On March 23, Hailey Lane — a sophomore cadet home from the Air Force Academy for spring break — entered her parents' gym in Midlothian, Virginia, to train for an upcoming physical fitness test.
The energetic, enthusiastic 19-year-old — a nationally ranked swimmer — knocked out a series of pullups, her mother, Brigid, said in an April 2 interview. She stopped to stretch, and fell over in full cardiac arrest.
Patrons and employees at the gym immediately rushed to help the cadet, whose heart had completely stopped. And over the next two weeks, Brigid said, Hailey's Air Force Academy family and well-wishers across the nation rallied around her, boosting her family's spirits and helping the cadet come back from the brink of death.
A social media campaign centered around the hashtag #HaileyStrong, featuring people holding up yellow signs of support, gathered steam. Yellow is Hailey's favorite color.
And on April 2, Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams arrived in Virginia to visit Hailey and her family, bringing letters and patches donated by every squadron in the academy to show their support.
"I have been so awed by the response of the world," Brigid said. "It's been so wonderful to have that support. We've been so touched."
Hailey's condition was dire at first. She was placed in a medically induced coma and put on a life support machine called an ECMO, or Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation, as well as a ventilator and dialysis. But as the days went on, she gradually improved — opening her eyes, smiling, wiggling her toes and squeezing the hand of a doctor.
She improved so much, doctors removed her from the ECMO machine on March 31. Her father, Dennis, said on April 2 they hoped to take her off the ventilator that day or the next — the 20th birthday of Hailey and her twin sister, Savannah. Her parents hope to begin moving her off of dialysis soon as well.
Brigid said two academy cadets and a former cadet quickly came to the hospital and began helping the Lane family. Hailey's friends looked after her young brother, Brennan, and her cousins, and distracted the family when their grief became overwhelming, while sleeping in waiting room chairs or on the floor.
"These young men stood up and were our sounding boards when we fell apart again and again," Brigid said.
One cadet from Hailey's squadron, senior Nate Johnson, got her to smile by pretending to steal her Ray-Bans, which Brigid said was a running gag between them.
"She did that smile again, and we were literally screaming," Brigid said.
Hailey's parents said that she had wanted to join the military and attend a service academy since she was in first grade, when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Her parents were on a trip to Washington, D.C., at the time, and Brigid had planned to visit the Pentagon. Brigid and Dennis couldn't get in touch with their children to let them know they were OK, and that uncertainty left Hailey and Savannah feeling helpless.
Hailey soon afterward said she wanted to join the military, and drew pictures of tanks and airplanes. She first planned to attend the Naval Academy, but also got into West Point and the Air Force Academy. And when she visited the Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs, her parents said she knew that was the place for her.
Brigid said it's a miracle to have her daughter — who she compared to a penny for her auburn hair and bright smile — possibly taken off a ventilator on her birthday.
"I want that bright copper penny back," Brigid said. "But to have her on her birthday, I'm never going to have a better birthday for her. She is my gift tomorrow."