This was a story I did as a "cub reporter" for The Worcester Telegram and Gazette (T&G).
Original publish date: July 9, 2006
Not the boy family knew
Viral encephalitis drains vitality from young man
They miss the way he used to be. He was a different Pedro then. One they knew.
He was a clown, full of energy. Always tinkering with cars. Studying to be a mechanic. He played basketball. He was social, handsome, popular with the girls. Tall, thin, 135 pounds. He liked to wear earrings — hoops and diamond studs, mostly. Close with his two brothers — one younger, one older. His mother told them to stick together, called them The Three Musketeers.
These days, though, it’s hard to get a sense of any of that. Pedro L. Cuevas, 16, is a blank slate. Paralyzed. Mute. In a wheelchair.
His arms curl up to his chest, fingers balled into his palms. Legs are skinny from fatigue, feet turned in. Head cocked permanently to the right, mouth slack-jawed. He can’t interact with his family, and he’s never held his 8-month-old son, Ian Cuevas.
Pedro’s condition is the result of viral encephalitis, a virus-related brain inflammation that came on in November after an appendectomy at a Puerto Rican hospital.
Sometimes, though, he follows his family members with his eyes. He grunts. He moves his right hand a little bit and fidgets his feet.
All those things are an improvement. He didn’t used to do them. That gives his family hope.
“On the outside, those probably seem like little things,” said his mother, Nancy Matos, said as she tended to her son at a three-decker in Worcester’s Green Hill Park neighborhood. “But it’s a lot for us.”
And, they believe, those improvements will continue. To spur them along, the family plans to buy Pedro treatments in a hyperbaric chamber. On Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. they will hold a benefit at the American Legion Main South Post to raise money for the specialized therapy, which comes with a $7,000 price tag and isn’t covered by health insurance.
The treatments include 44 consecutive three-hour sessions in an oxygenated cylinder. Research has shown that it promotes the circulation of blood and oxygen in damaged tissue areas. The chance of full recovery, though, is slim.
“He could come back to us 100 percent, 50 percent,” Ms. Matos said, motioning to Pedro, sitting beside her on the couch. “Or he could stay like this.”
Ms. Matos’ life in the past nine months has been a cyclone of pain and uncertainty.
Last November, Pedro experienced abdominal pains. Complications arose after his operation: rashes, migraines, a 104-degree fever, memory loss and nonsensical mutterings. Then, a 23-day coma. When he woke up, he was not speaking and not moving.
In April, his family flew him to the continental United States in pursuit of more advanced medical treatment. These days, they’re staying with Pedro’s godmother, Iris Figueroa, in Worcester.
Pedro has regular physical therapy and has to be cared for as if he were an infant.
Ms. Matos bathes him, feeds him pureed food through a tube and shifts him from the bed to the wheelchair to the sofa — and back again.
“I do everything for him,” she said. “It has changed my life completely.”
Emotionally, it’s been an incredible drain. “It’s like you’re walking, you’re living, but everything’s destroyed inside,” she said.
Pedro’s siblings and longtime girlfriend, 21-year-old Darcy Pacheco, have been similarly stunned.
“It’s been hard seeing my brother like this,” said Miguel Cuevas, 15, Pedro’s younger brother. “He used to be normal.”
Ms. Pacheco, meanwhile, has to raise her baby without a father.
The young woman said she loves Pedro and would like to marry him someday.
“I’m gonna be there for him,” she said as the curly-haired infant wriggled in her arms. “I wanna help him.”
Nearby, Ms. Matos motioned subtly to Pedro’s brothers. Without speaking, they lifted his stiff body off the couch and seated him in his wheelchair.
“We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” his mother explained as she adjusted his feet in the chair’s stirrups and straightened his T-shirt and jeans. “We’re willing to go to Italy, to Spain. We’re up for anything.”
She turned to Pedro, leaning close to her son’s narrow face.
He swallowed, moved his mouth and followed her eyes with his.
She gave him a wan smile.