It might have appeared improbable that Brianna Ramirez would return to the softball field after being shot in the eye in February.
But during a weekend in May, the 16-year-old shooting victim changed into her No. 9 white button-up jersey, blue pants, white high socks and placed blue and silver bows in her hair for her first game during the Tulare Summer Roundup tournament.
“It was the little things,” Brianna recalled when thinking about what she missed most about softball. “Like picking up my hair into a ponytail, putting bows in my hair, tying my cleats and being able to put the uniform back on.”
At the time of the shooting — a random act of violence — Brianna had one major concern: Would she ever play softball again?
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“I was just waiting for the doctor to give me the diagnosis if I’m able to play again,” she said. “That’s all I was waiting for.”
Dr. Steven Fogg of Community Regional Medical Center had an answer for Brianna on Feb. 23 — the day she was discharged.
Brianna remembers the exact words he said to her and her mother: “She has no limitations, she can do whatever she wants.”
Softball was the first word that popped into her head. “I had the biggest smile on my face,” Brianna said. “That’s what I was waiting to hear.”
On Feb. 12, Brianna and her mother were driving home. As they neared their house, several rounds were fired in their direction, and one bullet went through the windshield and struck the teenager in the right eye.
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti said the investigation continues and deputies are still searching for the shooter.
Back in March, sheriff’s detectives identified a potential suspect. However, Botti said the information on Jorge Alberto Calleres, 24, a Bulldog gang member with a lengthy criminal record, was irrelevant. He said there was never enough information or evidence for him to be an actual suspect.
Brianna is more than aware that the person who shot her is still at large, yet she remains calm. She said she is more cautious and aware of her surroundings because of the incident.
“I know the sheriff’s department is doing whatever they can, and I have complete faith in them,” she said.
Now, six months after the incident, Brianna has successfully completed two surgeries, received her prosthetic eye, returned to her post at second base and is ready to start the new school year at Sanger High School later this month.
“Life is going great,” she said. “I guess just being able to do the things I did before, it’s nice to do them again.”
Medical and vision treatments
Brianna was in the hospital from Feb. 12 to Feb. 23. For four days, she was treated in the intensive care unit at Community Regional in downtown Fresno and was in a medically induced coma. About a week after the shooting, she underwent the first of two surgeries.
The first involved the removal of the damaged eye. During the surgery on Feb. 20, Fogg also repaired some tissue fixed her upper eyelid because it was split.
Later on, Brianna’s right ear began to bother her, so she made an appointment at Kaiser. There, doctors conducted two CAT scans to determine whether they would be able to remove the bullet fragment that remained in the top of her right ear.
On June 9, Brianna underwent surgery on her ear. All that remains of the one-day procedure is a small scar.
Brianna was nervous about both surgeries because she feared something would go wrong. However, doctors told her the procedures were going to be simple, which put her and her family at ease.
She said she’s thankful for the doctors who helped the procedures go smoothly.
“They were so generous every time and I know they wanted to help,” she said.
Around mid-March, Brianna was evaluated by Brian Grabowski & Associates, Inc., an orthotics and prosthesis service in Visalia.
“We had three separate appointments of getting an imprint of my socket, then molding it and getting the prosthetic fit,” she said.
“The first week I had it, it felt weird not having a patch over my eye,” she said. “I just felt empty.”
However, that phase passed, and she admitted she was glad to take the patch off because it brought a lot of attention and at times became overwhelming. The prosthetic eye has been in place for about five months and now, Brianna said, “I totally forget I have it in.”
Back to school
Brianna will return to Sanger High on Aug. 20 for the first time since the shooting.
“I’m probably going to be overwhelmed because I haven’t been in a big group in a while,” she said. “But I’m excited to go back, see my friends again and be on campus.”
Brianna missed the remainder of the 2014-15 school year after the shooting and was home-schooled with the help of a teacher from Sanger High School, to complete her studies.
She said it was challenging to be taught at home because she didn’t have the main focus she normally had in the classroom. She had a workbook she would complete with the teacher and they focused on one subject a week. She studied English and history and completed a summer school math course.
Along with being absent from the classroom, Brianna worried that her friends wouldn’t remember who she was and might forget about her. However, she was relieved when her friends checked up on her and spoke with her often.
As Brianna enters her junior year, she’s not only excited for the new school year but already knows which college she’d like to attend. She said she’ll use the $10,000 scholarship she received from the Clovis New Car Dealers Association on March 27.
“I actually want to go to college at Fresno State and pursue my dream as a pediatric nurse because I really like to help people,” she said.
Return to the field
Eager to play softball again, Brianna began to condition and train in April at TNL Diamond Academy — a 15,000-square-foot indoor training facility in Clovis for baseball and softball players who aspire to get to “The Next Level.”
Brianna’s first appointment was a hitting session. She said it felt good to hear the sound of the ball meeting the bat, because she hadn’t batted in a while.
“The first hit I was just like ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said. “In the beginning it was a bit difficult, but I was able to get to used to it and connect with the ball.”
Brianna trains with TNL every Tuesday and Thursday. She mostly works on hitting but hopes to go back to practicing fielding fundamentals in the near future.
She was able to put her hitting practice to the test during a late-May softball tournament in Tulare, where she participated in her first game since the incident. She was “super nervous” when she got back on the field with her team, Cencal Synergy.
“I didn’t know if I was going to start or if I was going to make a mistake, and I didn’t know how many balls I was going to hit,” she said. “When I walked up to bat for the first time, my heart was pounding, I was trying to calm myself down and told myself, ‘I need a hit.’”
She lashed a single.
That first at-bat raised her confidence, and she went 3 for 4.
Brianna said at Saturday tournaments players usually play three games. During the first game she only had at-bats. However, when it was time to take the field for the second game, Brianna returned to her favorite position at second base.
“It felt like home,” Brianna recalled about taking her place on the field for the first time in three months.
Brianna said her perception on the right side of her body is not that good, so she faces some challenges when she dives for the ball.
Brianna said she had to work twice as hard to play second base and will have to do the same for high school.
“I had to prove to the coaches I could still play second base, so they left me there to see how I was going to do and I think I surprised most of them,” she said with a smile.
Brianna began playing competitive softball in a summer league at the age of 12. She’s been a second baseman since she first started playing as an 11-year-old at Madison Elementary School in Sanger.
Some of Brianna’s family members were baseball and softball athletes, including her mother and grandfather. She said she grew up loving the sport and admires Alabama’s softball team. She looks forward to rejoining practices with the softball team at Sanger High School.
Brianna’s mother said the family is still traumatized by the shooting, although Brianna does everything to move forward from the incident and not look back.
“She’s a very strong girl,” said MaryLou Villasana. “I’m just glad she’s able to move forward. We still have prayers and people checking up on her. We appreciate everything that people have helped with, whether it’s doctors, softball families, the players, even people that we didn’t know who cared for her.”
Villasana added that the Sanger High School softball coach, Erica Pennington, and the team raised another $10,000 for Brianna with just the bracelets sold at a “softball friendly” at Madera South High in March.
Brianna agreed with her mother and said the support is heartwarming, and that she and her family are appreciative of everyone’s kindness and generosity.
Although she hasn’t quite come to grips with the fact that she only has her left eye, Brianna continues to do what she loves to do.
“It still feels like a dream, and hopefully I will be able to grasp on the idea that I only have one eye, but as of right now, I can’t,” she said. “Just thinking back, yeah, I never imagined it would happen to me. It still feels like it’s not real, but I don’t consider myself disabled, because I’m still doing everything I did before.”
Brianna is learning how to better understand her eyesight. When she wore a patch it only took a couple of weeks for her vision to adjust, but once the prosthetic eye was inserted it took about a month.
“I guess people assume it’s (the left eye) going to be strained, but it actually isn’t,” she said. “The doctors said it was going to be a perception problem, but I should be able to adapt to it and I feel like I have.”
To this day, Brianna continues to radiate positivity.
“I’m doing amazing,” she said.”I mean everything I’ve been through, I really wouldn’t think of this whole situation as a negative, it may have had its negative moments, but everything about it has been positive.”
Nicole Santos: 559-441-6247, @Iam_NicoleS