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A teenage girl, a terrible injury and a will to recover

Samantha Palumbo, 16, had her future mapped out. Then came the car crash -- and damage to her brain that doctors said was 'not compatible with life.' But they didn't know Sami.

August 26, 2007|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

"What's wrong?" Diana Palumbo asked. Didn't she want a prom dress?

Thumb down.

"Don't you care if you are happy?"

Thumb down.

Her mother kept driving. Once they found prom dresses, maybe Sami would cheer up. They wheeled her into a store.

"Sami, look at this, isn't it great?"

She glanced, then stared at the ground. Thumb down.

"What about this one? Green? Chiffon? Lace? White?"

She stared into the distance, a petulant teenager, caught in the throes of a meltdown. I'd never seen her this way.

"What's wrong?" Diana Palumbo asked. "Is this too much?"

Thumb up. Yes.

"So, don't you want to go to the prom?"

Thumb down. No. Not anymore. No.

Sami's mother understood. She knew how hard this was. For Sami, the prom could be a great moment, but it also would be an awful reminder of what had been.

When I asked Sami about it, she helped me understand. She felt frustrated, overwhelmed. Part of it was not being able to grow up with her friends. Part of it was her limitations, the way she looked. She was no longer a beauty queen. Now there was her injured eye, her forehead, her mouth. Then there was the drool, the mess she'd make sometimes. And her head -- if only she had the strength to hold it up. . .

She was not sure how the prom would turn out. She was afraid.

Would she go?

She thought about it. Then she decided.

On June 12, it took Sami Palumbo most of the afternoon to get ready.

While her mother put the finishing touches on her simple green dress, her father grew nervous. He took his daughter for a ride in the Expedition. He could not bear to go with her that night. He imagined himself losing his composure, melting into a puddle of tears. Somehow, Sami understood. She reached over and hugged him. Holding her jaw steady with her hand, she kissed him on the cheek.

She looked so different than she had the first time I saw her.

Her soft locks rested neatly at the nape of her neck, and her curled bangs teased the top of her forehead. Since her surgery, her face was so much more symmetrical. Her good eye was open and highlighted by soft mauve makeup. Her parents had told her she looked gorgeous. They were right.

The prom was at an Orange County convention center. Sami insisted on foregoing the wheelchair so she could walk into her prom on her own two feet. The entrance was decorated with blue and gold balloons. Her ankles trembled, but with only a bit of steadying, she stepped down a red carpet. She made it all the way, than sank into her wheelchair.

Friends rushed up. "Oh, girlfriend, you look so beautiful!" "Sami, this is the night we always talked about, remember?" "Sami, can I take a picture of you? You look hot!"

She lit up.

Some of her friends walked away with tears in their eyes. But Sami didn't notice. She sat and held her mother's hand and watched young men and women flirt and kiss and sway to the bass-driven music.

She decided she would dance. She wheeled out onto the floor. Her mother helped her stand. She took slight steps, her feet moving to the rhythm of the bass, her body lolling in her mother's arms. Strobe lights flashed.

I don't wanna miss one smile

I don't wanna miss one kiss

I just wanna be with you

Right here with you . . . in this moment

For all the rest of time.

Sami tired quickly. Her head began to droop. Her mother turned the wheelchair to leave, but a woman stopped her. She whispered into Diana Palumbo's ear. Slowly, Sami's mother rolled the chair to the front of the dance floor.

Exhausted, caught unaware, Sami scowled. She tried to straighten up.

The dancers drew close and grew quiet. Krystal Buckley, the prom queen, svelte, blond and smiling, walked up.

"I just want to say," Krystal said, touching her crown, "that this should go to someone so deserving -- and we all know who that is." She took off her crown. Gently, she placed it on Sami's head. "It should go to Samantha Palumbo! Samantha, I give you my crown."

Sami's friends shouted, hugged and cried. The room thundered with applause. One of her friends jumped up and down, his feet lifting well off the floor.

Sami, her body broken, her brain struggling, tried hard to speak. Straining to hold her head straight, she moved her mouth, but no words came. She took a deep breath and looked at the crowd. Smoothly, steadily, she drew her left hand toward her lips. Then she pushed it delicately outward -- once, twice, slowly blowing tender kisses.

On June 20, Samantha Palumbo walked painstakingly but determinedly up a ramp to a podium at San Dimas High School. In front of the class of 2007, she received an honorary diploma. The class gave her a standing ovation.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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