OELWEIN - Playful squeals and a big smile mask how far Damien Worthy has come in nine months.

He was learning how to crawl and hold a bottle at seven months, advanced skills for a child that age. Now, at 16 months, his mother Angela Worthy, 23, beams when she talks about how he stood for just a few seconds on his own the other day.

A child abuse incident left Damien with brain damage that caused blindness and seizures. In March, Worthy's former fiancee, Javier Toms, 25, confessed to police that he had severely beaten the baby. He was sentenced to prison on Monday.

The boy spent 2 1/2 weeks at the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City recovering from the incident. Since then, he's been on a steady path to recovery, but he still has a long road ahead of him. It's been trying on everyone, especially Angela Worthy.

"I don't see how anybody could hurt a child," said Janet Heginger, Worthy's mother.

The call

Worthy remembers the exact moment when the phone call came - even down to the second. Friday, March 24, 2006, at 3 p.m. Toms called her while she was at work.

Damien quit breathing. Instead of calling 911, she said Toms called her and said Damien fell out of a wire-framed infant chair while reaching for a bottle and hit his head.

An ambulance transported Damien from their West Union apartment to the Palmer Lutheran Health Center, and later to Iowa City. Later that night, Toms admitted to Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation officers he abused the baby for more than a week. When Worthy found out Toms had admitted to the abuse, she said it took two DCI agents to stop her from "tearing his head off."

Up until that point, Worthy and Toms planned on marriage. She said they had all the plans set, but it immediately fell apart.

"You're supposed to trust the person you are getting married to, especially with your kids," she said.

She said prior to the incident, Damien would cry when she went to work, but it was just a stage in his development. He "didn't want mommy to go to work," Worthy said. The experience has been difficult for her, she said.

"Every emotion you can think of combined into one is what I go through every day," she said.

Karen Becker, Damien's paternal grandmother, received a call not long after Damien was rushed to the hospital. Her son Chris, Damien's father, was at work. They weren't able to make it to Iowa City until 10 p.m., but in the intervening time they went through a gamut of emotions.

"We were just shocked that anything this terrible could happen on purpose," Becker said.

Later the anger, doubt, fear and sadness came.

The Beckers had Damien every other weekend at their home. They were scheduled to pick him up the next day. Becker said sometimes she thinks if it had been scheduled one day earlier, all of this would have been avoided. The second-guessing is a common thought for anyone who was close to Damien. Family members say they feel like they didn't do enough to prevent the abuse.

The first 48 hours were the most critical time for Damien, Worthy said. Doctors prepared her for the eventuality that she may have to sign papers allowing them to take Damien off life support.

Becker said they would drive down to the hospital frequently when Chris was off work. It hurt to see him lying in the hospital with all the machines hooked up to him, she said.

"We were all so happy when he started responding," Becker said. "We just knew he had a long road ahead of him no matter what."

After Damien was released from the hospital, he was placed in a foster home by the Department of Human Services for eight months while he recovered. Both Worthy and the Beckers fought to get custody of him, and he eventually went home to Worthy.

Progress

Days now begin much earlier for both Worthy and her mother. Damien is up at 5:30 a.m. to be fed through a tube. He'll also take a couple of seizure medications.

"Sometimes the seizures are so bad they make him scream and cry and throw up," Heginger said.

At 10 a.m., he'll eat again. Heginger said they've been trying to teach Damien how to eat off a spoon. Some days he's better about it. Others, it's a task, she said. Damien gets fed and takes medicine three more times in the day.

Heginger said she pretty much quit her job to take care of Damien full time while Worthy is at work. She picks up a few days a week at work when she can. Specialists from the Iowa School of the Blind, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Keystone Area Education Agency, among others, come in several times a month to work with Damien.

They taught Worthy and Heginger special exercises like how to hold his legs so he can learn how to stand on his own or how to use a light box to help build strength in Damien's eyes. He may be able to see in the future, "even if he needs pop bottle glasses," Worthy said.

"When I got him back, the only thing he could do was roll over from his side to his back," Heginger said.

Becker said she was nervous the first time she had Damien because she was afraid something might happen to him. She said she's become more accustomed to taking care of him. Even the feeding tube has become "second nature."

Family members received a little bit of closure on Monday when Toms was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to felony child endangerment charges. State sentencing guidelines require a minimum of seven years in prison before he's eligible for parole.

Worthy said she was happy that Toms faced some sort of punishment for what he did, but she felt the sentence was still too light. During the hearing, the pain and anger was still very present.

Worthy said the incident has changed her perspective on even the closest people to her. She has a hard time leaving her kids with anyone. Worthy has another two-month-old daughter named Amerikah, whose eyes disappear when she smiles. She worries when Damien is at Karen Becker's home in Fayette. She worries when her father takes care of the children.

"There is absolutely no trust for anybody with my kids," she said. "If my mom doesn't watch him when I go out for a little bit, then I'm not going out."

She said she knows that nothing will happen to Damien when he's gone, but she can't help but worry. Becker said she understands and frequently shares those same feelings. She said it's a fear that he's not with them, so they can't protect him from any possible problems.

It's too early to tell how Damien will fare when he is school-aged. Worthy said if he's not well enough to attend public school, she'll home school him. In the meantime, Worthy said she plans on getting her own place and possibly learning how to become a body piercer. Her main goal, however, is to "just be a mom."

Contact Josh Nelson at (319) 291-1565 or josh.nelson@wcfcourier.com.

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