Ireland Nugent's parents have tried explaining to their 2-year-old daughter that her legs have been amputated. So far, it is not working.
"We were playing with Mr. Potato Head yesterday and taking the feet on and off," Nicole Nugent said Wednesday. "And I said, 'This is going to be like you, Ireland. We're going to take your feet on and off.' She doesn't really understand. She's honestly so little that I don't really think she gets that."
Now in her third week of recovery after a lawn-mower accident severed both her legs below the knees, Ireland has asked almost no questions about the past, though her parents face worries about the future. The girl has endured seven surgeries and already suffered a setback — a patch of necrotic tissue in one leg that required an unexpected skin graft and delayed her return home.
On Wednesday, Jerry and Nicole Nugent talked of prosthetic-limb providers and group therapy for themselves and their other children as they awaited results from Ireland's most recent operations. Meanwhile, their daughter, propped in bed beside a Hamburglar doll and iPad, showed little of the fatigue or anxiety that could be read in her parents' faces.
The Tampa Bay Times and WTSP Channel 10 visited Ireland's room at Tampa General Hospital on Wednesday, the first time news organizations have been allowed to see the girl since the accident at her home in Palm Harbor on April 11.
Heavily dosed with pain medication, one arm fixed in the shape of an L by a much-scrawled-on cast, Ireland still showed signs of alertness and amusement.
As she surveyed her guests, her blue eyes glowed with a toddler's curiosity. Her cheeks were suffused with a healthy-looking flush.
Her dirty-blond ringlets tied in a topknot, Ireland gazed noncommittally at a garishly made-up clown visiting from Ronald McDonald House Charities. Presented with a package of Play-Doh and animal-shaped cookie cutters, she held one aloft. "Tiger," she said. It was an alligator.
A blanket was draped across her stumps. At one point, squirming in bed, she exposed the bandages and plastic cap on the bottom of her left leg at mid-calf. The family's pastor, Dennis Reid of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater, quietly leaned in and tugged the blanket back into place.
On Tuesday, Jerry Nugent said, he was rubbing the ends of his daughter's legs, a form of physical therapy doctors say could help alleviate the "phantom limb" sensations that trouble many amputees.
"I love your little legs," he recalls telling the girl.
"Thank you, daddy," she replied.
Jerry Nugent accidentally backed into Ireland on a riding lawn mower at the family's home on April 11, after the girl ran out of the back yard.
Both her legs were severed below the knee. Her hand was also cut and her thumb broken.
Since then, financial and moral support from the community has overwhelmed the Nugents. Reid said a fund established for Ireland's medical care and associated expenses at Trinity Presbyterian had raised about $85,000 when last he checked. The family is already making plans to have Ireland fitted for prosthetic limbs in Orlando.
Nicole Nugent said she and her husband are now turning toward what awaits them beyond the hospital walls.
Small details about how to adjust their family's home life confound them, she said. Where will Ireland sleep? What do her siblings need to know about how to emerge from the trauma that has shadowed the last three weeks?
As her mother talked through such questions, Ireland began fumbling with another toy: a small replica of Winter, the famed Clearwater Marine Aquarium amputee dolphin that swims with the help of a prosthetic tail.
The tail of Ireland's stuffed dolphin was also detachable. She stared at the pieces of the toy, moving them together and apart.
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.