Natasha McShane struggles with recovery a year after bat attack
By Maureen O’Donnell Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org April 18, 2011 8:17AM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
A year ago Natasha McShane was a vibrant 23-year-old college exchange student, out in Chicago for a night on the town.
Today, back home in Northern Ireland, she can say only one word with regularity, and even her father isn’t sure what she means.
She is incapable of doing tasks even a small child can manage, after a baseball bat-wielding mugger cracked her skull when she left a Bucktown bar last April 23. Often, she’s teary.
The attack on the 4-foot-9, 100-pound woman and her Chicago friend Stacy Jurich shocked Chicagoans, drew international news coverage and galvanized Irish Americans across the nation. The fund-raisers that followed netted more than $400,000, now in a trust to help fund her long-term care.
But once Natasha returned home last July, “she had setbacks from Day One, so she had,” said her father, Liam McShane, in a phone interview from Ireland.
She has struggled with infection, seizures and brain shunts. A year after the brutal assault, a long road lies ahead of her, and her father is asking for continued prayers for her recovery.
He said he will always be grateful for everything the people of Chicago did to help her. But he also questions whether the decision to bring her back to Northern Ireland — a move made after doctors in Chicago and Belfast were consulted — was the right one.
“If this happened again,” Liam said, “we wouldn’t go home.”
After Natasha’s injury, physicians in Chicago removed a portion of her skull because of brain swelling, and stored it in a pocket they created inside her abdomen. The technique preserves bone until it is ready to be returned to the skull.
The reattachment surgery was scheduled shortly after her return to Northern Ireland last July. But surgeons at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast found that the skull section stored in her body had shrunk by 30 percent, according to Liam McShane and John Colbert, a Chicago attorney who has done pro-bono work for the McShane family since the attack.
Liam had a bad feeling when the deterioration of the preserved bone was discovered. “I said, ‘What do you make the 30 percent up with?’ They said, ‘Glue and plates and screws.’ ”
Several days after the graft, an infection set in, McShane said. The bone was deemed unusable and removed.
“That was, like 106 stitches, a big operation,” he said.
Afterward “Tash” was kept under heavy sedation and bombarded with antibiotics for eight or nine weeks. Doctors now plan to use a titanium plate to mend her skull, he said.
She is recovering at home in Silverbridge, County Armagh, with the help of her family and caregivers. The caregivers help dress her, feed her and ready her for bed.
McShane said he knows everyone is doing their very best to heal his daughter. But he has so many questions; so many second guesses of himself that only another parent would understand.
After the Bucktown attack, Natasha was treated by doctors at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center before being transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She later underwent therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
McShane wonders, could the Chicago doctors have foreseen or warned about possible changes in the section of skull that was removed? Could the surgery have been done before the fragment shrank? Maybe, he said, the Belfast doctors “shouldn’t have put it in. They should have just waited. It might have meant she wouldn’t have gotten the infection. That was two big operations.”
He said he expressed his concerns to a surgeon at the Royal 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 veterinarian comes, we disinfect the shed.’
“He said, ‘We haven’t the means here. We haven’t private wards for everybody.’ ”
Ultimately, “She never really got back to where she was prior to the operation.”
“She wasn’t getting any physio [physical therapy] 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, leaving her largely unresponsive. “It’s like driving a car with the hand-brake on. It slows you down.
“She was getting worse and worse and worse, and then they put the right leg in a fiberglass cast. She had no power in that leg.”
Then, more liquid accumulated in her brain. In December a shunt was inserted to drain the cranial fluid. She seemed more alert for a few days, McShane said, but then the swelling renewed.
The old shunt either wasn’t working or was blocked, he said. A new one was inserted. “That was two operations within two weeks,” he 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.
“Before we came home, she had good power in her left arm.”
Now she can’t write or use a spoon.
“Some days she might lift a bit of toast,” McShane said.
Other days, she sits there with the toast, frozen. “You have to take it out of her hand and give her the [tea] cup.”
Though they weren’t clear, Natasha could say a few words in the United States, her father said.
Today, the only thing she says with regularity is “sinn” [pronounced “shin”]. It’s a Gaelic word for “we” or “us.”
“Sinn could be anything” to her, he said. “It could mean yes. It could mean no.”
Both McShane and Colbert said a Chicago area physician with experience in trauma surgery encouraged them to bring Natasha home, saying treatment in Northern Ireland would be equal to the United States and that Natasha was ready for the journey. The McShanes were “extremely reluctant,” though, Colbert said.
The doctor believed Natasha would do well in familiar surroundings, with her friends and relatives nearby, McShane and Colbert said.
Natasha was covered by travel insurance. Northern Ireland has nationalized health care. “It’s my belief,” Colbert said, “that insurance coverage considerations required the McShanes to address her early transfer to Belfast.”
“Everybody wants Natasha to get better. I’m not blaming anyone,” McShane said.
But the two health care systems are very different, McShane said. In Chicago, he and Natasha’s mother, Sheila, were viewed as valuable members of her health-care team, he said. He and Sheila were allowed to attend therapy with their daughter. In Northern Ireland, a scrim gets pulled around Natasha during the sessions, he said. Her physical therapy also seemed more intense and focused in the U.S., he said.
The McShanes were welcome to sleep in Natasha’s room at the Chicago hospitals. “She opened her eyes and looked over, and one of us was there all the time,” he said. That hasn’t been the case in Northern Ireland, according to McShane, who said parents there aren’t routinely allowed to sleep in the hospital rooms of sick children.
In Chicago, the McShanes were encouraged to decorate her room with pictures, play her favorite music and make her a cup of tea from a kettle. Multiple visitors were welcome. “There was a great energy,” he said. Doctors seemed more accessible here, he said.
Does Natasha know Sheila or Liam? “Yeah, but sometimes, I don’t know,” he said.
Her friends come to visit. “We were talking to Natasha,” they’ll say.
“But they’re not talking to Natasha,” McShane said. “Natasha’s not talking to them.”
2 suspects await trial
Two people sit in Cook County Jail, charged with aggravated battery and armed robbery in the April 23, 2010, attacks on Natasha McShane and Stacy Jurich, whose injuries were less severe.
Heriberto Viramontes, 32, and Marcy Cruz, 26, are due back in court Thursday. Prosecutors said Cruz pointed out the women to Viramontes, who went after them with an aluminum bat to rob them.
Liam McShane has called Viramontes “the lowest of the low. The lowest you ever could be.” But he never blamed Chicago.
And he has a message for the people of Chicago.
“Thank them very much for all they [have] done, and for all the prayers and all the things that people gave us, and keep praying,” he said.
“She needs our prayers to get her out of it.”