By William Kelly -
CHICAGO - Can justice really be served? After three long years, the trial of Natasha McShane’s accused attacker, Heriberto Viramontes, begins Tuesday in Chicago.
Viramontes faces a 25-count felony indictment, including charges of attempted murder, aggravated robbery, and aggravated battery for the savage beatings of the Irish exchange student and her friend Stacy Jurich in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood on April 23, 2010.
According to co-defendant and getaway driver Marcy Cruz, Viramontes wanted money for drugs and was sizing up potential victims. “Look at all these rich white bitches,” said Viramontes, according to Cruz’s account to prosecutors.
Then, Cruz says he picked up a baseball bat and left the van, returning with two leopard print purses minutes later. Unarmed, the petite 4-foot-9-inch, 100-pound McShane was found unconscious with a cracked skull. Jurich was also beaten unconscious but has recovered.
Hate crime charges were not included in the indictment.
If convicted of the charges, Viramontes could receive a sentence of life in prison.
But McShane, now 27 years old, has already been given a life sentence.
She will spend life confined to a wheelchair. No walks in the park. No running or jumping.
She has been given life without being able to speak with family and friends. Simple words like “hello” or “I love you” may not be possible ever again.
She will spend life in complete reliance on others for her basic needs.
Life without the happy and independent future she once envisioned for herself, trapped inside a body that no longer works.
Even worse, the window for McShane’s recovery has diminished, say some rehabilitation experts.
For traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients like McShane, the standard of care is eight months to one year of rehabilitation. For reasons unknown, McShane had only three months of intensive therapy at Chicago’s Rehabilitation Institute in 2010.
Since then she has suffered setback after setback.
“This poor girl [McShane] at every turn, she appears to have had a collision course with her natural recovery,” remarks Dr. Susan Walsh, a neuropsychologist at Loyola Medical Center in Chicago and Associate Professor at Loyola’s Department of Psychiatry, Orthopedic Surgery, and Rehabilitation.
Walsh has never treated McShane but has spent the last 20 years working with TBI patients.
“The window for her has diminished because of all the unfortunate circumstances of her complications. She’s had multiple surgeries — one to remove a part of her skull. Then there’s the infections, the treatment of the infections, and the seizures she’s experienced, which cause further brain damage. She’s also had shunting, which means that the cerebral spinal fluid is not circulating properly, impacting the brain’s ability to function,” Walsh explains.
Walsh understands the long and painful process that lies ahead for McShane and her family — years of physical, occupational, and speech therapy, and neuropsychological testing. Yes, McShane’s family has received a life sentence too.
But what kind of recovery is possible for McShane?
“As a neuropsychologist working with brain injury patients, I have seen miracles,” says Walsh. “I’ve seen patients a year after their injury and sometimes I cannot believe the amount of progress that they have made with a comprehensive rehabilitation program. There is a certain amount of natural recovery. But all of that stimulation really boosts it.”
Still, Walsh isn’t sure Natasha will be able to speak again.
“If she was hit on her left side, we may be seeing an apashia — an acquired speech and language disorder. That’s why she needs a speech therapist to evaluate her and help her find alternate ways to communicate. Maybe she can learn to point to pictures. Now there are ways for patients to talk through a computer. It is never a lost cause. The fact that she is so young, she’s got youth on her side — but we don’t know what is going on inside of her.”
Since moving her back to her native Ireland, McShane’s family have been desperate to get her into a program at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin, but to no avail. Now instead of the 24/7 care she was receiving in Chicago, McShane receives therapy two to three times a week.
Walsh says it may not be as easy to get McShane into a rehabilitation program in Ireland as it is in the U.S. She may also not receive the same standard of care, which varies by institution.
Walsh spent a few years working at Oak Forest Hospital, the only chronic long-term care hospital run by Cook County in Illinois. “There were young people there, just like Natasha, every day. The nurses would turn them and clean them up. There were all kinds off neurological conditions; you would not believe what I have seen. Most people don’t see people with TBI. They are just housed and taken care of,” says Walsh.
But Walsh says that no one should give up on Natasha McShane.
“It’s only been the last 20 years that we have discovered that the brain has ‘neuroplasticity,’ meaning that cells correspond and change and heal and that’s why rehab works; because the brain does heal itself. At any age, the brain has the potential to reorganize itself and rehab optimizes that potential.”
Yet there is something more to the equation.
“It is also our human nature, our desire to adapt to our surroundings,” says Walsh. “I’ve been amazed by human’s ability to find a way to overcome the obstacles. It’s not just the brain but also the human drive to continue on and live.”
Not giving Natasha McShane that chance with a comprehensive rehabilitation program — not giving her a chance to live to the fullest extent she can — that would be the real crime.
To help Natasha McShane, please donate at the website her classmates set up for her at www.timefortasha.com.
To find out more about traumatic brain injury, visit the Brain Injury Association of America.