The only thing worse than this story is knowing that others just like it are playing out in this violence-choked city every day.

JAN. 11: Helen Flanagan, 47, a medical worker at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, leaves work early to pick up her son from school in Jersey, where they live. They are both still reeling from the sudden death of her fiancé a few weeks earlier.

As Flanagan walks to her car, she is crying on the phone with her fiance's sister. She doesn't see the two teens who knock her down from behind and take off running with her pocketbook.

She dials 911 and cops instantly prowl the neighborhood, looking for the assailants. Within minutes, two teens are caught in a playground. One is routing through Flanagan's purse; the other has her keys.

The boys, ages 15 and 16, are arrested. Flanagan swears out a complaint and the cops make her promise to see it through. We need to get these kids off the street before they do something even worse, they tell her.

March 15: Flanagan arrives at Family Court, ready to confront her attackers. But she mistakenly sits in the waiting room, instead of the witness area, and begins to shake when she realizes she is sitting next to one of her accused assailants, whose mother is berating him.

She is summoned into the courtroom and learns the hearing has been postponed. Flanagan has a problem with a suggested new date and feels scolded when the judge "acts like it's my fault I have patient appointments that day."

The hearing is rescheduled for March 27 and someone suggests arranging a lineup in the meantime, for Flanagan to ID her attackers. When Flanagan notes the futility of that, since she never saw her attackers' faces, she is escorted out of the room.

Don't fret, one of the arresting cops says. Those kids had your pocketbook and keys; this is still a good case. Just come back on March 27, whether they remember to subpoena you or not.

March 27: At Family Court, Flanagan - who never received a subpoena - learns that her case is not on the day's schedule. She has missed two days of work and has paid $12 for parking, for nothing. She thinks how her mother, afraid of retribution, begged her to drop this case.

"They didn't have a gun," she'd said. "Let it go!"

So Flanagan snaps at the clerk and says something like, "Just forget it. Those kids can kill each other for all I care."

But she thinks about how, if the teens are convicted, she'd want them to do community service in a hospice. Maybe, she thinks, if they worked with people who were fighting for every minute on this earth, they'd understand the preciousness of life and not want to put it at risk.

April 7: A subpoena arrives for Flanagan's date with justice, now scheduled for April 26. While she's not sure she has the stomach for another postponement, she knows she hasn't the stomach for city work any more.

A few days before, she was recruited for a new job by a company near her home in Jersey. In the past, she would've dismissed the query. After all, she'd worked at Penn for 17 years, and the university had a generous tuition benefit for employees' children. Her kids, ages 6 and 14, would be headed to college soon.

But, she thought, "What good is hanging on for a tuition benefit if I could be killed before my kids can use it?"

So this time, she asked the recruiter, "Does the job have on-site parking?" When the answer was yes, she went for it.

Today: This Friday is Flanagan's last day at Penn. Which means, if Thursday's hearing goes ahead as planned, she won't have to set foot in Philadelphia ever again.

The thought gives her no satisfaction.

"I've always loved this city," she says. "but this has shaken me to my core." *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: