When Clifford resident Yesenia Hernandez thinks of Lancer Stadium on the grounds of Amherst County High School, a flood of pleasant memories and her deep love for marching band rushes over her.
The 2020 graduate of ACHS was a freshman at the school and a member of the band when an Oct. 11, 2016, wreck on Virginia 151 in Amherst County severely injured her and put her in a coma for just more than two weeks. The wreck claimed the life of her mother, Maria Magdalena Anavia-Roman.
Hernandez, 18, during an interview Oct. 28 — the four-year anniversary of waking from her coma — described the “breathtaking” experience of later returning to the football field during her recovery and looking over the crowd during a halftime performance with the marching band.
“It was a moment I will never forget,” Hernandez said. “It’s where I wanted to be and knowing that’s where I was meant to be ... in the middle of the show I started getting comfortable with it and remembered why I started doing it in the first place. It made me feel so much better, that I was going to get better.”
Hernandez considers ACHS a major contributor to her healing process and recovery as she learned to talk and eventually walk again following physical therapy. On May 24 she was among the senior class who took part in the high school’s “Commencement in Cars” graduation ceremony in the parking lot directly next to the stadium.
She said she was scared to graduate but also excited to start the next journey in her life.
“I didn’t want to leave the school because of the teachers,” said Hernandez. “I loved each and every one of them. They had a big impact on my life.”
The road to recovery A day after the crash that killed 36-year-old Anavia-Roman, two younger children who were in the car at the time were home from the hospital recovering with family, said Pamela Salgado, Anavia-Roman’s niece, in an October 2016 interview.
“She was filled with life, and she really did love everybody,” Salgado said of Anavia-Roman. “She opened her arms to everybody; she was a very caring person.”
Anavia-Roman was killed following a two-vehicle crash on Virginia 151 near Turkey Mountain Road in Amherst County, according to Virginia State Police. According to police, Anavia-Roman was pulling out of a private driveway when she failed to yield to a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee traveling north on Virginia 151.
Hernandez said she doesn’t have much memory of the incident. She was airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where she said she spent a few months before transferring to a children’s hospital in Norfolk.
“At [the UVa hospital] they said I kept moving uncontrollably,” Hernandez said. “My hands would just spasm and so would my legs. I could not walk and I could not speak either until I got to Norfolk.”
She recalled the physical therapy she underwent at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk, regaining speech and learning to walk again, a process she said seemed like she completely forgot about. A walker helped in regain mobility, she said, and a special bike also aided in the therapy.
“It helped me move my legs more,” she said of using the bike on rides down the hallways. “It was hard for me because I had a feeding tube in my stomach.”
She used the walker during her return home from the Norfolk hospital, a special celebration her family organized with balloons and food. Being back at her home on Virginia 151 in the Clifford community was different as she had become accustomed to months of hospital life and doctors.
“The hospital life became a normal thing for me,” she said of the adjustment. “It was really, really weird for me to sleep on a bed with no railings.”
Back to school While recuperating from her injuries, Hernandez said, she continued some of her studies and was excited to return to Amherst County High School. She was eager to see fellow classmates and teachers again in seeking to return to some normalcy before the car wreck.
She was in a wheelchair at the time she returned and recalled feeling strange about it at first.
Her fellow students helped her adjust and embraced the wheelchair, pushing her on it and coming up with fun activities she could do, she said. “They just helped me a lot with that,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t feel as uncomfortable in a wheelchair as I used to.”
She said educators at the school also greatly helped her in many ways, including heartfelt conversations and laughter.
“They just made me feel like I was accepted there,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t think my injuries would allow people to look at me the same ... the teachers were really supportive with helping me get back on track. They were really great people to talk to. I had a lot of laughs with them.”
Her academic work also started off gradually with four classes and eventually went back to a full day, which she described as a challenge teachers and staff helped her meet.
ACHS Principal Derrick Brown said he had the honor of being Yesenia’s principal in middle school and high school her senior year.
“Yesenia is the definition of resiliency and kindness,” Brown said. “She was a constant source of inspiration for our staff and her peers and her actions, determination, and grace challenged us all to be better every day.”
A love for music One of Hernandez’s fondest experiences at the school was marching band. Before recovering from her traumatic brain injury, she played flute.
The band dedicated its performance the week of the accident to Yesenia.
“That really touched me,” she said of the gesture, adding of her love for the band: “It’s just always been there for me. Marching band was really my everything while I was there.”
She said Mark Campbell, the band’s director, is “my absolute favorite teacher.” After her injuries, she couldn’t control her breath that well and didn’t move her left hand much, an issue that was alleviated when she took up percussion.
“That got me moving it more,” she said of using her left hand. “Music was just really good therapy for that.”
Though nervous about performing for the first time at Lancer Stadium, she said stepping onto the field was as familiar as being home.
She loves music and feels perhaps she could do teach it one day.
“I love being around kids and helping them,” Hernandez said. “I’ve thought about being a band teacher.”
Looking to the future A native of Anaheim, California, Hernandez moved to Amherst County when she was a toddler after her dad found a job, she said. She enjoys many activities in the tightknit community such as taking part in the Christmas parade with band. She also enjoys the scenery, especially in the peak of fall colors.
“It’s a small place but I found a lot of very nice people in this area,” she said.
Like her fellow seniors, the coronavirus pandemic robbed her of many senior year experiences.
“It was a different kind of loss,” she said of the grief she and other students went through.
She envisioned walking across a stage at Liberty University to accept her diploma in a normal graduation situation. Instead, graduates participated in a drive-through, parade-like ceremony which better accommodated social distancing.
“It was just all we could have, so I accepted it,” she said.
As she comes to terms with her memory loss, she said, memories often will pop up out of nowhere.
“It’s a just a thing that had to happen,” she said of the October 2016 wreck. “I miss my memories. I miss my mom.”
She attends Central Virginia Community College virtually and works at McDonald’s in Amherst.
“I prefer being busy instead of really slow,” she said of the restaurant. “The rush is pretty fun.”
She said she likes business and is considering pursuing that as a career goal, as she and her sister have discussed the idea of opening a restaurant. Another potential destination is law school and becoming an immigration lawyer, a career she said she has long thought about.
“I want to somehow make an impact on immigration policy and hopefully change it for the better for future immigrants and their families,” Hernandez said.
Summer Hensley, a friend of Yesenia’s, described her as incredibly strong, optimistic and full of life.
“She’s such a role model for me,” Hensley said. “It just blows my mind how strong she is.”
Hensley said Yesenia has a great sense of humor and was a major inspiration to her fellow classmates.
“She’s taught me resiliency, optimism, that life is short and shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Hensley said. “She’s taught me the value of friendship. She’s one of the best friends you could ask for in life.”
Wherever her life takes her, Brown said he is glad to have been a part of helping her prepare for it.
“It was a privilege to have her in our building,” Brown said. “And I am confident she will have a future as bright as her spirit.”