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Rediscovering Amanda

(ran PW, PC editions of Pasco Times)

Amanda Boltin spends her days coaxing her broken mind and body to bend to her will.

Since emerging from a coma after a serious car crash in June, the 17-year-old Ridge Manor girl has had to relearn basic skills she once took for granted _ walking, talking, even eating.

On a recent day, she sat down to a lunch of buttered bread, sliced peaches and veal, one of her first solid meals since arriving at the Palms of Largo nursing and rehabilitation facility in Pinellas County. The effort is complicated by Amanda's left hand, still stiff and uncooperative, but she smiles with every bite _ each a small victory.

"This is her brain essentially trying to rewire itself," said Katherine Pinnell, a speech language pathologist who has worked extensively with the Hernando High School student. "Previously unused portions of the brain slowly learn to take over for the damaged areas."

When Amanda first arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa after the wreck, doctors offered no hope that she would ever awaken. With five hemorrhages in her brain and six breaks in her pelvis, even if she did come out of the coma, there was no way to know if she would ever have a meaningful recovery.

Time passed.

Family members and friends came by to read and sing to Amanda. Though her eyes were rarely open, they left photographs of happier times. In July, still in the depths of a coma, Amanda turned 17.

"Our whole family revolves around Amanda now," said her grandmother, Marilyn Childress. "You have to have your priorities, and right now she is it."

Childress, along with her daughter, Janice Boltin, has kept a nearly constant vigil with Amanda since the accident. Boltin now is living temporarily in a small motor home near the nursing home. Amanda's father, Bennett, her sister, Patricia Knight, an other family members visit whenever they are able.

"I give God credit for everything," Boltin said. "We refused to believe what people told us. I knew God didn't bring her through this to make her lie in a bed."

In a flash, everything changed

On the evening of June 12, Amanda was driving home from her job at her uncle's pest control business in Dade City, her mother said.

According to a report from the Florida Highway Patrol, Amanda was southbound on Mockingbird Drive in Ridge Manor in a 1989 Ford and was hit while passing through the intersection at Orchid Parkway. No one was charged or ticketed. The collision left Amanda's car pinned against a large tree.

"I didn't even know where St. Joseph's was," said Boltin, who didn't find out about her daughter's crash until well after she had missed her 8 p.m. curfew.

Amanda looks to her mother for details of the wreck, her own recollection black as an empty chalkboard. On this day, she remembers only that her dark hair, which once fell to the middle of her back, was filled with shards of glass and had to be cut.

"I don't remember the accident," she says, her wheelchair parked closely beside the sofa where her mother sits. "Mommy tells me about it."

To hear her speak, Amanda now seems very young, the injuries to her brain unevenly affecting memory and social skills.

In the eighth grade, she did a prize-winning science project on short- and long-term memory, so she is well aware why, for example, she doesn't know some of her best friends.

"Some days it's like talking to a 4-year-old, and some days it's like talking to a 17-year-old," said her mother.

The connections in Amanda's brain, like those involved in memory, must be redirected around the damaged areas, explained Sameera Hublikar, another of Amanda's therapists.

"All we can do is fill in the gaps and holes in her memory as they come up," Hublikar said. "You can't equate Amanda's situation with someone who is born with a mental handicap."

The almost constant stimulation from her family, both physical and mental, Hublikar said, has had an immeasurable impact on Amanda's recovery. There is no telling what will spark a memory _ perhaps opening a new door.

"At first, I couldn't stand to watch," Childress said of the countless sessions in the facility's bright physical therapy room. "I couldn't stay there while they did that to her. It was way too easy for her to read the sympathy on my face."

And self-pity is something Amanda cannot afford. Although painful, her therapy is critical if she is to recover not only from her injuries, but from the unavoidable atrophy caused by the coma. Even after months of daily therapy, her left side is still slow to respond because of injuries from the crash.

"I had to be taught how to help her," Amanda's mother said. "I still tend to overdo things, but I'm getting better."

Boltin is now able to sit by and watch the uncomfortably awkward process as Amanda cuts her meat at lunch, but it is not easy.

During the afternoon of Amanda's heavily scheduled day, Boltin and her mother are able to rest as Amanda spends time with her tutor, relearning the parts of speech and algebra.

Amanda takes the work in stride, and with a touch of humor.

"I already hated math once," she complained before reviewing her homework. "Now I have to do it again."

With a note of authority, Amanda pronounces that she plans to graduate with the class of 2005 at Hernando High, just one year after her closest friends. Doctors and therapists will not speculate on whether her goal is attainable.

"With brain injuries, there's no real way to predict how far recovery will continue," said Pinnell. "Sometimes patients will make a full recovery, and sometimes their progress just suddenly stops."

In love with life

Before the wreck, friends say, Amanda was known as someone who loved to have a good time. Longtime friend Desiree Collier remembers going to a concert last summer where the girls spent most of the evening dancing in the back row.

Her story begins like several of those Amanda's friends share.

"There was this guy," Collier said, a slow smile spreading on her lips. "His name was George, and Amanda kept calling him George of the Jungle. She was like that. You always had a good time when you were with her."

Amber Basham, Amanda's friend since kindergarten, said that was the norm for her boy-crazy companion. Two summers ago, during a trip some girls took to Daytona Beach, it was Amanda who made the most new friends.

"She came back with five phone numbers in two days," Basham said, shaking her head. "She's kind of a trip that way."

For those who knew her well, the differences now in Amanda's personality do not overshadow the person she has always been, Basham said. Amanda's spark is still there.

But it's taken awhile.

Basham said it was difficult to visit her friend at first. Though her injuries were not evident, Basham knew Amanda was in a dark place. "It was hard to see her like that," she said, swallowing hard to steady her voice. "It was hard to believe what was going on."

Little by little, things got better, she said. One week, Amanda would say a single word; the next, she might speak an entire sentence.

"Now it's exciting to go see her," she said. "Every week, it seems there's something else she can do."

With visits from her friends to buoy her, Amanda's progress has come at a steady pace. As if grasping to claim the memories she still has, she often recounts stories of good times the friends have shared.

"When we go down there, it's like she opens up all of a sudden and she has a smile on her face," said classmate Josh Marcotte. "If there's a quiet moment, she'll start talking about something we did together."

In Hernando High's yearbook classroom, where Amanda laid out pages for three editions, Melonie Noble points to her friend's black and white junior class photo.

Besides their duties on the yearbook staff, Noble and Amanda shared a common background. Both grew up in the same small Ridge Manor neighborhood, not far from the site where pieces of Amanda's car remain embedded in a large rock.

Noble remembers her mother teaching Amanda to tie her shoes for the first time in kindergarten.

"Amanda has always been such a sweetheart," she said. "She's always been able to make me laugh."

On the night of the accident, Noble was at the hospital and saw her friend taken from the helicopter.

"They didn't know anything about her _ her name, how old she was, where she came from. It was scary," she said

Even as doctors and nurses discussed options, including organ donation, Amanda's friends and family stood strong.

"We started praying, and thank God we never stopped," Noble said.

Friends from school weren't the only ones who kept Amanda in their prayers.

Ron Anstey, a member of First Baptist Church of Ridge Manor for about eight years, said Amanda's enthusiasm often set her apart in the church's youth group. He remembers watching her grow into a young woman, holding his hand waist-high as he remembers the young girl she was.

"Everybody loves her," said Anstey, who often does maintenance work at the church and visits Amanda when he can.

Considering where Amanda has been, Boltin is happy with her daughter's progress. Sometimes, she thinks back to the night Amanda was known as Jane Doe and gives thanks.

"When I looked at her, I thought, "Let her live.' When she did, I thought, "Let her eyes open.' When they did, I thought, "Let her know me.' "

Now that those wishes have been granted, all she asks is to see Amanda move past the wreck and make her own way in the world.

"All I can ask is what every parent asks," she said. "Please, please let her have a happy and independent life."

How to help

A trust fund to pay for Amanda's medical and living expenses has been set up at Bank of America in Dade City. Donations can be sent to Amanda Boltin Family Assistance Fund, c/o Bank of America, 37939 Church Ave., Dade City, FL 33523.

At first, Amanda Boltin hated physical therapy. It meant only pain and frustration as her body slowly tried to heal. But with the encouragement and love of her mother, Janice, she has gotten over that feeling. After four months of progress, Amanda's pain has eased and she's relearning how to use her limbs.

Relearning what once was natural, Amanda, with physical therapist Steven Enage's help, walks down a hallway.

Even little things, such as tying a shoe, take effort when your brain is remapping itself around the areas damaged in the accident. To help her in regaining her memory, Amanda's room is decorated with pictures of friends, all labeled for identification, which may spur her to remember moments from her past.

Sometimes therapy means pain as Amanda rebuilds her body. With therapist Sameera Hublikar's help, she stretches her left arm, which she couldn't move after coming out of a coma. In the past month, she's regained some movement.

There's no therapy on weekends; time for family visits Amanda tosses bread crumbs to animals in a pond, encouraged by her mother, Janice, from left, father, Bennett, and sister Patricia Knight. During the week, her dad stays home in Hernando to work; her mom lives in a motor home outside the nursing home.