Rebuilding her life, step by small step

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 17-year-old girl pulls on her black dance shoes and checks her appearance in a wall-length mirror. Spanish pop music pipes from a portable CD player in the exercise room.

Her instructor tells her: "Step, together. Step, together. Step, cross. Step, cross." The girl's long, lean body - graceful, if wobbly at times - follows a line of masking tape across the carpet.

Shannon Pierre-Jerome is learning to dance again.

An honor student and cheerleading captain at Lansdowne High School, Shannon had planned to begin her freshman year at Towson University this month. She was to study dance and Spanish.

Instead, she's at a rehabilitation center in Annapolis, determined to regain her ability to move with confidence and to speak the words - both Spanish and English - that she knows but can't quite say.

On May 26, the day before her senior prom, police found Shannon battered and bleeding from the head in a Towson apartment that she shared with her 24-year-old boyfriend, Juan Pablo Navarro Juarez. Juarez has been charged with attempted first-degree murder in Shannon's attack. He is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center and is scheduled to stand trial in October.

Shannon lay in a coma at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for about a month and spent another few weeks recovering at Kernan Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital in Baltimore. She has had six operations and will have another to fuse a plate in the left side of her head.

Pieces of her skull punctured her brain and left the student, who took four college-level classes and five years of Spanish, with a limited vocabulary and confused thoughts. A tube that had been in her throat for a month left the cheerleading captain's voice just above a whisper.

She still has the same big, bright eyes and long, curly eyelashes, but months in a hospital bed left her dancer's physique thin and frail. A dark scar mars her neck.

Just a thin layer of hair covers her head. She's supposed to protect her still-fragile skull with a tan helmet. For a teenager, it's an embarrassing headpiece, and she doesn't wear it as much as she knows she should.

Hope of recovery

Shannon's physical therapists and neurologists say she could make a full recovery. And she spends at least five hours a day, five days a week trying her hardest to do just that.

On a recent morning, Shannon's mother, June Hussnain, drops her daughter off at Sky Neurological Rehabilitation in Annapolis. Because Hussnain is concerned about Shannon's safety, she does not want The Sun to disclose where they live.

Then Hussnain, 36, heads to Glen Burnie, where she works as a wedding consultant. Money is tight. Hussnain says she just learned that their health insurance might not cover Shannon's costly surgeries and rehabilitation.

Shannon - most people call her "P.J." - is greeted warmly at the rehabilitation center, which treats stroke and brain-injury victims. She has brought a videotape of her cheerleading and dancing routines so the physical therapists can help her learn to do what she used to do.

The day's session begins with an hour of physical therapy.

Stephanie Gracyalny, one of two physical therapists who work with Shannon, cues a CD and asks her to do some simple dance steps in time to it.

On this day, after physical therapy, neurological rehabilitation technician Demorris Howard helps Shannon relearn how to count money.

She neatly stacks dollar bills, facing them all the same way and shuffling them through her hands more than once. "I can count," she says in a low, somewhat frustrated voice, "but I can't remember what the number is."

Later, Howard asks her to practice making a grocery list. Shannon puts her helmet on, and the two walk to the kitchenette to see what foods the center is running low on.

"What do we need?" Howard asks.

"I remember, but I don't know if I can say it," Shannon says. She often smiles when this happens.

"It starts with an 'F,'" Howard says, encouraging her.

"Fruit cup?" Shannon says, uncertain of her answer.

"There you go."

Finding the words

The rest of the day unfolds much the same way. Shannon can find most of her words, but not all of them. And sometimes she'll say one thing when she means another, or mesh words together.

"October" sometimes comes out "Octember." "Drastic" comes out first as "draftic" and then as "drastric." But this is a vast improvement over her first weeks at the center, her therapists and trainers say, when she had to write nearly everything that she wanted to express.

Because of her injuries, she suffers from a speech-motor disorder in which the brain has trouble telling the mouth how to make sounds, and another that jumbles word order, making reading and writing more difficult.

Amy Mann, her language pathologist, shows Shannon a flashcard of a common object - scissors, for example - and asks her to write the word in English and Spanish. Shannon says she spoke only in Spanish to her ex-boyfriend Juarez, who is from Mexico, but the language has not yet come back to her.

Shannon says she met Juarez in Lansdowne nearly two years ago. Their friendship quickly evolved into a relationship.

But Shannon says it was never a storybook relationship.

"Now that I think about it," she says quietly, "I never even liked him. He gave me things that my mom didn't give me - a car, computer, shows, money - so I stayed with him. That's shallow."

Juarez moved in with Shannon and her mother in Lansdowne for about six months, Hussnain said. Then, with Hussnain's permission, Shannon and Juarez moved into a nearby apartment. In May, they moved to Towson so that Shannon could be close to the university when classes started.

But, Shannon says, the relationship was deteriorating. She was working toward graduation and looking forward to a summer as an assistant in a Baltimore lawyer's office, but she and Juarez were "fighting all the time," she says.

The attack

On May 25, Shannon spent the evening watching a movie with some high school friends at a boy's house. She says Juarez showed up and asked her to come back to the apartment with him. She refused, she says. She recalls falling asleep at the house, but that's her last memory until June 28, the day she believes she emerged from the coma.

Her mother can fill in some of the blanks.

Hussnain says she got a call on her cell phone from Juarez midmorning on May 26.

"Mommy, Mommy, somebody broke into the house and Shannon is not breathing," he told her, according to charging documents in the case.

Hussnain says she rushed to the Towson apartment, near the Shops at Kenilworth. She arrived to find the apartment cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape and her daughter being taken to Shock Trauma. Juarez was arrested in Owings Mills that afternoon.

Near death

Hussnain says that when she saw her daughter later that day after her initial surgeries, she could hardly keep from breaking down. Shannon's head had been shaved, and there were staples "everywhere," she says.

Shannon could have died any time in those first few days, Hussnain says. While Shannon lay in a coma, the Lansdowne principal delivered her diploma to her mother, and Shannon's 19-year-old sister had a second baby girl.

But when Shannon emerged from the coma, she progressed quickly.

She took a couple of steps one day and was walking easily within a few days. Shannon makes progress regaining her language skills "weekly, if not daily," says Mann, the speech therapist.

"We're all focused on trying to get her ready to start college."

She will likely be in rehabilitation for another few months, Mann says. But Shannon hopes to be at Towson University by spring. She is trying to defer the more than $12,000 in scholarship money that she has been awarded.

Near the end of the day at the rehabilitation center, Shannon and Howard, the rehabilitation technician, sit in a quiet office working on computer crossword puzzles. She slowly types in a three-letter answer. The next one comes more quickly.

Soon, she solves the first puzzle. Then another one. Then another one.

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