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Despite a devastating brain injury, River Ridge High senior will take her graduation walk

Brittany Micklo jumped out of bed on the morning of Nov. 4, 1998, eager to get to school. She loved first grade — reading, writing and everything else. Her grandpa had raved about Brittany's ability to solve problems. She had a good mind.

And like most 6-year-olds, Brittany brimmed with energy. She ran everywhere. No exception on this particular morning as she exited the family car on Grove Road behind Fox Hollow Elementary School in Port Richey. She took off.

An 18-year-old air-conditioning mechanic headed to work in the company truck. He wasn't speeding, but he didn't see the little girl. The bumper struck Brittany and she flew through the air. Her head slammed on the asphalt. She bounced high in the air and slammed down again, coming to rest in the grass.

The scene turned chaotic as ambulances arrived and paramedics fought to save Brittany. A helicopter arrived to take her to a trauma center in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, her dad, Tom Micklo Jr., prepared his work crew for another day of laying underground pipe at a construction project in Palm Harbor. His boss called him and Tom raced to the hospital. He arrived as the helicopter carrying Brittany landed. Paramedics let him see his daughter.

"She looked like she was sleeping," the father recalled. "She had a few cuts and road rash, but she looked fine."

But Brittany's brain had been severely damaged. She would remain in a coma for almost a month, but she defied death. And then she fought to walk and talk and do the other simple chores the physical therapists requested. It took a half-hour to get toothpaste on a brush, but Brittany smiled for a camera recording her progress. Her mother, Victoria, and her father were divorced, but they united for their daughter. Her grandma Barbara Micklo, a nurse, never left her side.

Finally, after a few months, she went home in a wheelchair. She wore a helmet, a diaper and a trach tube to help her breathe. Doctors called her a miracle child. Newspapers and TV stations loved her story and celebrated her progress. Insurance companies and lawyers worked out settlements so Brittany could get the care she would need. And then she drifted back into anonymity, left alone with her family to find some semblance of a normal life, to experience school again — only this time with a fraction of the brainpower she had before the accident.

The School District protected her, gave her a label: "exceptional." Back at Fox Hollow, she got care and instruction from a teacher with specialized training for such children. Charlene Nibert quickly warmed to her pupil. She sensed something special about Brittany, a perseverance and attitude you might not expect from somebody who had been dealt such an unfair blow. And there was one other thing Miss Nibert noticed: "This girl loved to hug."

Brittany progressed. She learned addition and substraction. She parted ways with Miss Nibert when she moved on to middle school. The teacher transferred to other elementary schools and then decided to give high school a shot. She took a job at River Ridge in New Port Richey — Brittany's high school.

"She recognized me right away and came running," Miss Nibert said. "She gave me a big hug. If you ever get a hug from Brittany, you'll remember. That's a big thing."

High school brought new challenges to Brittany. She peaked at a sixth-grade reading level. Occasionally she suffered seizures and then side effects from drugs. Mean kids made fun of her.

"That part really hurt," said her dad. "It just tore me up. She's my little girl. I mean, none of this was her choice."

But Brittany never quit working. She showed the same determination as when she relearned how to walk. "She did a great job," Miss Nibert said. "She really wants to be somebody in society, and I think she will."

Brittany agrees. She understands her limitations, but is surprisingly verbal and engaging — even funny at times. She worked at Publix for a while ("I love Publix!") and is comfortable on a computer and the Internet ("I can find anything on the computer!"). She meticulously sorts and strings beads into necklaces and bracelets, and recently visited a nursing home to give them as gifts. In school she helped gather recyclables, helped deliver news in the morning over the intercom and delivered balloons to students on special occasions ("That was fun!"). Just recently, she won a Special Olympics certificate that recognized her as "Bocce Girl." She has a keepsake box that is stuffed with memories, including dozens of get-well cards the other Fox Hollow first-graders made when she was in intensive care. She keeps the big stuffed dog she got from the young man who hit her.

About her accident 12 years ago, she says this: "I don't remember it, but I start to cry when I think about it and see how bad I was then."

She turned 18 in February and moved from her mother's house near Land O'Lakes to care for her grandma, who had a stroke and other health problems. Brittany will never be able to drive a car or be completely independent, but she is seeking special training she hopes will eventually allow her to live on her own.

It's another in a long line of challenges, but you get the feeling she will succeed.

Friday night, with her family sitting proudly in the audience, Brittany Micklo will do something doctors once said would be impossible. She will walk. She will walk across the stage in the River Ridge High School auditorium with hundreds of other graduating seniors, most of them blissfully and fortunately unaware how life can change in an instant.

Despite a devastating brain injury, River Ridge High senior will take her graduation walk 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 1:44pm]
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