BRANDON — Six months after she was brutally raped outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library, the 18-year-old victim returned home for the first time Wednesday to a remodeled house, teary-eyed parents and one blissfully happy dog.
The girl, wearing a pink hat that had been signed by Tampa Bay Lightning players and a pink shirt that said "Juicy Glamour Queen," arrived by ambulance after an hourlong trip from the Sarasota rehabilitation hospital where she had been staying for several months. When paramedics opened the back doors and removed her gurney, she raised her face to the sky and smiled widely.
"She looks so happy, doesn't she?" said the girl's mother, whose name is being withheld to protect the girl's identity. The East Bay High School senior returned to a home that had been retrofitted by a group of about 20 volunteers to accommodate her medical needs and allow her to continue her therapy.
The girl — who cannot see, walk or talk — was forced to leave the rehab hospital because Medicaid said she had not been not making sufficient progress for it to keep paying for her stay.
When she was rolled into her new bedroom, painted in bubble gum pink, she was greeted by nurses, a therapist and two of the contractors who helped modify the house. They had widened doorways, replaced carpet with tile and converted the bathroom into a large tiled walk-in room with a spacious shower.
They watched as she was transferred to her bed, which had been fitted with pink sheets and adorned with pink and white pillows.
"When you get your vision back, you're going to open your eyes and you're going to see your beautiful room," said family friend Cheryl Zemina as she brushed back the girl's silky black hair.
It was a bittersweet homecoming for the girl, who was raped and choked while returning books to the library drop box the night of April 24. The person arrested in the attack, 16-year-old Kendrick Morris, is being charged as an adult.
"We had hoped that when she came home, she'd be walking through the door," Zemina said sadly. "But I am happy for her mother, who I hope can get a little bit more rest. She has been the walking dead."
The mother got to sleep in her own bed for the first time in more than six months. But she has a rough road ahead, said Zemina, who has been dealing with Medicaid on the family's behalf.
Medicaid is paying for 24-hour nursing aid care, but that need will be re-evaluated after two weeks, she said. It will also pay for physical and occupational therapy a few days a week.
The mother, a Vietnamese immigrant, barely 90 pounds, has a history of back problems, and needs extra help, Zemina said.
"I hope we won't have to fight a battle every two weeks," she said.
At the rehabilitation hospital, the girl had been receiving intense therapy five days a week to relearn how to do things like pick her head up, swallow and move her limbs. She now laughs at jokes and reacts with a smile whenever she's happy. She cries when she is sad.
When Zemina put Gracy — the girl's 12-year-old, one-eyed bichon frise — in her lap, the girl's mouth opened into a wide smile and her eyes lit up.
Zemina took the girl's hand, uncurled her fingers and placed them on Gracy's white coat.
"Do you feel her in your hand?" Zemina asked? "Here's another part of this family that didn't get to see you for awhile."
Then she turned Gracy to face the girl and the dog licked her cheek.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)269-5312 or email@example.com.