Bloomingdale Assault Survivor in Lakeland for TheraSuit Program

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LAKELAND | Every muscle in the slender 21-year-old woman's body fought for survival, some to regain functions they lost almost four years ago, the stronger ones grudgingly learning to stop trying to assume command.

Her head was encased in a blue canvas head and neck guard. Bungee cords attached to plastic hooks connected the headgear to a vest, pants, knee coverings and reinforced shoes.

All are part of a TheraSuit, a covering designed in Europe and fashioned after suits worn by early cosmonauts to offset the damage weightlessness could cause to their bones.

In her case, it's the muscles that aren't working right.

She lost control of her body in late April 2008 when a vicious attack outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library in East Hillsborough County left her unable to see, walk, talk or feed herself.

She's known now as the Bloomingdale Library Survivor.

Through donations, her family was able to bring her to Lakeland for the specialized TheraSuit program.

Physical therapists at Pediatric Therapy Services in Lakeland have fastened the suit around her five days a week since Oct. 24. It connects the varied parts of her body, from head to toe, that don't communicate with each other anymore. It encourages them to work together as the therapists take her through a series of stretches, positions and muscle exercises.

"It's to give her a sense of what her body is, to start at the top and hold it all together," said Denise Kilburn, physical therapist and co-owner of Pediatric Therapy Services.

"She's not just making muscles stronger," Kilburn said. "She's learning control. She's learning how to tell her body what to do instead of it telling her."

Her family, currently battling Medicaid for help with her ongoing, less-concentrated physical therapy, already is concentrating on how to find $5,000 for another three-week session early next year. Since she turned 21 in April and left Children's Medical Services for Medicaid, getting therapy for her has been more difficult.
 
Her mother celebrates every small victory her daughter has the same way she did when the young woman was a baby.

It's just taking far longer this time with no certainty of the final outcome.

"When you have a baby, turn around and the baby is turning herself over," she said softly as she watched her daughter focus intently on the therapists moving her arms, hands, legs and total body.

"Turn around, the baby holds up her head. It's taken her three years to hold up her head (now). It's like baby steps."

TheraSuit, which her daughter had once before at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, is a "godsend," the mother said.

The family has begun paying for some physical therapy assistance on their own. Medicaid does still pay for at-home care.

With TheraSuit and regular therapy combined, her mother said, her daughter can progress more quickly.

The Bloomingdale Library Survivor's good friend, Priscilla Viera, made deep sounds on a large drum Tuesday during therapy for the young woman she's known since they were high school sophomores in Tampa. The news media were invited to watch her therapy. Outside the clinic, Viera smiled as she talked about their friendship; recalling the movies, game nights and work experiences they shared before the attack.

Her friend was 18, anticipating attending the University of Florida on a full scholarship, when she was attacked. She was returning a book to the library after getting off work.

Her attacker was convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

"She was funny," Viera said of her friend. "She was always really positive. She was the one to make everybody feel better if they had a bad day."

 Viera now does what she can to make her friend feel connected to the life she lost by talking to her, sharing thoughts, YouTube videos and any other medium she can.
 

Viera and others who are with the Bloomingdale Survivor regularly think she can see shadows and maybe faint images.

They can tell if she likes something or if she doesn't. She communicates through widening her eyes, smiling and clenching her fists.

"I've seen her come a long way," said Ashley Waring, her caregiver for three years.

From being "basically bedridden" and resisting getting up because it hurt too much, Waring said, the young woman now is eager to get out of bed and go to therapy.

Kilburn praised her courage and spirit, saying she tries to do "everything that's asked of her within the abilities of her body."

She smiled and laughed several times during the three-hour session, although groaning at other times, but her biggest smile came once the grueling therapy ended.

Her long black hair, braided with beads, swung loose as Waring fed her through a feeding tube and positioned her in a heavy wheelchair for the ride back home.

Her head rested against a large headrest, although she made an effort to bring it down and turn her eyes toward the sounds of people talking. Small pink pillows cushioned her elbows and a small, stuffed white bear was at her side.

The attack came days after her 18th birthday, her mother said.

Instead of grieving, they celebrate her survival as a second birthday given by God.

Their pastor comes to her daughter's birthday parties, she said, and says a prayer for her continued healing.

"Maybe next time, she'll be standing on her walker when he says it," her mother said.

To donate funds for the family, checks can be taken to SunTrust Bank locations, payable to Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim Trust or mailed to The Bank of Tampa, Trust Department, 601 Bayshore Blvd, Suite 830, Tampa, FL. 33606.

[ Robin Williams Adams can be reached atrobin.adams@theledger.com or 863-802-7558. Read her blog at robinsrx.blogs.theledger.com. Follow on Twitter @ledgerROBIN. ]

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