FORT WORTH -- Brandi Todd won't allow herself tears.
A little more than a week ago, the 28-year-old Morgan Mill mother of two was watching her children play at Stephenville City Park when a stranger walked up behind her bench and plunged a knife into her back, nearly severing her spinal cord.
Michael Allen Howard, 42, a client of the regional Mental Health Mental Retardation, was soon arrested by Stephenville police.
On Monday, from her hospital bed at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, she spoke publicly with reporters for the first time about the challenges ahead and her eagerness to tackle them.
She can't move her legs. She at times has difficulty catching her breath while talking. But you won't catch her crying.
"Breaking down and crying is not going to make me walk," Todd told reporters. "It's not going to help my kids. It's not going to help my mom or dad. Nobody wants to see me cry, so we just laugh."
Howard remained in the Erath County Jail on Monday night with bail set at $750,000. He faces a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In a conversation with police shortly after his arrest, he blamed the attack on his inability to get help from MHMR, Stephenville Police Chief Roy Halsell said.
Coke Beatty, executive director of the Pecan Valley MHMR, where Howard was reportedly a patient, did not return phone messages Monday.
Todd said that Howard must be held accountable for his actions but that the attack also illustrates a failure of the mental health system.
"People need to know there are people out there that need help, and the system failed this man. He needed help. He asked for help. For whatever reason, he didn't get it," Todd said.
"Right now that reason is really irrelevant to me. The point is he didn't get it, and because he was failed, my entire family will have to alter everything we know about life."
'It knocked my breath out'
March 14 started well for Todd and her children, 8-year-old Olivia and 4-year-old Lincoln..
First, they stopped by the Stephenville home of Todd's mother, Denise Deforest, so Todd could show off the multicolored high heels she had just bought.
Next, they went to Sonic, where they bought tater tots and cherry vanilla limeades before heading to the park to enjoy the sunny afternoon.
Todd said she had noticed a peculiar man walking around the baseball fields but paid him little mind because the park was full of people.
From nearby, 24-year-old Kalyn Porter saw Todd push her children on the swings and settle onto a park bench. Minutes later, she spotted a man casually approach Todd from behind.
"I thought he had put something down her back," Porter said. "She never yelled or anything like that, just made a gesture like someone had put something down her back. He walked off like nothing happened."
Initially, Todd said, it felt as if she'd been hit with a baseball bat.
"It knocked my breath out. I couldn't talk. I couldn't yell," Todd said. "I just sat there for a second, and I immediately lost sensation in my legs."
She laced the fingers of one hand into the holes in the bench to keep herself upright and then reached back with the other hand.
"I felt blood," Todd said, recalling that she jumped to the conclusion that she'd been shot. "That's when I started calling for help."
As Porter rushed over, Porter's boyfriend, Michael Glasgow, and friend Billie Smith began to follow the man, eventually pointing him out to officers who arrived.
Porter moved Todd's hair away to find the woman had been stabbed.
"You never think you'll hear the words, 'You've been stabbed.' Not in Stephenville, not at a park, and certainly not around your kids," Todd said.
Porter pressed her jacket on Todd's back to try to slow the bleeding until paramedics could arrive.
"She was just amazing," said Todd, who met and thanked Porter in person Friday. "God really puts people in places in certain times, and she was there to help me."
Both women tried to calm Olivia, who was crying hysterically and kept asking Porter, "Is Mom going to die?"
"I kept telling her: 'Baby, I'm fine. I just got cut. I'm fine. It's OK,'" Todd said. "'We're going to the hospital.'"
Police said Howard later directed them to the knife, which he had thrown in a ditch. They described it as a lock-blade knife with a 3- to 4-inch blade.
'Determined to succeed'
The knife, which went in between the first and second thoracic vertebrae at the top of her back, severed 90 percent of her spinal cord, doctors said.
Her prognosis is still uncertain.
Todd said she can feel tingling sensations up and down her body, which trauma surgeon Michael Hickey sees as positive. Hickey said he hopes that Todd will regain some mobility in her legs and will be able to take care of herself and maybe one day drive.
"If it depends upon the determination of the patients, there's a 100 percent [chance of] recovery," Hickey said. "I've never seen anybody more determined to succeed.
"Everybody she touches gets a good feeling. She's an optimistic person who has a lot to do in life."
Todd credits God for her strength
"I know that there's something bigger out there for me. I really believe this is life-changing. I truly believe I'm going to take something good out of this. Somehow, there's some way I can really be a better person."
On Monday, not long after speaking with reporters, Todd was transferred to the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation to begin relearning to do the things she once took for granted, such as sitting up by herself.
James DeForest, Todd's father, beams like a proud father as he talks about his daughter's attitude.
"She's very resilient," DeForest said. "When something like this happens to you, this is life-changing. She was, within a matter of days, bouncing back from it. She looks forward to rehabilitation. I think she'll do well at it because she is strong."
Todd said she's not ruling out being able to walk again. She keeps her new high heels in her hospital room.
"People have had worse injuries than this and walked," Todd said. "I tell everybody, 'I'm going to expect the worst and hope for the best.'"
She said the support from family, friends and even strangers has been vital.
"I knew people cared about me in Stephenville, but I never in a million years would have imagined people had such big hearts," Todd said. "It's extremely encouraging and helps me every day to hear from people and know that people care about what happens to a mother of two from a small town."
DEANNA BOYD, 817-390-7655