Julie Hill has difficulty finding words, haltingly repeating “ums” as her thought processes negotiate an arduous obstacle course.
Yet without a moment’s hesitation, she can sing along verbatim with Bruno Mars hits.
In March of 2016, the popular high school senior from San Diego almost died when the car she was riding in struck a building. Although several other teens in the vehicle survived without injury, Hill’s head violently slammed against the backseat window.
As she emerged from a 57-day coma, she suddenly began lip syncing to “Nothin’ On You” as it played on her phone. “It was the first sign that the lights were still on,” said her dad, Jim Hill.
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Julie Hill, 19, received what she called her “best, best, best birthday gift ever”: a ticket to the Bruno Mars concert at the Forum in Los Angeles that night.
Her new friend Mary Desmond — also 19 — presented the surprise at High Hopes Head Injury Program in Tustin, where Hill is undergoing rehabilitation.
The daughter of High Hopes director Mark Desmond, Mary said she “grew up volunteering” there.
A budding pop singer and recording artist, the recent Mission Viejo High graduate strummed her guitar and belted out “Just the Way You Are” as Hill softly accompanied her.
Then Desmond handed Hill a gift bag with a Bruno Mars 24k Magic World Tour T-shirt inside.
Underneath was the golden ticket.
“We’re going to the Bruno Mars concert tonight!” Desmond exclaimed.
“Oh, my gosh, really? No way,” Hill responded.
“Yes, way!” Desmond answered.
After a few more “no ways” and “For reals?,” the glorious news sunk in. Hill’s small audience laughed when she next asked, “Where are we going to sit?”
Desmond assured her they had pretty decent floor seats.
Mark Desmond started working with brain-injured people as a young swim coach. He joined High Hopes in 1977, then a small support group, and developed the nonprofit into a premier rehabilitation center.
Over the years, celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Pat Boone have headlined fundraisers for High Hopes.
“Just about everyone here is on a scholarship,” Desmond said.
As Desmond conducted a tour of the center, where dozens worked out on an array of cutting-edge machines, he pointed to various clients and shared back stories …
That man was an aerospace engineer who fell off a ladder. That woman was in a bicycle accident while attending college in Colorado. That teenager suffered multiple concussions playing high school football and at one game, just couldn’t get back up.
Meanwhile, Jim Hill assisted his daughter as she practiced operating a walker so that she can become less dependent on her wheelchair. “Take three good steps, sweetie, three good steps,” dad coaxed.
An outpatient service, High Hopes provides cognitive, physical and speech therapies inside the 13,000-square-foot facility across from Tustin’s enormous hangars.
Incongruously, the building — which once housed a movie set designing company — features a long hallway with medieval arches used in the 1999 film “The Haunting.”
To Mary Desmond, High Hopes is a second home where she has interacted with clients since childhood.
“When I met Julie, I felt an immediate connection to her,” she recalled. “We like the same music and we’re the same age. What happened to her could happen to me. It’s crazy to think about.”
The impending Bruno Mars concert would be a father-daughter double date.
But first came an afternoon of beauty, likewise Mary Desmond’s treat.
Jim Hill drove his daughter to Kymm’s Creations in Irvine, where stylist Kymm Gaskin straightened Hill’s curly hair into a retro shag after adding highlights. Makeup artist Leslie Brown did the rest.
For at least 10 minutes afterward, Julie Hill stared at herself in the hand mirror. “Wow,” she said in the hushed voice she has used since the accident. “I love it.”
Jim Hill discovered the salon, which has a large African-American clientele, after he and his daughter moved to San Clemente late last year to live closer to High Hopes. A researcher for an Irvine law firm, he chose an Orange County city convenient for Julie’s San Diego-based mother.
Since then, Gaskin has become like a big sister to Julie — who visits the salon frequently to enjoy its lively ambiance.
In her former life, Julie was an outgoing cheerleader and water polo star at Mar Vista High. Now she is relearning to speak, walk and control her hands.
While her friends stay in touch, her father said, they have moved on to their next busy chapters — college and jobs.
“Young people constantly come and go at the salon,” Gaskin said. “It’s motivating for Julie to see her peers here.”
Next, it was back to High Hopes, where a light dinner awaited. Then the star treatment continued. Hill and Desmond changed into their matching concert T-shirts and boarded a limo with dads in tow.
The concert, all participants later concurred, was a rousing success.
Julie Hill’s favorite moment? “When Bruno Mars walked out on stage. It was pretty cool.”
“Everyone was freaking out,” Mary Desmond agreed. “There was so much energy in the room. Bruno Mars is an incredible performer.”
For Jim Hill, the night could not have been more gratifying.
“Julie was her pre-accident self,” he said. “She was dancing, singing, snapping her fingers, pumping her fist. She was just so alive.”