Eight-year-old Neilah Maule moved her parents to tears with a softly spoken "hi."
To most people, the greeting wouldn't have meant much. To Neilah's loved ones, it was miraculous.
Neilah suffered a traumatic brain injury, a broken leg and massive jaw injuries in a horrific car wreck July 19 in LaPorte County. Doctors initially said she had little chance of survival.
Valparaiso resident Katie Atkins, 26, was driving Neilah, Neilah's 5-year-old sister Jaidyn and the girls' cousin to their grandmother's house at 7:30 a.m. when a Michigan City man crossed the centerline on a curve, hitting Atkins' car with his SUV.
Atkins died, and Neilah and Jaidyn were seriously injured in the wreck. The girls' cousin was uninjured.
Michigan City resident John Mikle faces multiple criminal charges, including reckless homicide, operating while intoxicated causing death and two counts of operating while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury. He was high on PCP at the time of the crash, criminal court records state.
Neil Lachmund, an officer with the LaPorte County Sheriff's Department, was one of the first officers at the scene. He said the wreck affected him more than any other in his 10 years in law enforcement.
He recounted holding one of the sisters' hands and trying to keep her conscious while emergency personnel loaded her into an ambulance. He said he later realized he knew Neilah and Jaidyn's mother, LaPorte resident Kelly Maule.
To garner support for the family, Lachmund posted a request on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and Adele's Facebook pages. Neilah and Jaidyn like both stars, as well as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
"Kelly and her family have been a shining example of strength, love and faith to our entire community," Lachmund wrote in his Facebook post. "Like me, Kelly and her family are not ones to ask for handouts or any kind of help. ... So I am asking, on their behalf, to help bring some joy to this family."
His post garnered more than 150,000 likes and more than 7,000 comments on DeGeneres' page. His post on Adele's page brought an additional 23,800 likes and nearly 1,200 comments.
People from around the world offered support and said they would pray for Neilah and Jaidyn's recoveries. Region residents have hosted multiple fundraisers for the family in Valparaiso and LaPorte.
Neilah and Jaidyn's father, Valparaiso resident Sam Maule, said the community's outpouring of support has helped him cope with his girlfriend Atkins' death and his daughters' injuries.
Danielle Strefling was one of Neilah's nurses at IU Health LaPorte Hospital on the day of the crash. She said she lost control of her emotions when Sam Maule gave the little girl a kiss goodbye.
"Not a single day has gone by that she hasn't crossed my mind," Strefling said in a post on the Maule family benefit Facebook page. "I've never wanted a patient to pull through so badly."
When Neilah was brought into the emergency room, doctors told a nurse to help the family "send their baby to heaven," Sam Maule said.
"They didn't expect her to live past the first 72 hours, didn't expect her to breathe on her own, to move, to open her eyes," he said. "She's done all of that and is still working through a lot of other things."
After the wreck, Neilah was transported to the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, then to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where she remains today.
Sam Maule said doctors want Neilah to be able to walk the distance of a house with assistance, to bear her weight on her arms and to use her hands for standard tasks by the time she leaves rehabilitation.
So far, family friend Jennifer Mrozinski said Neilah is exceeding doctors' expectations "1,000 percent." Mrozinski created the Maule family benefit Facebook page to keep people updated on Neilah and Jaidyn's progress.
"They've both been just great fighters," Mrozinski said. "Their recovery is just amazing to me."
Jaidyn is nearly recovered from injuries she suffered in the crash. She was treated at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis for multiple face fractures and a broken clavicle, arm and leg. Mrozinski said Jaidyn is able to walk again but still will need plastic surgery for her face.
"She's the most high-spirited girl ever," Mrozinski said. "She's so independent, which is why she got better so quick."
Jaidyn is being home-schooled by her grandmother at the Ronald McDonald House near the Rehabilitation Institute where Neilah is staying. She is her sister's biggest fan.