Keira “Kiki” Cunningham's her parents were determined to celebrate her big day and the progress she’s made since suffering a life-altering brain injury in 2017.

By Morgan Smith
Updated April 30, 2020
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The Cunningham family

Family and friends had a special surprise for an 11-year-old girl in New York after her birthday plans were canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Keira “Kiki” Cunningham and her family were scheduled to be swimming with dolphins in the Florida Keys before travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders forced them to indefinitely postpone their trip.

But Kiki’s parents, Lauren, 40, and Chad, 38, were determined to make the little girl’s birthday special, especially to celebrate the progress she’s made since suffering a life-altering brain injury in 2017.

Kiki was playing outside during a family barbecue when she began complaining about a crushing headache, Lauren recalls.

“She was like, ‘Mom, something’s not right,’” she tells PEOPLE.

Then she started screaming in pain. The couple rushed Kiki to a nearby hospital in Nyack, New York.

Once stabilized, Kiki was transferred to Westchester Medical Center, where she underwent life-saving emergency surgery. Doctors later determined that Kiki suffered an AVM — an abnormal tangle of blood vessels that unexpectedly ruptured in her brain, causing a hemorrhage, stroke and paralysis.

Keira “Kiki” Cunningham
The Cunningham family.

Her initial prognosis was dim — doctors told the Cunninghams that Kiki likely wouldn’t be able to sit up or move on her own again.

“It was very shocking and very scary, but she’s always been a fighter,” Lauren says. “Her attitude was always, ‘I can do anything my brothers can do.’”

After months of therapies at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester County, Kiki is able to sit up, stand and walk a little. She’s even joined her church’s cheerleading squad, one of her favorite sports before the stroke.

Her speech is strengthening, too: Kiki uses assistive technology to communicate but can say words like “Mom,” “Dad” and “no.”

Keira “Kiki” Cunningham
The Cunningham family.

On Thursday, Kiki smiled and waved in her driveway at the parade of family and friends who cheered, danced and waved posters from their cars to wish her a happy birthday. Even Kiki’s nurses and teacher made an appearance.

Asked about her special day, Kiki chose two words: “excited” and “happy.”

The Cunninghams — like many families throughout the world — are navigating remote special education and therapy sessions for Kiki, who can’t visit school or the children’s hospital amid the ongoing pandemic.

“My husband served in the military, then Keira got sick, so our family has become very good at adapting to new situations,” Lauren says. “This is just another challenge, like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re dealing with now.’”

Facing new hurdles like WiFi strength and technology access amid the pandemic, therapists at Blythedale are getting creative with how to engage and help children like Kiki, the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Scott Klein, explains.

“Kids are super proud to show the therapists their world, too: their siblings, their bedroom, their stuffed animals,” he tells PEOPLE.

Kiki attends online classes and speech therapy via her iPad. On nicer days, she rides her therapy bike outside with older brothers Dylan, 12, and Cade, 15, cheering her on.

Some days are more stressful than others, Lauren acknowledges. But she holds on to advice that someone passed along shortly after Kiki’s stroke.

“It’s hour by hour, then it’s day by day, then it’s week by week,” she says. “That’s what everybody has to do everyday: you wake up,  get through work, therapy, whatever … you don’t beat yourself up, give yourself a break and do the best you can.”

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