15-Year-Old Burn Victim Crowned Homecoming Princess by Utah Classmates: 'Thousands Have Been Touched by Her Fighting Spirit,' Says Her Dad
"Baylee's not out of the woods, but one day this will be behind her. And when she looks back, she'll remember every one of these kids who took the time to show her the meaning of love," B.J. Hoaldridge tells PEOPLE
Since the Fourth of July, when she was severely burned on 65 percent of her body during an ATV accident, 15-year-old Baylee Hoaldridge of Spanish Fork, Utah, has been confined to a hospital burn unit, in constant pain and fighting infections as she struggles to heal.
The sophomore had to miss the first day of class at Timpview High School and get-togethers with her softball team, but her classmates had big plans to include her in the school’s homecoming activities.
Last month, Timpview’s fellow students surprised Baylee by electing her homecoming princess, then decorating the lobby outside the burn unit at the University of Utah Hospital with flowers, banners and balloons. When Baylee was wheeled downstairs, 30 of her school friends presented her with a crown, then all wept openly.
“She’s so loved by so many – she’s the kind of person everyone wants to be around,” Holly Lewis, 16, tells PEOPLE. “Even though Baylee is in pain now, she still has a smile on her face. Everyone wanted to come together to help her.”
“That room was filled with so much love and support – it was overwhelming,” adds Baylee’s best friend, Rachel Gardner, 17. “It had been a long time since I’d seen Baylee smiling because she was truly happy. It was a humbling experience.”
It was on July 4, during a family outing in the foothills near Mona, Utah, that everything changed in an instant for Baylee. The Polaris Razor ATV she was riding on with her father, B.J. Hoaldridge, and two other relatives, tipped over and immediately burst into flames.
When everybody except Baylee had escaped the ATV, her dad burned his arm holding the teen’s face away from the flames as he desperately worked to undo her seat belt and get her out of the four-seater.
“When she got out, she had to roll on the ground because her shorts and T-shirt were on fire,” B.J., a 40-year-old network marketing manager, tells PEOPLE. “And she was burned so badly that for the first five weeks, she had to be sedated. Baylee was in a fight for her life.”
With Polaris Industries Inc. announcing on Oct. 4 that it was recalling 53,000 ATVs because tank vent lines may have been installed incorrectly in 2015 models, leading to small fires, the Hoaldridges are now considering legal action.
“A vehicle like this should not catch fire and erupt into flames simply because it tipped on its side,” attorney Paxton Guymon tells PEOPLE. “Baylee’s burns have severely compromised her immune system. She’s still fighting to survive this tragedy.”
Twice, Baylee went into septic shock and almost died from infection, says her mother, Nicole Hoaldridge, 39, a homemaker with three other children, “but she rallied each time. Every single day, they have to take off her dressings and clean her wounds and it’s extremely painful. But Baylee doesn’t give up, even though she knows it’s going to be a long road. She wants to get back to her life.”
Baylee has endured 20 skin grafting surgeries, says her father, with another dozen or so to go. Her colon had to be removed due to infection, he says, so to reduce the risk of further infections, doctors covered her wounds with cadaver tissue and pig skin. “From her bra line on down, she is completely burned,” B.J. tells PEOPLE. “But she’s an inspiration. Thousands have been touched by her fighting spirit.”
With more than 15,000 people now following her fight on her “Be Brave Baylee” Facebook page, the Hoaldridges have also started a GoFundMe account, which has brought in more than $34,000 thus far to help pay Baylee’s mounting medical bills.
After voting for Baylee as homecoming princess, her classmates at Timpview High School also organized a 5k race for Oct. 10 to help her family with hospital costs.
“When people come together for something good, they can change lives,” says Sydney Schiess, 17, a Timpview senior who helped organize Baylee’s homecoming surprise. “Baylee can barely speak, but her radiating smile is genuine. Her personality of faith, perseverance and kindness is stronger than any physical limitation.”
Touched by the students’ compassion, B.J. Hoaldridge says he knows their actions have given his daughter strength to keep fighting.
“They’ve shown us that there are great young men and women out there in the world who have giving hearts,” he says. “Baylee’s not out of the woods, but one day this will be behind her. And when she looks back, she’ll remember every one of these kids who took the time to show her the meaning of love.”