LAKELAND — She fights to move.
With her eyes straight ahead and feet flat on the floor, she lets the suit act as her muscles. A physical therapist guides her body from side to side, then forward and back. When the motion becomes circular, the young woman lets her head fall. She glares up at the ceiling.
"You got it," the therapist says. "Keep going."
Slowly, the young woman raises her head. She looks at the therapist and smiles.
No way is she giving up.
Nearly four years have passed since a stranger left this young woman for dead outside the Bloomingdale Library. He raped her. He beat her. He took her ability to walk and talk, to hold her head up, to eat solid food.
Now TheraSuit, a physical therapy treatment used to rehabilitate patients with neurological disorders, is helping the Bloomingdale Library attack survivor regain the life she lost.
She spends three hours a day, five times a week, in the suit, which is made of canvas and connected by rubber bands that simulate muscle. The suit aligns her body so she can move on her own. She stands and sits, pulls and rotates.
Since beginning treatment last week, her mobility and communication skills have already improved, says Denise Kilburn, co-owner of Pediatric Therapy Services, Inc. in Lakeland. Only now can the survivor sit with her feet flat, turn her head and control the movement of her eyes.
Sometimes during therapy, the survivor's legs shake. Her brain tells her body it can't. She moves anyway. Repetition of movement is the key to retraining her body, therapists say.
"She knows it's what's helping her to get better," the survivor's mother says. "Sometimes, she'll shed a tear or two because it's uncomfortable, but she keeps going. She has a strong will."
Priscilla Viera remembers the survivor from their days at East Bay High School. They were best friends, hooked on hip-hop music and reality television. Now, Viera helps her friend during therapy sessions. She plays a drum beat, which therapists say helps the survivor to focus.
"She smiles when she hears me do it," Viera says. "I don't know if it's because it's me or because of the drum, but she smiles."
She also laughs and gets angry. When she doesn't like what the therapists are doing, she lets them know with her eyes. She grimaces. She makes a sound. She uses body language.
Midway through a therapy session earlier this week, her mother holds her hands and moves her arms. Doctors say the survivor's sight is improving, though they are not sure how much. She recognizes her mother and friends.
At home, she does water therapy, and a yoga teacher visits her once a week. She listens to an audio recording of the Bible. She spends weekends with her older sister, going shopping and to church. Recently, she helped her sister pack food for children in Haiti.
"From the first night I saw her in the hospital until now, I think her progress is a miracle," her mother says. "And it doesn't come from me. It comes from God. It comes from the community support she has received."
Community fundraisers and an outpouring of donations made this new treatment possible, her mother says. Costs exceed $5,000 for a three-week session. TheraSuit is not covered by Medicaid. The survivor needs to continue the treatment indefinitely, until she can regain physical independence, therapists say.
Support, the family says, is always needed.
"I don't know that we could do this by ourself," her mother says.
Family and friends imagine a day when the survivor will talk again, when she will feed and groom herself. For now, they are taking it one step at a time.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]