McKinley Blue grinned as she flexed her tiny arms above her head.

The pose, representing resilience and strength, showed just how far she has come. A month and a half ago, the then-4-year-old girl arrived at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital’s Omaha campus in a wheelchair after suffering a traumatic head injury in a May 11 car wreck.

On Wednesday, she walked out of Madonna with a #McKinleyStrong T-shirt, a pink helmet protecting her skull and a supportive family by her side.

A team of Madonna nurses and therapists presented McKinley with a spirit award given to patients who demonstrate courage, dedication and resilience in their journey to recovery.

McKinley is a spunky 5-year-old who has come a long way in a short time, said Kate Scott, a Madonna speech language pathologist.

“She’s just a completely different kid,” Scott said. “She’s up dancing and moving. She’s often got a smile on her face.”

McKinley had more than just her release to celebrate. On Thursday, she turns 5 years old, a birthday celebrated a day early at Madonna on Wednesday with cupcakes, polka-dot balloons and a baby doll.

For a girl so young, she has faced considerable trauma. McKinley was in the back seat of her grandmother’s car May 11 when a pickup truck rear-ended the vehicle near 172nd and Q Streets. Critical injuries kept her hospitalized for more than two weeks. During that time, she was in a medically induced coma and had part of her skull removed.

The secret to McKinley’s rapid progress in rehab was her 10-year-old sister, Miley, who Scott said has “been here every step of the way.”

On Wednesday, the two girls wore identical pink helmets and black leggings. The sisters giggled and laughed together while bouncing balloons around the indoor playground and therapy room where they have spent each day playing and working side by side.

Miley said she’ll wear the helmet until her sister is able to take hers off.

“I wanted her to feel like she was beautiful,” Miley said of her decision to wear the helmet.

Miley went to each of McKinley’s therapy sessions to gently encourage her with simple reminders: “You can do it,” or “After this, we can play.”

“It’s really amazing to see how much she’s improved,” Miley said. “I’m really proud of her. I can’t even explain how happy I am for her.”

Jessica Blue, the girls’ mother, said her daughters have always shared a special bond.

“I knew Miley would be her best therapy all along,” she said.

McKinley will continue outpatient physical, occupational, speech and other forms of therapy at Madonna. She will require several surgeries to replace the piece of her skull that was removed.

But this fall, she will encounter a new challenge: kindergarten.

Miley can’t wait to be at school with her sister and best friend.

“I know I’m going to have my little sister back,” Miley said.

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