Tuesday, July 17, 2007 3:28 AM
By Encarnacion Pyle and Photos by Shari Lewis
Special-education aide Heather Miller helps Rachel Barezinsky off the stage during
Rachel shows off her prom dress to her boyfriend, Mike Condon, before she heads to the dance. Rachel and Mike since have broken up.
Rachel Barezinsky wore a satiny gown, strutted across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance and tossed her cap.
It was as if she were just like the other students graduating from
But they didn't have to worry about what to do with a cane when the time came to shake their teachers' hands and accept their diploma.
They didn't have a jagged scar and Britney Spears buzz cut under their cap -- consequences of a bullet that ripped through their brain.
And none of the other graduates will return to Thomas Worthington this fall to take classes to help them fight short-term memory loss.
But this is life after being shot twice during a ghost-hunting adventure with friends. Since that night in August, Rachel, 18, has been on a path to recovery that allowed her to fulfill some of her senior-year dreams: homecoming queen, dancing at prom and now graduation.
But none were exactly as she planned them, and neither is her life.
Brain damage doesn't go away, and neither will the feeling that her future has been jarred onto a different track.
"She's straddling a fine line between a miracle and a tragedy," said Drue Barezinsky, Rachel's stepmother. "Some days feel more like a miracle; others, a tragedy."
Pursuing her dreams
As senior year approached, Rachel dreamed about getting her high-school diploma, going off to college and starting a new, exciting life of her own making.
She wanted to go to
Hours before being shot, Rachel told her father and stepmother she wanted to go into the Peace Corps before teaching. She and a friend, Una Hrnjak, had worked on a school campaign to raise awareness and money for the "Invisible Children" -- the 50,000 Ugandan children kidnapped each year to be turned into child soldiers.
She has the same dreams she had before the shooting, but Rachel knows she will have to work harder to reach them.
"Nothing is easy anymore, but I know I can do it," she said.
She was named homecoming queen but couldn't make the dance because she was still recuperating in Children's Hospital. Several of her friends crowded into her hospital room before the dance to show off their dresses and take pictures.
She went to prom, but her mother hung around in case she needed help. Rachel danced and laughed with her date, but she couldn't squeeze through the crowd on the dance floor to be near her girlfriends.
Rachel participated in commencement in June and had more than enough credits to be done with high school, but she agreed with her family that she would not graduate, to remain eligible for special-education classes.
Returning to high school will give her brain more time to heal and give Rachel a better chance of living the life she expected.
"In most cases, 90 percent of recovery happens within the first year of a traumatic brain injury, but the other 10 percent could take three or four years," said Dr. E. Antonio Chiocca, who treated Rachel and is chairman of neurological surgery at Ohio State University Medical Center.
If things go well at Thomas Worthington and the Delaware Area Career Center, where she'll take early-childhood-education classes this fall, Rachel hopes to move in with a cousin and attend OSU in a year or two.
"Even with all that I've been through, my goals haven't changed," she said. "I don't want to go to a group home or vocational training to learn a trade. I want to go to college like my friends."
That might be difficult for her parents, who are having a hard time letting go as Rachel improves and demands more independence.
"When she was hurt, it was almost like she was a baby again, but we don't have 17 years to prepare to let her go this time," said her father, Greg Barezinsky.
Still, Rachel's family, teachers and medical team believe she has the right attitude and will do the hard work necessary to realize her hopes. How far she goes, they say, depends largely on how much of her memory she regains.
At an end-of-the-school-year celebration at Bob Evans, Rachel forgot what she wanted to order after she closed her menu, had trouble counting out her money when paying the bill, and couldn't find the car in the parking lot.
"Rachel is doing great, but you put her in a new situation out of her routine and everything changes," said Heather Miller, her special-education aide at Thomas Worthington. "She gets so confused sometimes, she turns around and around in a circle."
The more Rachel recovers, the more she appreciates how severe her injuries are and what that means for her future.
"Insight can be a double-edged sword because you start to realize you're not the same person and can't do the same things as you once could," said Jenny Lundine, her speech therapist at Children's Hospital.
Although total recovery is unlikely, Chiocca said, Rachel's future will be bright.
"I think she has a fantastic outlook," he said. "People with a good attitude tend to do much better no matter what their deficits are."
Rachel said she won't give up.
"I'll recover 100 percent. I won't need to use a cane or brace. I will go to college, have a family and get a job," she said. "I have faith."
United behind Rachel
The shooting changed more than Rachel's life.
It threw those of family and friends into flux and continues to affect everyone close to her.
After being divorced for 12 years, her parents were tossed back into each other's daily lives as they shared caretaking responsibilities and medical decisions.
"They really complement one another," said Shawn Lavelle, whose daughter, Maggie, is a friend of Rachel's. "I don't know another divorced couple who could make a situation like this work."
After being released from Children's Hospital, Rachel lived with her father and stepmother in their Far North Side home, which is in the
Rachel's mother took a leave of absence from her job as a Columbus Public Schools nurse to care for Rachel during the day. Her colleagues helped by donating their sick leave.
"Life has been turned upside down," Amy Barezinsky said. "I'm not me anymore. I've spent so much time taking her to appointments and watching her every second of the day for safety's sake that I need to find out how to re-create myself."
Rachel's father and his wife, Drue, alternate nights sleeping in Rachel's room. With work during the day and caring for Rachel at night, they did most of their talking to each other on their cell phones on the way to work until recently. Drue has the summer off from her job teaching special education at Eli Pinney Elementary in
Most days, Rachel's three parents feel as though they are operating on autopilot and have to be strong for her. But they cry sometimes when they're alone or it's quiet.
"There are times out of the blue when I break down and ask why," Greg said. "I feel a little guilty sometimes because our child made it."
None feels that they have been able to give enough attention to the other children in the family -- Rachel's sister, Krista, 14; stepsister, Bailie, 15; and stepbrother, Joe, 19. At the same time, the parents have been overprotective about what all of their children do, where they go and who they are with, because of what happened to Rachel.
Joe, a physical-therapy student at
The girls dote on Rachel, acting as nurses as much as sisters. Even as Rachel improves, Krista and Bailie still feel as though they have lost their best friend.
"They've had to grow up really fast," Drue said. "I'm really proud of them. It's been hell."
Friends pull together
For her best friends, Rachel's shooting and struggle to survive shook up a senior year that they had expected to be the best of their lives.
At least three of the four girls who had gone ghost-hunting with Rachel that night -- Una Hrnjak, Tessa Acker and Margaret Hester -- felt guilty that they couldn't protect her.
"Everything this past year has been a struggle," said Tessa, who drove to the house where the shooting took place. "I feel like we're pushing a big rock uphill."
For months, Tessa was afraid to stay home alone. Her parents said they sold her car after they got it back from the police six weeks after the shooting because "no one could set foot in it again."
The fourth girl with Rachel that night -- Rachel Breen -- hasn't been around as much as the others since the shooting. But she and Rachel weren't as close before the shooting; that night was the first time they had gone out together.
Rachel's other close friends -- Kenzie Bruck, Petra Daitz, Brandi Karse and Maggie Lavelle -- feel horrible for not going out that night as planned and responsible for holding their other friends together when they're feeling angry or sad.
"I would do anything to have been there and taken the bullet for Rachel," said Maggie. "Even now, I feel so guilty for laughing and enjoying myself sometimes."
The girls have grown closer and have become protective of Rachel -- even overprotective at times, they say.
They've talked about their rollercoaster of emotions with a counselor. And they dread leaving Rachel in the fall when they go off to college. They say they are living these last few precious months in the moment.
"I kind of stepped out of my self-absorbed
Hundreds of people in
They've raised thousands of dollars to help buy things for her recovery that insurance didn't cover, renovated her father's and mother's homes, and donated furniture, including a bed equipped with a rail and strap so Rachel doesn't fall out at night.
They also have brought over meals, mowed their yards and listened whenever the Barezinskys needed a shoulder to cry on.
Mrs. Lavelle, who led the charge for donations, has been cleaning Greg and Drue's house with a friend since a few days after the shooting, all while Lavelle has been battling breast cancer.
"The outpouring of love and community support show just how many lives Rachel has touched," she said.
Other family also hurts
The events of Aug. 22 also have been tragic for the man who shot Rachel -- and for his mother.
Allen S. Davis faces 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of felonious assault -- eight years for each count and three additional years for using a gun. Unless he receives shock probation, he will be 60 when he's released; Sondra Davis, his mother and main companion, will be 84.
The case also brought unwanted attention to the Davises, who have complained of years of harassment from other teens intrigued by the house.
"I had yelled repeatedly at these teenage bullies," Sondra wrote in a court document filed Thursday. "I had told them to leave and never come back and get the hell out of here."
She and her son declined to speak publicly about the case after the trial.
At sentencing July 6,
"I'm sorry for what I did. I regret what happened. That's all I can say,"
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Julie M. Lynch told him that he should have expected that his lifestyle -- "what someone else might consider odd" -- would draw attention.
She called it a "tragedy all around."
There is one notable exception.
Rachel's spirit has been inspiring to those who have tried to lift it, only to find that it is one part of her life that hasn't been damaged by the shooting.
She has always been feisty, funny and a free spirit.
Her family and friends still see in her the Rachel who spent nearly every waking hour before the shooting with her seven best girlfriends. They called themselves the "summer girls" and made a list of 100 things they wanted to do, including going to a concert, lying in the sun and playing in a waterfall.
Rachel looked the part of a Thomas Worthington cheerleader -- she had been dying her hair blond and carefully plucking her eyebrows for years -- but she also was at the gym every day to build the strength to do a back flip. She perfected it in August and planned to show it off at the first football game.
It was the same kind of determination she showed when she wore a back brace 23 hours a day, seven days a week from fifth grade to ninth grade because of scoliosis.
"Ridiculously strong, this girl is," said Meredith Bischoff, her cheerleading coach at Thomas Worthington.
When Rachel was still in Children's Hospital, a friend's mother bent down to kiss her left hand. When asked if she could feel it, Rachel said: "No, but I can feel it in my heart."
"It made me weak," said Suzanne Gravette Acker, Tessa's mother. "Rachel knew it would make me happy. She gave me a piece of her love in the face of all her struggles."
Miller, Rachel's special-education aide, said she feels like God put them together.
"She has taught so many of us about the fragile nature of life," Miller said. "I've gained so much more from her than I've given."
Rachel's survival has been a religious experience for her, her family and many others. It's one reason they have kept such a good attitude.
"She suffered what is usually a fatal injury," said Chiocca, the OSU surgeon. "It's a miracle she survived."
At the Thomas Worthington commencement last month, Rachel's classmates and their loved ones in the stands rose to their feet and clapped wildly when she started walking toward Tina Vetter, her middle-school cheerleading coach, whom she had picked to award her diploma.
"Rachel! Rachel!" they roared.
She smiled, nearly glided across the stage in the
She lifted her right arm high in victory and said, "I made it through high school. And I'm ALIVE!"
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