Editor's Note: As 2017 winds down, The Islander News is remembering those Key Biscayne stories that inspired us over the past year. Here, we remember the Español family, who inspired us with their courage and optimism in the face of their son's scary medical crisis.
Ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks, moments of joy and times of struggle – they all mark the medical ordeal of 9-year-old Pedro Español Jr., but through it all, hope, gratitude and love have remained constants for the family.
Pedro, who is known as Perico, suffered a stroke this spring while playing ball during recess at the Key Biscayne K-8 Center.
Thanks to a quick response by his teachers, Key Biscayne Fire-Rescue and doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital, he received the lifesaving medical care he needed.
After his recovery and rehab, Perico underwent a second surgery in mid-June, this one to repair the condition – previously undiagnosed – that has caused his stroke. After a month recovering at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, last week Perico moved to rehab at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Through it all, his father, Pedro Sr., has kept loved ones near and far – the family is from near Madrid, and was living on the Key temporarily when Perico fell ill – appraised in a series of emails that alternate between heartfelt, funny, harrowing, inspiring and the litany of emotions he and wife Monica are experiencing as they watched their son struggle and overcome.
As Pedro Sr. noted in an early message, “He wants to be recovered to return to his regular life, and, as he did before, he will achieve it will hard work, tenacity and effort. He is a fighter.”
In the early days after his surgery, Perico faced challenges including pain management, the risk of infection and the return of weakness to his legs.
His headaches at times proved hard to control, as doctors sought alternatives to heavy opioids as inflammation from the surgery subsided. Sometimes, oral acetaminophen and ibuprofen kept the young boy’s discomfort in check; other times, doctors had to resort to morphine through an IV. Eventually, doctors were able to incorporate placebos and breathing exercises into the program.
But sometimes, after lengthy periods of relative comfort, agony would return: once the result of an air bubble in the damaged ventricle of his brain; other times due to unknown causes.
The family, including Perico, stayed strong: “Anecdote of the day,” Pedro Sr. wrote in one email. “He was in pain and complained a lot, so mama said, ‘I wish you could give me your pain,’ and he said, ‘You have enough of that, I would not want you to suffer anymore!’ He is able to think of others even in his worst moments! How proud we are of him!”
The team at Nicklaus Children’s was also on constant watch for signs of infection.
Physicians administered antibiotics after the operation, and for a while, white blood cell counts were coming back normal – meaning so sign of infection. While the positive results continued for a couple weeks, earlier this month Perico endured a night of aches, fever and vomiting, bringing the fear of infection back to the forefront.
Tests including an MRI and lumbar puncture showed no problems with the surgery itself, but the puncture revealed bad news: “After two hours of waiting, we were informed of what we did not want to hear: the white blood cell count indicates infection,” Pedro Sr. wrote. “Now the chances are that the bacteria has become resistant, so they have to administer more potent antibiotics; or a new bacteria, so they have to find the right antibiotic to eliminate it.”
Pedro Sr. wrote, “These abrupt changes, these ups and downs, greatly disconcert us. The truth is that we have been scared, we do not know if we should worry or not, because we still do not know if there is infection or not and how it affects.”
Causes could be many: something as simple as bacteria linked to the catheter; in the worst-case scenario, an infection in the bone in Perico’s skull.
Even as they weathered the immediate ups and downs of life after major surgery, the family also kept longer-range goals in mind: even before Perico made the move to rehabilitation, the Españols and their doctors were doing what they could to keep his body strong and mobile.
They worked with him on stretching, leg movements, massages, etc. “We have to get him to sit and move more to avoid muscle atrophy,” Pedro Sr. explained. “He is looking forward to starting his rehab so he can go home and make a normal life.”
As the days moved on and healing continued, they recorded victories: two hours sitting at a time, then four; walks around the hospital floor or even outside were cause for celebration.
By last week, things were looking up:
“He started the day at 10 a.m. with the physiotherapist and has given two laps to the floor. After the therapy, he has been seated and until 6:30 p.m. has not asked to go to bed. Then he asked me to do two more laps – done! After that walk, we have done stretching and massage in the bed. Really, you cannot imagine the change he has made,” Pedro Sr. wrote.
The good news continued, with no pain or fever, and tests that came back negative for infection – and the family got the good news that, after four weeks, they were heading to Jackson for rehab. “Now we have two weeks ahead of hard work where he will have about six hours of daily training between physical, functional, musical, psychology and speech,” Pedro Sr. wrote.
He said the family immediately felt welcomed at Jackson.
“All the therapists, nurses and doctors have come to greet us with much affection and have seen very well to Perico,” Pedro Sr. reported. “One of the therapists who deals with speech, memory and logic has told us that Perico is so well in those points that her sessions are not justified, so from now on she will do without it.”
Physical progress was also showing. “It is impressive how in two days he has improved the movement of his legs,” Pedro Sr. wrote last week. “I think that when we leave the hospital he will be at least like when he came in last time. That would be a feat!”
Staying so positive in the high-stress, sleep-deprived, clinical setting of a hospital is never easy, but Pedro Sr.’s emails to friends and family include genuine humor and heartwarming anecdotes as the family held strong through their ordeal.
Pedro Sr. shared how Perico was visited by therapy dogs, a guitarist and other volunteers, giving the gift of something as simple as playing a board game, watching a movie, or doing crafts, like making a colorful jellyfish picture that earned Perico a prize. Support from friends and family, both those in Key Biscayne and from out of the country, also provided a huge morale boost.
The Españols expressed gratitude for the notes, electronic and physical, that their son received; as well as visits from Perico’s teacher and many friends, one of whom even shaved his head to mirror the young boy’s surgery scars.
“You do not know how you accompanied us during this long journey. It has been four intense months, and we guarantee that not a single one of your signs of support and solidarity, whether messages, emails, calls, video calls, visits, have been annoying at any time,” Pedro Sr. said. “On the contrary, they have helped us to keep the spirit high, not to stop fighting and to overcome obstacles, however painful they may have been in many moments.
“And remember, we have to enjoy every day of this life because it is the greatest gift we have, be as we are!”
The family is also grateful for the medical care their son received.
Reflecting on their adopted home as he and his son listened to fireworks from the hospital room on the 4th of July, Pedro Sr. wrote, “Today I would like to pay tribute to this great nation that has welcomed us. What we see in the movies does not live up to reality. They meet with family and friends and offer their unity for their flag – something worthy of honor and admiration.
“We can only thank this country today for helping us to save our son, the love that so many of you here have showed us in the little time you have got to know us, the continuous and generous help you have given us. It is impressive how when adversity comes the citizens of this country unite, despite their differences as exist in any of our countries.”