Five years ago, as the 18-year-old girl lay in a drug-induced coma following a brutal rape outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library, her family still believed they would get her back.
Queena still would attend her East Bay High School prom, graduate and go off to college at the University of Florida, they thought. She would get on with her life.
“I told her that the bruises and swelling would go away, she would still be able to make it to prom the following weekend,” her sister, Anna Vuong said. She still was able to speak then, before doctors put her into a medically induced coma to reduce brain activity and help fight the swelling in her brain. Vuong consoled her, telling her she'd help her cover the scars with makeup.
“She asked me a few times things like 'Who did this?', 'What did he want?', 'Will I be OK?', 'Why can't I see?'” Vuong said. “I told her that she would be fine and that everything would be OK and that she just needs to stay in the hospital for a little while to heal up.”
When she came out of the coma, Queena, who will turn 23 on Monday, could no longer speak.
“I haven't heard her speak a whole word since that night,” Vuong said. The brain swelling from her injuries had caused permanent damage.
Kendrick Morris was convicted of raping and beating Queena about 10:30 p.m. on April 24, 2008, after she pulled up to the library to return books. He is serving 65 years in prison for the attack.
Queena is serving a life sentence, trapped inside her broken body, her family says.
She is still unable to speak, walk, control her muscles to any great extent or in any way function independently. The doctors tell her family she is unlikely to regain those functions. “The therapists are more hopeful,” Vuong said. “So, it depends on who you ask.”
The family's struggle, as they work daily to help the young woman recover, has been huge, both emotionally and financially.
Recently they decided, with Queena's input, to make her face and her first name public in their ongoing effort to fund her therapy. They released a website -- www.joinqueena.com – and a Facebook page – Join Queena -- to bring her story to more people and raise money for her treatment.
Her mother, Vanna, who didn't want her last name published, said Queena was in on the decision.
“She chose the name for the website,” insisting, with her facial expressions and arm movements, that her real name be part of it. “We kept asking her over and over, 'Are you sure you want to use your real name?' She kept answering 'Yes,' in her way.”
Following the attack, Queena's doctors weren't saying much, Vuong said.
The family didn't hear the words “brain injury” until a few days after the attack.
“And at that point, no one had any idea what that meant, how dangerous it was, and how it would affect her health and functionality. I remember her barely waking up after a few hours of being in the emergency room the night of the attack.”
Vuong told her that authorities had arrested her attacker.
Moments later, she went into a deep sleep.
Vanna visited several nursing homes, at a social workers' advice, then quickly decided that would not be Queena's future.
She dug in her heels and immediately began researching brain injury on the internet -- something she still does most evenings. “My mom had high hopes that we could bring her back. She thought the best place for her to heal was home where she belonged, with the people she loved,” Vuong said.
That road toward some semblance of recovery has been almost unbearable, Vanna said. Every night she prepares Queena for bed, and gets a few hours' rest herself before getting up at 1 a.m. to give her daughter food and medicine. Up until two years ago, Queena had seizures. Now her medication has them mostly under control. She still has nightmares.
“While we were at HealthSouth Rehab for three months … the doctors and nurses and therapists there trained my mom and me on how to care for Queena once we got home,” Vuong said. “Our family was willing to do anything and learn as much as possible.”
Vanna loads Queena into a van every day and whisks her off for physical, occupational therapy and aqua therapy. The speech therapy has stopped due to a lack of funds.
“I had no idea what it would entail,” Vuong said. “Neither did my mom.”
Friends and volunteers jumped in.
“We had help with remodeling our house to make it accessible and ready for Queena when she got home. We had friends who were therapists and would visit and evaluate Queena.”
They explained how the brain injury affected Queena's motor skills and the kinds of therapy she would need.
Vanna gave up her job to become Queena's fulltime caregiver. Anna is there as back-up, having given up a promotion at work following her own college graduation, so she could stay close to her sister and help in her recovery.
“I lost some of my ambition for career advancement and continuing education. It's hard to stay focused on anything but work and home and therapy and doctors.
“I think our family would have fallen apart a long time ago without the community's support,” Vuong said. “They have donated financially and emotionally and physically. It's hard to think about the evil that exists when we're surrounded with goodness every day.”
Since the early days after the attack, when Queena couldn't eat, talk, walk or see, Vuong said she is now able to eat anything that can be pureed, she is tracking with her eyes and is able to stand and even take a couple of steps with a lot of assistance.
“I still can't believe that people still care after five years. It's amazing to have that support,” Vuong said. “I know we're not alone. And with the community's help, I think we can really get Queena to progress more.”