Past the children's playroom painted in the soft blue hues of an aquarium, down the hallway silent but for the whispers of worried parents, a girl without legs wearing a golden gown was waiting to go home. • Ireland Nugent, a 2-year-old from Palm Harbor, had been in the hospital since the night of April 11, when her father, on a riding lawn mower, accidentally backed over her in the family's driveway. After screams and disbelief, 911 calls and panicked help from neighbors, she was flown by helicopter to Tampa General Hospital, one hand sliced open, both of her legs severed at mid-calf. • Seven surgeries followed in three weeks. Doctors mended the stumps of the girl's legs below the knee joint. There were three skin grafts for Ireland, and countless late-night bouts of guilt and fear for her parents. On Saturday morning, most of that was past, just like the accident. Ireland was going home.
"I'm excited and scared. It's really unknown territory for us," Jerry Nugent, her father, said as he loaded the family's Honda Odyssey minivan at the hospital's back entrance. Behind him trailed a red Radio Flyer wagon loaded high with gifts and clothes.
In the days after the accident, Jerry Nugent tried to stop thinking about what he might have done differently the night Ireland was hurt. He doesn't want to go crazy.
It was a sullen spring morning in Tampa, the heat rising while gray clouds crept across the sky, promising rain. Upstairs, Nicole Nugent, Ireland's mom, was learning to change her daughter's bandages, and the third of three doctors was examining the girl prior to discharge.
Then everything was ready.
In her room on the hospital's pediatric unit, Ireland was in a good mood after a breakfast of bacon and Froot Loops. She was dressed like a toddler on her birthday. (Puzzled by the attention lavished on her, Ireland actually asked at one point if it was her birthday.) She wore a golden princess dress, a matching tiara, and hot-pink sunglasses. A freshly applied cast, bright green, was on her left arm. In her good right hand she clutched a tiny wand with ribbons and bangles.
She sat in her small wheelchair, wearing a serene smile. From time to time she twitched the wrapped stumps of her legs, an uncanny disruption of an otherwise familiar picture of childhood happiness.
"I love you," Nicole Nugent said, touching her face to her daughter's forehead. "I'll always be here for you." It was the kind of thing a parent might say in farewell, although she would be accompanying Ireland home.
Jerry wheeled his daughter down the hall. They passed beneath fluorescent ceiling lights shaped like clouds, past the doorways of other darkened rooms where children lay in bed and watchful adults sat in silence. At the nurses' station, they stopped for hugs and congratulations.
"I think she's the most amazing little girl that I've ever taken care of," Susan McElroy, a registered nurse, said. "Typically 2-year-olds, anytime you do anything to them, they scream and holler and carry on. She's just been so patient."
Those who control the flow of caffeinated drinks can become as familiar as doctors and nurses to long-term hospital visitors. Downstairs, Jerry and Ireland said goodbye to Jovan White, supervisor of the Starbucks on Tampa General's ground floor. White waved and gave Jerry a paper bag with a cake pop.
Jerry lowered the treat toward his daughter.
"You want to hold that?"
For a girl concluding a three-week convalescence, Ireland snatched the bag with surprising speed.
Outside the air was heavy and humid. Ireland was placed in a car seat behind the front passenger seat. Her father sat beside her.
The minivan drove north to Interstate 275, then south along the freeway. Traffic was heavy. The van turned off I-275, navigating its way through the forking on- and off-ramps at the northwest corner of Tampa. Then it glided onto the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the view opening on all sides to the pewter-gray water of Old Tampa Bay.
Ireland fell asleep.
When she woke up, she was home.
Above the driveway where she had lost the lower portions of her legs, neighbors and relatives had hung a large banner. Welcome Home Ireland. Dozens of adults and kids pressed in around the van as it parked in front of the ranch-style house on Hollow Ridge Road, a quiet street in a Palm Harbor subdivision.
As Jerry Nugent lifted his daughter from her car seat, she woke up and started whimpering.
A girl's voice rose from somewhere in the crowd of onlookers: "Oh my God, it's a miniwheelchair! How cute!"
Holding her daughter in her arms, Nicole Nugent stood before a row of television cameras and gave a statement of sorts, thanking all those who had offered financial and moral support to the family since the accident. The mood of the gathering was festive, but edged with uncertainty and grief.
"It's frightening. I don't know. I'm happy, excited," said neighbor Ruth Lucidi, who knelt beside Ireland and held her hand in the minutes after the mower accident on April 11. "It's another adjustment . . . she just got adjusted to the hospital."
Ireland's 11-year-old sister, Italia Nugent, was less nervous.
"It'll be different now, because she can't do everything she wants to do," said Italia, one of the Nugents' seven children. "It doesn't really concern me about anything, because I know she'll do good in the future."
Held by her mother, Ireland exchanged kisses with Italia and her other sisters while cameras clicked hurriedly around them. The rain had never come, and the afternoon had grown intensely bright.
After several minutes had passed, Nicole Nugent looked searchingly at her daughter's face.
"You ready to go in?"
Ireland gently inclined her head.
The Nugents filed past their friends and neighbors and entered the dark interior of their home and the door closed behind them.
Photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected]