A miraculous revival
Student graduates despite traumatic brain injury

On April 25, Deena Tularam was driving home after buying a graduation present for a friend.

The 16-year-old daughter of Vickram and Leila Tularam of Ocklawaha was looking forward to being one of 302 new graduates of Lake Weir High School.

In a split second, her world changed, and Deena became a statistic of a different sort: Every 21 seconds, one person in the United States suffers from a traumatic brain injury.

She had slowed to make a turn when the Mercedes she was driving was struck from behind. Deena's car careened into the opposite lane, where an oncoming truck struck the passenger side, her mother said Friday.

Deena had three broken ribs, a broken clavicle and broken wrist on her right side, but it was the life-threatening head injury that brought her to Shands at the University of Florida, where she spent three weeks in a coma.

"We couldn't believe it," her mother said. "She was such a lively, bright girl, always outgoing. Now, there she lay, hooked up to all sorts of machines."

When she did come out of the coma, Deena couldn't eat, couldn't talk, couldn't stand. She spent two more weeks in the intensive-care unit.

"Now she's standing, speaking, she opens her eyes and she remembers everything," her mother reports, adding that Deena's recovery has been miraculous.

For the past two weeks, Deena has been undergoing daily therapy at Shands Rehab Hospital, designed to give her more movement on her right side. The Shands facility is one of 10 centers in the state designated to treat brain and spinal cord injuries.

"We're working on cognition, problem solving, improving her balance and teaching her the self-care skills she needs," said Linda Doutje, an occupational therapist assistant who works with the determined young woman. "Her progress has been amazing."

Still, when graduation came last weekend, Deena missed being with her friends. Her mother, unable to hide her tears, picked up the empty cover for her daughter's diploma.

"She was an honors student who wanted to go into criminal justice," Leila Tularam explained. Deena planned to join her sister, Donna, studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her goal: to become a federal marshal.

Friday, Donna was at Deena's side, along with many of her friends from school, as the graduation ceremonies came to her.

As Lake Weir Principal Rhodia Berry congratulated Deena on her accomplishments, school counselor Dale Camillo held out her diploma.

"Your mom was crying at graduation," Camillo said, "but this should cheer her up a bit."

With her sister's support, a cap-and-gown-clad Deena rose from her wheelchair and, balancing gingerly, took three steps forward to grasp the degree.

"I did a good job," she said slowly, as Berry helped her shift her tassel from left to right.

Although Deena had threatened to break into the chicken dance after getting her degree, the new graduate settled for tossing her cap into the air.

"This has been a long time coming," Vic and Leila Tularam agreed.

Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@ gvillesun.com.

GRADUATE on Page 6B Continued from 1B GRADUATE:
principal brings graduation to student