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A Long, Slow Road to Recovery : Assailants Silent as Teen Struggles Back From Tragedy

October 03, 1988|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

The progress is coming. Slowly, painfully, but it is coming.

Eighteen months ago, Jennifer Pratt was the shattered remnant of a terrible tragedy.

While sitting on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle at a stop light on a lonely stretch of road in Carlsbad late one night, she was hit in the head by a length of 2-by-4 tossed from a white pickup loaded with teen-agers.

She languished in a coma for three months. When the Encinitas teen-ager finally came around, the damage to her brain caused her body to knot into a fetal position. Her memory seemed a blank slate.

Taking Her First Steps

Today, Jennifer is up and taking her first steps since the incident. Her fingers, once twisted into tight fists, have been straightened by therapy and are functioning almost perfectly. And her mind is healing. The facts and concepts of yesteryear are beginning to creep back into her consciousness.

But this is not the Jenny Pratt her friends and family once knew. That young woman, the San Dieguito High School sophomore, the one with the bouncing mane of blond hair, the one who dreamed of being a model, is probably lost forever, her doctors say.

Adding to the frustration is the stalled effort to bring her assailants to justice. Aided by a private investigator, her parents feel certain they know the identities of the teens involved in the board-throwing incident, but police say they lack sufficient evidence to bring charges.

None of the youths involved has stepped forward to identify the culprit. Instead, they've remained hidden behind an impenetrable code of silence, a twisted sort of teen-age loyalty.

"I've just about given up," said Garry Strom, Jennifer's stepfather. "I just really can't see anything happening after a year and a half. The detectives, the police, they're all frustrated. Everything seems at a dead end."

Sgt. Jim Byler, the Carlsbad detective handling the case, agrees.

"It's been very frustrating," Byler said. "We gave it our best shot, but some cases don't get solved easily. Some don't ever get solved. As long as it's been now, I'm certainly not optimistic we're going to be able to figure out who did it."

In recent months, Jennifer's family has increasingly turned their focus away from the icy trail of her assailant. Instead, the day-to-day effort of helping the 17-year-old begin to overcome her disabilities taps a sizable share of the family's energy.

She came home in late March after a year in the hospital. Her parents now drive her to San Diego each day to attend classes at the Sharp Rehabilitation Center.

But those sessions, though valuable, may soon come to an end. In November, the family's insurance aid is scheduled to run out, and Jennifer may be forced to begin attending a less-intensive special education program at her old high school. (Already her medical bills are approaching $800,000.)

To make matters worse, Strom has been unable to find a steady job since leaving his position as an assistant vice president with a financial services firm about a year ago, after a run-in with his bosses over the hours he put in during Jennifer's recuperation.

"We're just going along month by month right now," he said. "I would dig a ditch if I could pay my bills."

'It's Been Hell'

Jennifer's mother, Diane Strom, puts the past 18 months in plain perspective: "It's been hell. When you're with this day after day, you don't really notice the changes, the improvements. And it gets really, really depressing, even though she's getting better gradually."

While Jennifer remembers nothing of the night she was hit, her long-term memory of other events seems to be recovering nicely. But her short-term memory remains impaired. She often can't remember what she had for lunch and occasionally repeats herself in conversation.

Her physical condition, meanwhile, has improved. Though confined to a wheel chair for months after the accident, she now can walk, although her left leg is still painful, wrapped in a cast to straighten the foot. Her left arm is frozen at the elbow by a cement-like calcium deposit, but a future operation should rectify that, her parents say.

As Jennifer slowly regains her cognitive abilities, the sad reality of her situation grows ever clearer to the young woman. Her moods often turn bitter.

"She has greater insights into her disabilities, and that's been painful for her," said Dr. Jerome Stenehjem, medical director for rehabilitation at Scripp's Hospital in Encinitas and the physician coordinating Jennifer's treatment. "She knows there are problems and at times expresses herself, crying and saying things like, 'I wish I were dead,' or 'I hate myself.' "

Sitting on the couch in the family's comfortable home one recent day, Jennifer seemed child-like and serene. It is a happy mask, her mother says, that she can don for a visitor.

Flashes of Teen-Ager

As she talks, flashes of the bubbly teen-ager often burst to the surface.

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