John Graziano, the Iraq War veteran who suffered severe brain damage while riding in a car with wrestling star Hulk Hogan's son, Nick Bollea, is now home after two years at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
Doctors determined Graziano's condition had improved enough that he could go home, where nurses, friends and relatives will continue to provide him 24-hour care, said his mother, Debra Graziano.
Graziano, 24, has been hospitalized since the Aug. 26, 2007, wreck in which Bollea lost control of his Toyota Supra in downtown Clearwater and smashed into a palm tree. The crash broke parts of Graziano's skull. Bollea was uninjured.
Graziano, strapped into a wheelchair in the back of a minivan, stared straight ahead as the van pulled away from the hospital at 12:42 p.m. Debra, Graziano's brother, Michael Graziano, his sister, Christin Carson, and Carson's husband, Richard Carson, rode with him.
His return from what Debra called "the best hospital imaginable" will be a welcome move for the family, which regularly made the long trek from its Pinellas County home to be at his bedside. Debra "always worried about him in the middle of the night," Michael said. "Now she can know he's okay."
Debra, who thanked God for her son's release, gave no details on how their home had been prepared for his arrival. But she did give a name for it: "Heaven on Earth."
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Michael Graziano, interviewed Wednesday afternoon at his workplace on Clearwater Beach, said he was still stunned about his brother's return home.
"It didn't really sink in yet," said Graziano, 21. "It may take a while to realize every day when I wake up he's there. He's not in Tampa."
Graziano said his brother's breathing has improved recently but that he would still need outpatient therapy a couple of times a week.
"A lot of people think brain trauma is like a soap opera. Like, just one day he wakes up," he said. "He's pretty much at step one. There are a lot of baby steps from here."
Debra Graziano had been visiting her son in Tampa daily from their home, he said. The Carsons came from their home in Georgia just to be with John Graziano during his release.
Michael Graziano thanked everyone who showed support and spoke of hope that his brother would continue to improve. But, he said, he couldn't help but compare his brother's absence from home with another tough time: when John served overseas with the Marines.
Michael "shut it out" then, he said. But this time could be harder.
"I'll just miss doing everything that brothers do," he said.
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John Graziano was first taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg after the accident.
Three months later, Graziano was transferred to the VA hospital. A registered nurse hired by the court when Debra filed for guardianship said Graziano suffered brain swelling and would likely spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. Debra said at the time that her son would stare into her eyes when she spoke.
Court documents said the Dunedin High School graduate would need lifelong care, though he showed some progress by making facial expressions and sounds.
Though John Graziano is now home with his mother, his father, Edward Graziano, remains in the Pinellas County Jail, awaiting trial on a charge that he tried to hire someone to kill his wife. Undercover Pinellas County sheriff's deputies say Graziano wanted his estranged wife to die in a staged car accident.
Edward Graziano heard that his son might soon be going home, and he is concerned about his care, said his attorney, John Trevena.
"He questions how his wife on her own will be able to manage the level of care that he believes John will require," Trevena said.
"Despite her best efforts, she's one person. How is she going to be able to cope and manage with the full-time care that he requires?" Trevena said.
Graziano's father used to visit his son in the hospital daily but has not seen him since his arrest in February.
Nick Bollea, 19, spent five months in jail for reckless driving and was released in October.
A civil lawsuit filed last year by attorneys for John Graziano seeks millions of dollars to pay for Graziano's medical bills. Named in the suit are: Bollea, his father, Terry (Hulk Hogan) Bollea; his mother, Linda; and Daniel Jacobs, who Clearwater police said was racing Nick Bollea before the crash.
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.