Chapter 16

        THE GRADUATION CEREMONY, ALONG WITH those first fundraisers, showed me how much other people could care about someone who wasn’t even a part of their family. I learned this through the worst tragedy of my life. The entire Tampa Bay region reached out to us, doing what they could to piece together our broken dreams and plans for the future. From then on, friends—and strangers, too—organized countless fundraisers. Everyone wanted to help us pay for medical bills and therapy sessions not covered by Medicaid or insurance. Even as the months and years ticked by, they did not forget Queena.

        Another deadline loomed heavy on our hearts. Queena’s Medicaid coverage for rehabilitation services at HealthSouth had been extended only to August 15, 2008. One day, we received an envelope that looked official from the office of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. I had written to him earlier, asking for help with Queena’s medical bills. Queena still hadn’t been approved for the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, even though I had applied for these benefits while Queena was still in the hospital. So, I wrote to Senator Nelson’s office, telling him about the slow progress and our urgent financial need.

      He had previously pushed for Queena to receive Medicaid through SSI, rather than through the Department of Children and Families, from which she had previously received health care. The letter stated SSI Medicaid had been approved. Senator Nelson later sent us a personal letter that read:

Dear Ms. Nguyen,

Several weeks ago, you made me aware of the difficulties your daughter was experiencing with the Supplemental Security Income determination progress. Knowing of your patience and our mutual efforts to monitor developments throughout this lengthy process, I was pleased to learn that a favorable decision was ultimately reached on her behalf. You are to be commended for your persistence in this matter.

As your United States Senator, it has been a pleasure to assist you.

Bill Nelson

       I read the letter to Queena.
     “Isn’t that nice?” I asked.

     She just smiled, but I marveled at how far her story had reached. Other government officials, state leaders, and medical doctors worked behind the scenes, including Governor Charlie Crist, the Agency for Health Care Administration, and Dr. Emese Simon, who wrote a letter of appeal to Medicaid. The push by reporters who kept Queena’s story in the media, along with the efforts of our local community, helped as well.

       I read from the Bible about a man named Gideon who didn’t think he measured up. He called himself the “least of the least” among the tribes of Israel. Yet God had selected him to lead His chosen people to victory in a battle against their enemies. I believed God had great plans for my daughter, just like Gideon, and I told her so.

    “Never give up,” I said, repeating our family’s battle cry. Then I read a verse from Hebrews 10:34-35 (NLT): “You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever. So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!” With all my heart, I prayed for better things to come in Queena’s life—a great reward for all that she had gone through.

    As a little girl coming home from her private Christian school, Queena had talked to me about God and her faith. At the time, I hadn’t accepted the truth her young mind offered. Now I had come to accept her truth as my truth. I read Bible passages to keep her spirit strong, even when parts of her body remained so weak. Perhaps, I also needed to read them to keep my own spirit strong.

    Unfortunately, the relief we felt after receiving Senator Nelson’s letter didn’t last long. Within a month, Queena began suffering from severe muscle spasms, especially in her legs—common among brain injury patients. The spasms hindered her therapy and recovery. She cried and cried in pain every time the therapists tried to stand her up.

     I asked Dr. Simon to order acupuncture for Queena every morning, thinking this might help her relax. Also, I asked the massage therapist to come more often. Meanwhile, Anna and I kept rotating her body throughout the day. Her list of medications increased, including drugs for seizures, as well as strong pain pills such as oxycodone every two to four hours. The medicine kept her drowsy to the point that she slept all day, even during therapy sessions. I tried to dwell on the positive. Recovering from a brain injury is a long process, I reminded myself. It is bound to have its highs and lows. I prayed for a high point to come soon.

     Instead, our low point deepened. On September 25, 2008, Medicaid notified us that Queena’s stay at HealthSouth would no longer be covered. She needed to leave the rehab center by the end of October. Medicaid had agreed to extend coverage beyond August 15 only if her progress showed continual improvement. According to Medicaid’s evaluation, Queena had reached a plateau. She still couldn’t move most of her body. She still required a feeding tube. She could not talk. For these reasons, her slow progress did not justify spending the sixty thousand dollars per month it cost to keep her there. Medicaid would pay only for physical therapy three days a week while she lived at home, rather than living at the residential rehab center.

     At this point, Queena was deemed totally disabled and dependent. She could continue receiving some Medicaid benefits, but I had to choose supplemental insurance from an HMO representative. Because I didn’t have any idea which insurance company to choose, Queena was automatically enrolled in Amerigroup.

     I fought for Queena to stay at the facility and keep getting therapy five days a week. No matter how much I insisted, the decision stayed the same. I had to accept it. Queena needed to move home, and I would need to be her primary caretaker. The caretaker part worried me most. I had spent the past six months by her side, talking to her and studying her condition. But I had never been in charge. A nurse or some other trained personnel always did the major work while I assisted. Now, I would have to operate the equipment she needed to stay alive. What if I messed up? What if something happened to my daughter while in my care?

     During a meeting with Queena’s rehab doctors, therapists, and a Medicaid administrator from Amerigroup, Robert became so frustrated that he lashed out at one of Queena’s doctors, accusing him of taking the insurer’s side rather than looking out for Queena’s best interests. The doctor denied it. Queena’s well-being was his priority, he said, but Medicaid was right—her progress had plateaued. Others spoke up during the meeting, including Cheryl, who came to support me. The thick cloud of tension in the room had me in tears. Everyone’s face looked sad and full of regret. In the end, the doctor gathered paperwork for the appropriate equipment, medical supplies, and prescriptions Queena needed to survive at home.

      Solemnly, I prepared myself for the huge task ahead. Our entire house would need to be renovated. Health care workers visited to assess the lay-out and recommend ways to modify the rooms. Queena’s upstairs bedroom could not accommodate her without installing an elevator, which wasn’t an option. My master bedroom downstairs would need to be redone and the master bathroom enlarged to accommodate her equipment. We needed to make more space in the shower to fit her roll-in seat while being bathed. We needed to install a wheelchair ramp, as well as an electronic Hoyer Lift to help her transfer in and out of bed. We had to remove carpeting and install tile for easy movement of her wheelchair.

    Word spread throughout the community that Queena was moving home. To my surprise, people still cared after six months’ time had passed. Journalists found fresh angles for new articles that kept Queena’s story in the public eye. One reporter from Fox 13 Tampa Bay, a local TV station, asked to do a story about the changes to come for our family. As usual, Cheryl agreed to act as my
spokeswoman. I so appreciated her unwavering support. When the reporter arrived at our door, Robert and Cheryl gave him and the camera crew a tour of the house, commenting about the doors and hallways that would have to be widened and the twenty-four-hour care Queena would need. Soon, the reporter’s story aired on the evening news, and a flood of responses came in from strangers who wanted to help, including builders and contractors.

      We waited to hear how much of the renovation costs Medicaid would cover and whether we were bound to use contractors that they provided. Later, on October 22, 2008, the St. Petersburg Times ran an editorial headlined, “Victim Deserves Help to Recover.”6 The editorial revealed that Queena was being forced to move out of the rehabilitation hospital and into home care. The writer pointed out that if the state succeeded in convicting the teenager charged with assaulting Queena, taxpayers would likely pay for his imprisonment for decades to come. Yet the government insisted on pushing the victim out of rehab after only a few months of care. The opinion column called for the governor to step in to ensure Queena received the best medical treatment she deserved.

      On October 23, the day after the editorial column appeared, I learned that not only would Medicaid stop paying for Queena’s care at the rehabilitation center, but the insurance also would not cover any of the necessary renovations to accommodate her care at our house either. Also, I learned that chances were slim for her physical, occupational, and speech therapy to be covered.

     I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I had no money left of my own. I was broke. In the six months that I lived by Queena’s side, my salon, Elegant Nail Spa, went into decline without my supervision. Regular clients found other salons. I could barely pay my bills, let alone afford renovations on the house. I was frustrated, weary, and tired—a crippling kind of tired that made it hard for me to even think. My heart felt heavy enough to weigh down my chest. Now that I had lost this latest battle, my faith was weakening, too.

     Then just days before Queena’s HealthSouth release date, I received a call from Brenda, the associate director for Self Reliance, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helped people who have disabilities live independently. A slew of people in the community—contractors, builders, and high school students—had called her office. Queena’s name had still not been released to the public, so they’d called Brenda’s agency, hoping Self Reliance could connect with the media and find a way to reach us.

    “Apparently, there was an article in the paper,” she said.
     As news of our situation spread throughout the area, Cheryl’s husband, John, had already started on the renovations, along with Robert and a contractor. They started with the smaller, least-expensive jobs, such as breaking down my bedroom to bring in Queena’s equipment, making room for her pink wheelchair and necessary medical equipment, and widening the door-frame and inserting a new door. John had even asked what color Queena wanted her room to be.

    Of course, she liked pink, but which particular shade? I remembered a set of sunglasses inside a pink case from Queena’s favorite Juicy Couture store. A woman from the community had bought them and sent the glasses to Queena after hearing in one of the media stories how she liked the color and the store. I took the glasses case to Home Depot and matched it to a bubblegum pink shade of paint there. I knew Queena would love it once she regained her full sight and saw clearly again.

    Over the next seven days, good Samaritans flooded our property. Some reached us through Brenda; others came from various emails and phone calls to people who knew us. Jonathan, chairman of the Remodelers Council of the Tampa Bay Builders Association at the time, offered up the services of affiliated contractors and subcontractors around the Tampa Bay area. A man named Jim from Brate Built Construction in Ruskin also wanted to help.

   Reverend Sabrina Tu of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Tampa assembled an army of plumbers, carpenters, and other volunteers. A designer for the large homebuilder Taylor Morrison Homes also inquired about our needs. Jose, executive director for a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, also offered to help.

     We didn’t have much time. Queena initially had to be out of the rehabilitation center by October 31, but we managed to get the date extended to November 5, 2008. People in the community hosted several more fundraisers in the days before her return home, including a doo-wop dance, a 5K run, and a car wash.

    Cheryl continued to represent us by talking with the media and various donors. Her help took a lot of the stress off me while I focused on helping Queena. Also, because of my broken English, I felt uncomfortable speaking in front of crowds. To whomever she spoke, Cheryl always expressed our gratitude and asked for continued prayers.

     On top of all that generosity, two health care agencies offered to provide therapy for Queena at no charge. An administrator for one of them even said she could stay at the facility temporarily if we couldn’t finish renovations before she had to leave HealthSouth. As a personal gesture of kindness, three different people gave Queena sets of real pearls after learning that she had lost hers during the attack.

     All the love we received from complete strangers reignited our hope. We began to feel that leaving the rehab center might be for the best for Queena. Despite the hardships, other human beings showed me that God’s love still existed in America and in the world.

    I knew the healing process would take a long time and that finding good caretakers to help around the clock might be tough emotionally—and financially, if insurers didn’t help. Yet, after holding onto my faith for the past six months, I couldn’t let go of it now. Queena needed to relearn how to live, just like a newborn baby. Even her laugh now sounded more like the tender giggles of an infant, rather than an eighteen-year-old. Healing would take time, and maybe Queena needed to get out of that medical facility in order to grow again in the warmth and love of her own home.

      “Miracles do happen,” Cheryl said one day while we discussed Queena’s prognosis.
      “I can see clearly in my mind, like it was yesterday,” I told her. “I see Queena coming home from school, getting out of her car, her backpack over her shoulder, and saying, ‘Hi, Mom!’
      “I want that miracle.”

    We prepared Queena for the transition back home on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. We dressed her in a pink shirt and pink sweatpants. Nurses and therapists came into her room to say tearful goodbyes, just as the staff had done at the hospital. An ambulance drove the hour-long trip from Sarasota to Tampa. Along the way, I told Queena, “You are in God’s heart today. Your life is in His hands.” I held her hand, closed my eyes, and asked her to pray with me.

     “I’m praying for rapid healing for her body and her mind,” I said to God, as paramedics watched. “For relaxation and peace, for relief from the pain, for restoration of speech . . . Thank You for placing Your hands on Queena’s life. In Christ, Amen.”

      During Queena’s recovery—first at the hospital, then at the rehabilitation center—I often thought of my cousin Tuyen’s weakened condition as we’d floated for days on the South China Sea. Now, here I was by my daughter’s side, willing her not to give up on life, just as I had willed Tuyen to hang on decades earlier. After our escape, we’d become closer than cousins. We became like brother and sister. Since the attack on Queena, he was one of the few people I talked to frequently—sharing my feelings and the details of Queena’s condition. In one of his emails to me, Tuyen responded:

Dear sister Vanna,

I’m quite thankful to be a part of this healing process. Most people don’t come close to understanding what you have been through and are still going through! This crime was unspeakable. It shows us the evil, dark side in our world. These criminals aren’t human, since even animals don’t do this to their own kind. But this tragic incident also shows us that there are so many other good people among us who want to help a stranger they have never met.

Many, many people have been touched by what happened because they see that you and Queena represent the brighter side of human nature. It’s what they wish every mother and daughter could be! Through it all, you have also shown the world that there is no boundary to a mother’s love for her children and that love will enable Queena to overcome whatever evil has been done to her. In all cases of “good vs. evil,” good always triumphs!


     When the paramedics opened the ambulance doors and maneuvered Queena’s gurney to the ground, somehow, she must have seen or sensed something. Was it the light from the outdoors? Was it the comforting atmosphere of home? My daughter raised her face toward the sky and smiled wide. In my heart, I knew what she wanted to say if she could only speak the words:
      “Thank God, I’m finally home!”

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To support Queena’s medical care and her ongoing therapy, autographed books are available for purchase here..