Ireland Nugent knows that her 2-year-old body has changed. Waking up in the hospital, eyes dimmed by drugs to quell her pain, she looked at her parents and asked what had happened to her bandaged hand.
"You had a boo-boo," her mother, Nicole Nugent of Palm Harbor, replied.
But as Ireland began her first full day of consciousness Wednesday following a gauntlet of grueling surgical procedures, she had not given signs that she knows how much she is physically altered, or how permanently. According to her father, Jerry Nugent, she has not yet asked what happened to her legs.
Nor are her parents sure how they will answer that inevitable question.
"Our plan is to take it as it comes," Jerry Nugent said.
It has been one week since Ireland had her hand maimed and legs severed below the knee in a lawn mower accident at her family's Palm Harbor home. Jerry Nugent was on his riding mower when Ireland escaped from a screened-in part of the back yard. When Nicole signaled for him to stop the machine, he misunderstood and backed up, running over his daughter.
Since then, Tampa Bay area residents have rushed to provide the Nugents with financial and moral support.
Pinellas County, which employs Jerry Nugent in its real estate division, and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater have started funds to help pay for the girl's medical care.
Donations have poured in from strangers, people moved by the tragedy that befell the toddler with the laughing eyes and unruly mass of light-brown curls whom they know only through their newspapers and television sets. The Nugents have been both baffled and heartened by the public reaction to their private tragedy.
"I just didn't know people could care that much," Jerry Nugent said.
Ireland had been kept sedated through four surgeries to clean her wounds and amputate what remained of her legs at mid-calf. On Wednesday, as she began to communicate with her family members again, there were indications that her irrepressible spirit, unlike her body, had survived the accident intact.
"She's talking and saying 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' and 'yes' and 'no,' "said Dennis Reid, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian, who has been with the family at the hospital. "She's breathing on her own, and she's responsive, and she's happy, and she's laughing. She spilled her Fruit Loops — that was just the funniest thing in the world to her. She burst out laughing."
Ireland was even rolled out of the pediatric intensive care unit for a tour of a hospital playroom. Photos taken by Reid show her in a small blue patient's gown, propped in bed with one arm and both legs tightly packed in bandages.
"She really wanted to get up and play, but she really can't do that right now with the equipment they've got on her," Jerry Nugent said.
Tubes snake out of the bandages covering Ireland's legs, intended to carry away fluid and help her wounds dry and heal. After that process is complete, perhaps within a few weeks, she will be fitted for prosthetic legs.
Meanwhile, her parents are undergoing their own healing process, different from but no less daunting than that faced by their daughter.
Sitting in the sun outside an entrance to Tampa General Hospital on Wednesday, Jerry Nugent said he is struggling with his own feelings of guilt, and traumatic memories of the accident.
"They say this is like being in a war," he said. "I was in the Navy, but I never saw anything like that."
Asked about his feelings of guilt, he said, "I've been fighting that. It's been an internal battle since the accident — all the things I could have done differently."
He continued, "Then I realize I have to go forward. I can't go back. … I've got to let that go. Everybody's been telling me not to blame myself. It's easier said than done, obviously. There's times when I'm alone, and I get myself in trouble, when I've been thinking too much."
Nugent said he planned to return to the family's home Wednesday night to stay with his other children — he and Nicole have seven, some by previous marriage — and take them to school in the morning.
He said he had not stayed in the house since the accident and dreaded returning there. But the gesture to weekday routine might be good for the family, he said, all of them still adjusting to what has happened to Ireland.
"We've got to learn a new way to live," Jerry Nugent said. "But we're blessed, because we've still got her."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.