cap Run, for updates.