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Saturday 17 February 2018

Natasha tragedy is without end

A year on, a young Irish student, the victim of a vicious assault in the US, cannot walk or talk, writes Donal Lynch

Yesterday marked a year to the day since Natasha McShane was savagely assaulted while on her way home from a night out in Chicago.

Left for dead by two armed robbers she somehow survived and, buffeted by a sea of goodwill from the Irish-American community in the city and the unending love of her parents, Liam and Sheila, she slowly began to regain her strength, raising a smile and even speaking the odd word in Irish.

As her attackers were hunted down by American authorities the pretty young student was deemed well enough to be brought home to her native Armagh where it was hoped she would make a full recovery. Last summer, her father told the Sunday Independent he hoped she would be back at college by now, getting on with her life.

Sadly, that hasn't happened. In the months since she came home to Ireland Natasha has regressed badly. She sits silently in a wheelchair at her parents' home and today Liam and Sheila McShane can only scan their daughter's beautiful brown eyes for signs of recognition. "On a good day, you might communicate better," Liam McShane told the Chicago Sun Times last week. "If you said something, you might get a response with the eyes. If she opens her eyes wide, it might be a yes," he added. "Some days she'll be there, and she sort of like knows us," he continued. "But other days, it can feel like she is not there at all. It's hard to believe that it's a year on. We thought we'd come home and get the (surgery), and she'd get better. But nothing like that happened."

Natasha had come to America as part of a work-study programme. On April 23 of last year, she and her friend Stacy Jurich went out to celebrate the awarding of an internship, which would allow Natasha to prolong her stint in Chicago. On their way home they passed through the busy Bucktown area when they were set upon by a mugger with a baseball bat. Natasha bore the brunt of the attack.

Her purse and camera were stolen. When her parents received the call to tell them their daughter was in intensive care, Liam took his son to a holy shrine in Armagh where they said a tearful prayer for her survival. The entire family decamped to Chicago where they were amazed at the goodwill of the local community, who quickly raised half a million dollars to fund the costly hospital care.

Within a week, police arrested Heriberto Viramontes, 32, a reputed gang member with a long criminal history, and Marcy Cruz, 26, who allegedly waited in a van and smoked a marijuana-stuffed cigar during the attack. Today the pair sit in Cook County jail in Chicago where they await trial. Prosecutors have said Cruz pointed out the women to Viramontes, who went after them with an aluminium bat to rob them. Liam McShane told the Sunday Independent the pair were, "the lowest of the low. The lowest you ever could be".

With her family at her bedside, doctors struggled to keep Natasha alive and removed a portion of her skull to ease swelling on her brain. The portion of skull was stored in a pocket, which surgeons created in her abdomen -- the technique is used in emergency cases to preserve bone. The reattachment surgery was scheduled shortly after her return to Northern Ireland last July. The McShane family was eager to bring Natasha home and doctors in Chicago and Belfast were consulted before the final decision to move her was made. Today, Liam says it may have been a mistake to move her. In Chicago, Natasha's treatment was private and funded by insurance. Back in the North, she was at the mercy of the national health system, which is almost as chaotic as our own in the south. "If this happened again," Liam said, "we wouldn't go home."

The procedure to reattach the piece of Natasha's skull was due to be completed at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast but when the time came to do the operation, doctors found the skull section stored in her body had shrunk.

Liam said this week that he got a shock when the deterioration of the preserved bone was discovered. "I said, 'What do you make the 30 per cent up with?' They said, 'Glue and plates and screws'."

A few days after the bone graft, an infection set in, McShane said. The bone was deemed unusable and removed. Natasha had over 100 stitches in her head. Liam now says that he thinks it was a mistake for her to have the bone graft so soon as it exposed her to infection and the possibility of another operation when she was already weak. He said he told a surgeon at the hospital in Belfast of his worries about the infection, asking whether it might be connected to a lack of private rooms. "I said, 'we have a farm at home, and if we have an animal sick, the first thing we do is put it in the shed. Then, after the vet comes, we disinfect the shed.' He (the surgeon) said, 'We haven't private wards for everybody'." In Chicago, the family would sleep in Natasha's room at the hospital, but that wasn't allowed in Northern Ireland and her physical therapy sessions seemed less intense. As time passed, she regressed.

"She never really got back to where she was prior to the operation," Liam said.

"She wasn't getting any physio those weeks because she wasn't fit," he said.

After the infection, seizures set in. "They were very hard on her," McShane said. Natasha was given powerful drugs to alleviate the seizures, which slowed her progress a lot. "It's like driving a car with the handbrake on. It slows you down," her father said. "When we left America she could walk. Not great," he said, but she could do so with the help of therapists. Today, "she's lost all that. "Everybody wants Natasha to get better. I'm not blaming anyone," McShane said of Natasha's medical team in Belfast. Now the family has an anxious wait to see what happens to Natasha's alleged assailants -- who are due back in court on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Liam and Sheila McShane wait for a recovery that seems further off than ever. The whole family is trying to keep some perspective -- despite the struggles, Natasha's grandmother, Bernadette McShane, insists she is grateful for the gift of survival.

"The big, big thing is that we still have Natasha," she said last week. "That's the most important thing."

Sunday Independent

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