Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

The bravery of Natasha McShane

Two months ago Liam and Sheila McShane got the news all parents dread: their beloved daughter was fighting for life after a savage attack in the US. Since then they’ve kept a vigil at her hospital bedside. In a deeply moving interview with Donal Lynch, the Co Armagh couple pay tribute to their daughter

Natasha McShane from Silverbridge in south Armagh

It was late in the evening of April 24, 2010, when a Skype call came through to Liam McShane's home in Silverbridge, Co Armagh.

Normally it would be his beautiful eldest daughter, Natasha, who was studying urban planning at a university in Chicago, telling how she was getting on, asking how her little brothers and sisters were doing.

But this time the call came from a friend of Natasha's. She had been contacted by the college who had, in turn, been contacted by Illinois Masonic Medical Centre with a simple, yet terrible, message: The parents of Natasha McShane needed to be urgently notified — their daughter had been savagely mugged and beaten almost to death. She was unconscious and going in for emergency brain surgery. Her life was hanging in the balance.

“I felt sick to my stomach when I was first told,” Liam, a farmer and mechanic, remembers. “There's a holy shrine, St Bridget's Shrine, we just went up there, me and my son Conor and prayed and had a bit of a breakdown. I knew she'd had an awful bang on her head. I was praying she would make it.” Hasty travel arrangements were made, and Liam and his wife, Natasha's mother Sheila, retraced the route their daughter, a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, had taken from Northern Ireland to the inner city of Chicago.

They made their way straight to the hospital and were confronted with a terrible sight: a tangle of wires criss-crossed Natasha's face and body and her head was shaved. She was unconscious. “It was unbelievable — we could hardly recognise her,” Liam says.

“There were machines all around her bed and about 14 or 15 bags under her.

“They explained to us that they had to remove a part of her skull so that her brain could swell and that they had to keep her in a coma. There was such pressure on her brain that she might have died.”

The family was put up in hospital accommodation. “We were so grateful for the amazing staff at the hospital, but it was really terrible for us as well. It was very hard on Sheila and Natasha is the eldest of five. We didn't know what was going to happen to her, we wanted them all out here.”

In the coming days, the family would travel to Chicago — Natasha's aunt Caroline came all the way from Australia — and Liam and Sheila would also learn what exactly had happened to their daughter.

Natasha (23) and her friend Stacy Jurich (24) had been walking home in the early hours of Saturday morning.

They were returning from a night out to celebrate a glowing review that Stacy had received at work and the awarding of an internship that would enable Natasha to stay in the US.

Their route took them under the old Bloomingdale Line railroad viaduct, where they were attacked.

Stacy felt a blinding pain the back of her head and then was struck again, police said, probably with a baseball bat.

She saw Natasha drop to the ground and the man picked up both their purses before running away.

The man got away with a large leather bag with a Blackberry mobile phone, Sony camera and other personal items including credit cards, which belonged to Stacy.

Natasha fell unconscious, while Stacy was able to give a witness statement before also falling unconscious, police told Liam.

They also told him about the alleged attackers. Heriberto Viramontes is a criminal with a violent history.

A reputed member of the Spanish Cobras street gang, Viramontes has an extensive criminal background that includes dozens of arrests.

According to court records, he has been convicted of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, burglary and domestic battery.

He was also charged with assaulting a police officer, but was acquitted in 2007, the records show. Along with his girlfriend Marcy Cruz — who has also had several run-ins with the law — he is the chief suspect.

Police had tracked Natasha's stolen mobile phone to Cruz's house and Marcy told investigating police that she had not seen the attacks but had been told about them later by Viramontes.

“At that point I was really just too worried about Natasha and how she was doing to even think about these people,” Liam now says.

“You wonder what kind of human being could do this to someone. What kind of animal would you have to be?

“But as I say, our main concern was Natasha, we just didn't have the energy to waste on those people. They're not going to do it to anyone else now.”

Liam and Sheila took up a bedside vigil and Natasha was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where she remained in critical condition. Liam got to meet the taxi driver who had found his daughter on the street.

“He told me he thought she was dead — she was covered in blood,” Liam says.

“He saw her move her arm and leg a little bit and realised she was alive.

“I shook his hand. He probably saved her life.”

It was not the first piece of kindness that the McShanes would experience in Chicago. The Irish-American community rallied around them and 10 days ago at fundraising events, dubbed ‘Natasha Day’, more than $250,000 (£170,000) was raised.

“The people here have been nothing short of amazing,” Liam says. “The priests have provided a lot of comfort to us. I can't say enough good about them. Nothing is too much for them, they have taken us in.”

Stacy Jurich, who herself is still suffering from seizures as she begins the long process of recovery, spoke of the bravery Natasha's family had shown.

“They're having a really hard time right now,” she said after the attack.

“I think the focus of their lives is just being at her bedside, making sure she hears all of our voices and knows that we're here.

“She's going to open her eyes some day and that's what's most important to them ... that they're the first people that she sees.”

She calls Natasha her “little dance partner”.

Natasha's condition is slowly improving, Liam says. A tracheotomy was performed to assist her breathing.

The tube is now removed, and she is breathing completely on her own. She is slowly relearning how to eat and drink, and last week she enjoyed her first sips of tea.

“She's fit to stand now and they're working on her walking in physical therapy,” Liam says.

He added that she was shown some pictures of herself in bed and showed signs of embarrassment, pulling her head back down under the covers — a good indication for her progress.

Liam says: “The doctors have told us that each and every brain injury is different and that it's hard to predict progress.

“She got quite emotional there a week or so ago and we were wondering if she was remembering what had happened.

“She speaks Irish sometimes although she isn't really talking, she whispers; we're just now getting to be able to understand her.”

The hope is that Natasha will soon be well enough to take home and perhaps the girl who was once awarded a scholarship to UCD by Brian Cowen will be able to continue her academic career.

“We're going to wait here until she is well to bring back to Ireland,” Liam says.

“We're by her bed 24/7. We know it's going to be a long, hard road but we're waiting to bring her home. However long that takes.”

To contribute to the fund for Natasha, please visit www.helpnatasha.net

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