The bullet is still lodged in her neck and she wears bandages on her throat to cover the scars of three operations, but 15-year-old La'Chanique (Nikki) Lofton is now walking, talking and breathing on her own.
A little less than two months ago, on May 9, doctors at Cedars Sinai Medical Center were fighting to save her life. She had been struck by a bullet in what police have termed a gang-related incident.
She was released from the hospital on May 31 and several weeks ago walked across the stage at Pasteur Junior high School to receive her diploma to the cheers of schoolmates.
Nikki has lost 21 pounds since the shooting. Although she said she feels strong, she spends most of her time at home. Her mother, Alzena Newt, is afraid to leave Nikki alone.
"She has to be watched," Newt said. "If anything goes down the wrong pipe, she has trouble catching her breath. She just doesn't have the reserve strength, like we do."
Nikki has not yet regained full use of her vocal chords. She speaks softly and coughs frequently. She said doctors have assured her that she will be able to talk louder eventually, but will always sound a little hoarse. Sitting on a bed covered in pink satin, surrounded by a mountain of stuffed toys sent by friends and well-wishers, Nikki said she feels fine and wants to look for a summer job at Fox Hills Mall.
Her mother insists that Nikki wait until fall and then try to get a part-time job that will fit her schedule at Hamilton High School.
Nikki's brush with death has affected her attitude about life, she said.
"I'm going to try harder in school. I didn't apply myself before. I decided I would just straighten out my act. And my mother and I are closer now than we were before I got shot," Nikki said.
"We were always close, but she was getting a little peer pressure before the shooting," Newt said.
Newt also said that Nikki spends a lot of time reading the Bible and goes to church regularly. "We're living on faith," Newt said. "It's scary."
She said she didn't think much about the attack while she was at Cedars Sinai because she was heavily sedated, but began to feel afraid after she was transfered to County USC Medical Center.
"When I was at County, I couldn't sleep, thinking about what happened," she said. "Now that I'm at home it doesn't scare me. I sleep like a baby.
"I'm not really scared, but I don't want to ride the bus anymore."
Nikki doesn't remember much about her ordeal at Cedars Sinai, but the doctor who performed the emergency surgery is not likely to forget it.
"She was a young lady who could have been dead," said Dr. Louis Cohen. "She had a terrible injury to the (two major) blood vessels that supply the left side of her brain."
Cohen said Nikki's left carotid and vertebral arteries were blown apart by the bullet, which also damaged the nerves on the left side of her face, affecting her ability to swallow and speak. She is slowly regaining full feeling on that side of her face.
Two operations were performed at Cedars, one to stop the bleeding and one to insert a tracheotomy tube. Nikki underwent a third operation at County.
Although Cohen said he and his partner, Dr. David Cossman, have received specialized training to treat trauma patients, "it's especially scary when you are dealing with a teen-ager."
Nikki is afraid that the bullet in her neck will cause other problems but Cohen said that bullets are usually not removed unless they are easily accessible.
At the time of the shooting, Nikki was not covered by any medical plan. Since then, she has been accepted for Medi-Cal coverage.
Newt said the bill at Cedars Sinai is $43,906, not including the surgeons' fees. Cohen said he and his partner, two other vascular surgeons, an ear, nose and throat specialist and a neurosurgeon attended Nikki during her surgery.
Cohen said that if Nikki had had medical coverage he would have billed the insurance company but that Newt "will not receive a bill from me.
"I did it for free, my partner did it for free and all the doctors did it for free. It isn't the first thing done for free either by us or by other doctors, but you don't hear much about that," Cohen said.
A 15-year-old boy is being held on a charge of attempted murder in connection with the shooting. His hearing is in progress in juvenile court.