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Disability can't stop him from dancing

Published May 9, 2007

[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
Melissa Smith, 18, pins a boutonierre onto Lee Coward's tuxedo a Edinborough Healthcare Center in Dunedin as her twin sister, Mary, looks on. Attending prom was one of Lee's many goals after an accident left him in a wheelchair.

CLEARWATER - While most promgoers still ringed the dance floor in packs, mustering courage to break from their cliques, three figures already twisted beneath the Harborview Center's flashing lights.

Two girls gyrated to Lil' Wayne, R. Kelley and T-Pain in tight, bright dresses. A boy, perched in his motorized wheelchair, energetically followed suit.

Lee Coward wasn't going to let a crippling accident keep him from the Tarpon Springs High School prom. He wanted to savor every minute of it.

"I didn't get to do it when I was supposed to, " said Lee, 20, who was hit by a car in 2003, when he was 16. "I thought, better late than never."

Before the accident, when Lee was a student at Chamberlain High School in Tampa and football running back, he'd often imagined what prom might be like.

Older friends had raved about the quintessential coming-of-age ritual. He'd always enjoyed the pomp of semi-formals and homecoming dances.

"They said it was a lot of dancing, a lot of fun, " he said.

But during his junior year, he was struck by a car while riding his bike. The accident left him a quadriplegic. He now uses a mouthpiece to control his wheelchair.

He did rehabilitation for months in Tampa and Miami before being released into the care of his family. But continuing health problems led to subsequent hospitalizations.

This fall, Lee moved into Edinborough Health and Rehabilitation Center in Dunedin. He also started school again, attending Tarpon Springs since it was the closest school with a full-time nurse.

"It's been wonderful" for him to go back to school, said Shea Kilby, who was Lee's occupational therapist at St. Joseph's in Tampa and has remained a constant presence in his life. "He has dreams and goals he wants to work toward."

She and Edinborough staff members are raising money through car washes and garage sales to get him a computer for his schoolwork. He now wants to attend college to study psychiatry.

But first, Lee had a more immediate goal: to get to prom.

As in most high schools, buzz about the big night started a couple months ago.

"He asked me if he could go" to Tarpon's April 28 prom, said Evelyn Frank, activities director at Edinborough.

And he wanted to take her 18-year-old twin daughters, Mary and Melissa Smith.

The twins, identical except for hair dye, often volunteer at the center and go on outings with Lee.

Both happily accepted.

Mary is a senior at Clearwater High School, and Melissa attends nursing school.

"People keep saying, 'I don't see why you got two dates, '" Lee said, smiling shyly.

The trio, with the twins' mom as chauffeur, went to dinner at Island Way Grill before heading over to the prom.

As teenagers poured out of limos in a stream of satin and tiaras, Lee was lowered to the ground from the beige Edinborough van.

But the unusual ride didn't faze him, or his dates.

They enjoyed a lengthy - and pricey - meal, paid for from donations made by Edinborough staff, and giggled over some of their most recent outings.

A November senior citizen expo -a field trip for the rehabilitation center - where the three had glimpsed Pat Boone for the first time.

"It wasn't really my type of music, " Lee remarked, politely. The debacle at the Lowry Park Zoo, when a pack of goats assaulted Lee.

"They surrounded me!" he remembered, laughing. "They tried to eat my wheelchair and my pillow."

As the three lingered, Lee polished off the better part of a 24-ounce steak, topped off by creme brulee.

"I'm glad I got my pants so big, " he joked of his rented tuxedo.

When they got ready to head to the Harborview Center, Lee inadvertently launched a light-hearted debate with auburn-tressed Mary and platinum blonde Melissa over whether blondes do indeed have more fun.

"I guess we'll find out tonight, " Melissa teased.

It was a tough call.

Minutes after arriving at Tarpon's "Mardi Gras Masquerade" event and having their pictures snapped, the girls coaxed Lee onto the dance floor.

They wiggled to a "Car Wash" remix, complete with swiping motions, as Lee bopped along. Soon the dance floor started to fill up and they were just three figures in the pulsating crowd, dancing among free-floating balloons and colored lights.

They didn't make it home until nearly 1 a.m.

A week later, Lee still grinned when recalling the evening.

Pictures of him with his dates are tacked up throughout Edinborough, and a Mardi Gras-themed centerpiece sits on the table in his room.

"I have a lot of memories, " he said. "I couldn't pick just one favorite."

Elena Lesley can be reached at or (727) 445-4167.

[Last modified May 8, 2007, 23:16:42]

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