As year of struggle ends, little Ireland dances

PALM HARBOR

During her first dance lesson, Ireland Nugent, dressed in black tights and a pink tutu that stopped just above her prosthetic legs, stood still before a full-length mirror.

When the dance teacher demonstrated to the group of half a dozen little girls how to spin with their arms arched above them, Ireland, 3, watched the instructor for a few seconds. Then she stretched her own arms above her head of curly blond hair that was pulled into a tight bun for the class, and spun slowly.

Her mother, Nicole Nugent, watched from outside the studio and recorded her daughter's first dance lesson on her phone.

Just six months ago, Ireland began to walk on her first set of prosthetic legs.

Now, Ireland is learning to dance.

"She has no fear," Nicole said.

On April 10, Ireland lost her lower legs and feet when her father, Jerry, accidentally backed over her with his riding lawn mower in the driveway of the family's Palm Harbor home.

Then came a whirlwind of surgeries, doctor visits and physical therapy. Ireland received prosthetic legs in June, and then a replacement pair in October when she outgrew the first set. In August, she underwent another surgery to remove growing bones in her legs.

But Ireland is quickly adapting to her new life, her parents said.

"She's doing so much better," said Nicole, 31. "It's not going to be all sunshine and roses, but it's not going to be all dreary either."

About a month ago, several businesses, including Home Depot and International Granite & Stone, began renovating the Nugents' Palm Harbor home free of charge.

The improvements will make the four-bedroom, two-bath house completely accessible for Ireland. The carpet was ripped out, replaced by tile and wood floors throughout so Ireland can learn to walk on both textures. The kitchen cabinets and appliances will be replaced. The work is scheduled to be completed by late January, the Nugents said.

Since the accident, donations have trickled in. Jerry, a Pinellas County building maintenance worker, said he had trouble accepting it all at first.

"Over the last eight, nine months," he said, "I've just had to learn to accept and be grateful."

Jerry, 48, said he has also had to let go of the guilt that sometimes lingers when he thinks about the accident. He and Nicole still go to counseling.

"You always want to be there to protect and be the hero for your kids," he said, "not be part of the reason why they are in the position they are in."

But watching Ireland thrive helps him heal.

"She's doing everything she wants," he said.

On a recent Sunday, Ireland, the youngest of seven children, roller-skated with some help during her sister Ariyana's 10th birthday party at a Tarpon Springs skating rink.

At her twice-weekly physical therapy sessions at All Children's Hospital, Ireland is practicing to run on her legs and recently used a tricycle for the first time. Nicole said she tries to make Ireland use her legs every day.

In December, Ireland started dance lessons at the Premier Dance Academy in Clearwater, where she is learning ballet, tap dancing and tumbling. Her therapists told Nicole the lessons will improve Ireland's coordination and balance, as well as force her to lift one leg at a time and bend her knees, movements she still struggles to do.

"This is like a second physical therapy for her," Nicole said.

During a recent class, Ireland held onto a bar during the tap dancing portion. She continued to slip, but maintained a grip on the bars and lifted herself up each time.

She emerged from the studio briefly for a bathroom break. Nicole carried her into a restroom. Afterward, she walked toward the studio again as Nicole held the door.

"Ready?" her mother asked her.

"I'm back!" Ireland yelled as she toddled inside, not looking back.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157.



As year of struggle ends, little Ireland dances 12/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 9:26pm]

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