Bailey Fernandez spent the days after Christmas 2010 in a hospital bed, recovering from a brain surgery that removed a rare tumor. Today, the Winter Garden native is a standout varsity softball player for the South Lake High Eagles.
The headaches were debilitating — and frequent.
Bailey Fernandez was just 10 years old at the time; she grew up in Winter Garden and played youth softball out of the West Orange Girls Club.
For a girl who loved softball and being out on the field with her teammates, the increasing frequency with which the headaches occurred — and the overwhelming discomfort they caused — was jarring.
Her coaches didn’t know what to do and often opted to sit her out to be on the safe side.
“(The headaches) were bad to where I couldn’t really open my eyes or the smallest shade of light would hurt my head,” Bailey said.
As her condition worsened, her parents — Malissa and Gilbert Fernandez — decided to take Bailey to South Lake Hospital in the fall of 2010.
The initial diagnoses was a sinus infection, but when Bailey — the youngest of four sisters — awoke on Christmas and could not even enjoy the electric guitar Santa had left under the tree, Bailey and her family returned to the hospital.
This time, the doctors recommended she immediately be taken to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in downtown Orlando for an MRI.
“I was just wondering, ‘What the heck is going on?’” said Bailey, now 17 with her 18th birthday looming April 17. “What are (the doctors) talking to my mom about?”
A frantic night ensued, with long conversations between her parents and the doctors. When the final verdict came down, it was initially devastating: Bailey had a cancerous brain tumor that would require surgery. The rare tumor causing Bailey’s striking discomfort was known as pilocytic astrocytoma, a slow-growing tumor that occurs most commonly in children and young adults.
On Dec. 27, 2010, Bailey Fernandez endured a six-hour brain surgery that — much to the relief of worried family and friends — was successful.
'She's a fighter'
A little over seven years later, Bailey and her family still recall the ordeal in vivid detail.
A junior at South Lake High and now residing in Lake County, Bailey’s softball career is back on track and thriving. She is a dynamic power hitter and leads the South Lake Eagles in RBIs (19), hits (23) and batting average (.442).
She is also a standout for one of Texas Glory Fastpitch Softball’s four Florida-based teams. Colleges are taking note of her power at the plate and her strong arm and “pop time” at catcher.
It may sound like a long time ago, but it isn’t necessarily so for the Fernandez family. Malissa Fernandez, in particular, still remembers the way her youngest daughter struggled during her recovery.
“She’s a fighter,” Malissa Fernandez said.
Bailey had to be kept mostly inside for several months and had to wait for her hair to grow back from where the surgery took place — a tough thing for a 10-year old girl who wanted to feel pretty.
“I felt like an alien with a bunch of stuff wrapped around my head,” Bailey said. “It felt weird.”
Bailey’s hair grew back, she recovered and eventually got back out on the field by the summer of 2011. A travel team called the Diamonds Fastpitch 10U took Bailey on that summer. Even as she recovered and struggled with being out in the Florida heat again, and even as her parents were worrying of injury, she began to feel like her old self.
For years after, Bailey would see a doctor every six months to track her progress and see that the cancer didn’t return.
In 2017, she was declared cancer-free. Despite all of this, and the tremendous strength and positivity she showed throughout, Bailey was reserved about her story — many of her travel and varsity teammates are not aware.
“I don’t really tell anybody,” Bailey said. “People are so judgmental these days.”
Now, as her junior season nears districts and she prepares for college visits, Bailey has shared her story. She and her family hope it inspires anyone going through a similar situation and make more folks aware that childhood cancer is real.
“She was so worried other kids would think she was a freak,” Malissa Fernandez recalled. “We tell her, ‘Don’t be ashamed’ — God is great and has a plan for her.”
In addition to schoolwork and playing varsity softball, she trains every weekend with Garrett Nuss at V2Pro Fitness and Sergio Rodriguez. She is working to get faster to increase interest from colleges.
And mostly, she’s happy to be out on the softball diamond as often as possible — knowing, better than most teens her age, how lucky she is to be out on the field doing so.
“If it wasn’t for softball, I’d stay at home and do nothing,” Bailey said. “It’s something that I do — I get to come out here and ball out.”