TAMPA — Vinny Tafuro and Stephanie Street were in love once.
It was summer love. For three fun-filled months in 2012, they were inseparable.
They visited museums, went for boat rides and long walks and stayed up late talking about their futures.
By the end of the summer, they realized life was taking them in different directions. But they promised to remain good friends, a pact they kept. They stayed close, just not romantically.
“We loved each other rather than being in love,” Tafuro said. “We said we'd always be part of each other's lives.”
Today, keeping that promise is more important than ever for Tafuro.
Street fell into a coma in January. A week later, she passed into what brain trauma experts call a persistent vegetative state — a wakened dream world in which enough of the brain is functioning to allow response to certain stimuli while not fully aware of surroundings or in control of the body.
Still, her family says, when Tafuro visits, she seems fully aware he is there.
“He gets more out of her than even me or her father can,” said Street's mother, Robin Street. “He asks her to wiggle a finger and she does. Move a leg and she does. He has this influence over her that no one else does. It's amazing.”
New brain imaging technology shows that some people in a persistent vegetative state do indeed respond better to certain voices than others, said Brent Masel, national medical director of the Brain Injury Association of America and president of the Transitional Learning Center at Galveston, Texas.
“It's like when you're in a loud crowded room and your kids yell out to you,” Masel said. “Somehow you hear them. Why is your brain attuned to certain voices? That we cannot explain.”
It's not hard for Street's mother to explain. It's love, she said, even if it's not the romantic type.
“She sometimes instantly smiles when he enters the room,” Robin Street said. “She loves her friend for sure.”
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Stephanie Street was inundated with visiting friends during the first few weeks she was in a coma. But the number waned. Tafuro has never given up on her. He makes the hour drive to the hospital at least twice a week.
“It's hard to believe someone can be that dedicated to a friend,” her mother said. “It's hard to believe someone that nice exists.”
Tafuro, 37, is among those who refuse to believe that nice guys finish last.
He had a corner office as a website designer for Sykes Enterprises in his early 20s. He was treated and paid well before he left to form his own Web design business.
“I always wanted to be my own boss and help others,” he said. “Now I can do both.”
Tafuro Communications primarily serves nonprofits. American Victory Ship and Toys for Tots are among his clients. And he volunteers time to other organizations.
In his travels from networking event to networking event, he became displeased with the attitudes of some young entrepreneurs he met. They saw the bottom line as more important than treating employees well.
“It is an attitude that is groomed in them. I'm not going to change Wall Street right now. But maybe if I get my message out there to the younger generation in as many doses as I can that people are more important than dollars and cents, I can change that thinking.”
He self-published a book, “Corporate Empathy,” that argues corporate America has lost its way by focusing more on money than people.
He started a blog that builds on his book by showcasing companies he believes operate unethically.
And he created T-shirts and buttons with slogans like “If corporations are people shouldn't they act like adults?” and “Being a sociopath is not cool.”
“We are a sound bite nation,” he said. “If I sell 1,000 shirts and 1,000 people read it, that's a lot of people I reached.”
His merchandise is available at wwwcorporate empathy.com.
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“He never stops giving to others,” said Mike Compton, president of American Advertising Federation of Tampa Bay, which Tafuro also led. “I joke that Vinny doesn't actually make a living because he is too busy volunteering. He puts himself last.”
It's a difficult journey, Tafuro admitted. Sometimes he thinks about giving up trying to save the world and returning to the normal life of working to acquire shiny objects. But whenever he is tempted, he thinks of Street.
“She believed in what my Corporate Empathy brand was trying to do,” he said.
They knew each other as kids. She is six years younger than he is. He was friends with her older brother.
“She was always just the kid sister to me. I never thought we'd become close.”
Their relationship began in early June 2012, when they attended the same wedding. Tafuro was six months into writing his book. Street was set to attend the University of Pennsylvania to study anthropology. They bonded over excitement about their adventures ahead, as well as common personality traits.
“She is like Vinny,” said Street's mother Robin. “She is mellow and hates confrontation. She always wants to help others.”
They were together almost every day that summer and she pushed him to complete his book.
When he had writer's block, she would brainstorm with him. As he finished chapters, she edited them.
“She inspired me to keep going. And we fell in love. But at the end of the summer she started college.”
Street returned home after a semester. The bitter cold of Philadelphia and the separation from her family proved too much.
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Neither Street nor Tafuro pushed to renew their romantic relationship.
But they hung out — a lot. Their Facebook pages are filled with photos and check-ins together — the Thai Temple for Sunday brunch, the Tampa Museum of Art on a weekend afternoon, and a friend's apartment to watch “The Shining.”
Then in January, a somber photo appeared on Tafuro's Facebook page — prayer candles with a message that Street had fallen into a coma from a brain hemorrhage.
No one knows what caused it. Her mother said Street simply did not wake up one morning.
“She is only 31,” Tafuro said. “I thought I lost her.”
The first weeks were bleak. Street needed help breathing and eating. There was little life to her.
Today, she breathes on her own, swallows juice and reacts to others.
Her mother said Tafuro deserves some of the credit for the improvement. Even when Street is having a bad day and it appears her recovery has taken a step back, she responds to Tafuro in any way he asks.
“I think I bore her,” Tafuro quipped. “Sometimes she squeezes my hand harder like she is asking me to shut up.”
It's a delicate balance, he said, to help his friend without allowing it to consume his life.
“I don't think she'd want me to put my life on hold for her. But I also do not want to leave her behind.”
Despite the improvements, no one knows if Street will ever wake up.
Still, when Tafuro discusses his life 10 years from now, he imagines she will be a part of it.
“She'll be teaching anthropology in a big city somewhere. And I'll visit her whenever my business takes me there.”
Masel said there is no scientific proof a friend's visitations can help bring a patient out of a vegetative state, but he said it cannot hurt.
“Medicine is all about a bell-shaped curve,” he said. “Miracles can happen.”
Tafuro remains upbeat.
“Her personality is still there beneath that coma. She is there. I feel her energy and I know she is trying to come out of it. I have to believe that one day she will be telling me about her day again.”