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3-year-old who 'treats everyone like family' has brain surgery after Riverbank wreck

Chelsea Rocha, 3, of Riverbank, in mid-November 2017, a few weeks before the crash that left her in critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Chelsea Rocha, 3, of Riverbank, in mid-November 2017, a few weeks before the crash that left her in critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

A 3-year-old girl who was badly injured by a reckless driver in Riverbank last month underwent brain surgery this week. The long-term effects of Chelsea Rocha's injuries will become more clear over the next few weeks as she is weaned off of sedative medication and undergoes therapy.

"When all this happened … I forgave the guy, in my heart, in exchange for my daughter’s life,” said Chelsea's father, Joel Rocha said. “I can’t be praying for her recovery if I am hoping the worst (for him). The most important thing right now is not anger, it is my daughter."

The man responsible for his daughter’s injuries, 29-year-old Felix Daniel Wilkerson, has been charged with reckless driving causing great bodily injury, hit-and-run resulting in injury and driving on a suspended license due to a prior conviction of driving under the influence with an excessive blood-alcohol level.

As someone who is in recovery for addiction, Chelsea's mother Kristene Parmley said, "I really hope this guy finds himself, I hope he can find God because God is what has kept my daughter alive. I hope he realizes what kind of damage he has done to my family and I hope he feels bad, but I also hope he finds some kind of stability in his life so this doesn’t happen to another family."

Wilkerson is scheduled to appear in Stanislaus County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing next week.

Authorities said he was driving in excess of 75 mph on Patterson Road near Riverbank High School Nov. 28 when he crashed into the Toyota Camry in which Chelsea was riding near Snedigar Road.

Wilkerson fled the scene but crashed into a pasture a short distance away.

Chelsea’s adult cousin who was driving the Camry, and that cousin’s 4-year-old son, suffered relatively minor injuries and were released from the hospital later that night.

But Rocha said the front seat collapsed during the collision and hit Chelsea, who suffered severe head injuries and bruised lungs.

She was taken by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Chelsea's skull fractured, which doctors told Rocha actually helped make room for the swelling in her brain.

She was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma for about a week while her lungs healed because Rocha said she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to breathe on her own.

She was taken off the ventilator Tuesday, when doctors reassessed her brain injury.

Rocha said they found a tear in her dura – a membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord – which required surgery.

He said during surgery Wednesday doctors discovered the damage was worse than first expected.

Parmley said a a piece of Chelsea's brain had pushed through her skull so a dissolvable plate was inserted.

Rocha hopes she will soon be back to the little girl who, “treats everybody like family ... loves the outdoors and loves her inside cuddle time as well."

Parmley said Chelsea has made great progress already. She can sit up and talk and eat soft foods; her favorite is chocolate pudding. She refers to the sponge that is used to wet her mouth as "Sponge Bob," Parmley said.

Chelsea has started on speech, physical therapy and occupational therapy and will likely need to remain in the hospital until January or February.

Chelsea will turn 4 on Dec. 15.

"This is where her birthday and Christmas will be,” Rocha said by phone from her hospital room in ICU on Thursday. “We have already decorated a little tree in her room."

To help Chelsea's family with medical expenses you can donate at www.gofundme.com/4s4ig7c.

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