MANASSAS PARK, Va. – There are mothers who will spend today missing sons and daughters fighting overseas. There are women who have lost children in those wars, for whom Mother’s Day will never be the same. And then there is Eva Briseno.
Joseph Briseno Jr., Eva’s 27-year-old son, is one of the most severely wounded soldiers ever to survive. A bullet to the back of his head in a Baghdad marketplace in 2003 left him paralyzed, brain-damaged and blind, but awake and aware of his condition.
Eva takes care of her son, who goes by Jay, in her suburban Virginia home, where the family room has been transformed into an intensive care unit, with the breathing machine and tubes he needs to stay alive.
Each day starts with two hours of bowel care, an ordeal as awful as it sounds. She labors over his body, brushing his teeth, suctioning fluid from his lungs, exercising his limp arms and legs, and turning him every other hour to prevent bedsores.
She sleeps a few hours at a time, when the schedule says it is her turn, often slumped in exhaustion by his side.
She has been out to dinner with her husband, Joseph Sr., once in seven years.
She could have a better life if she put Jay in a nursing home. Or if she went back to using the home health care nurses the government provided. But one looked indifferently without wiping Jay’s mouth when he drooled. Others fell asleep on the night shift, inattentive while Jay suffered seizures.
It’s hard for a mother to watch such lapses. The nurses don’t love Jay. His parents do. So they have chosen to care for him on their own, and you will not find them feeling sorry for themselves – only for him.
A lesser man would leave, Eva says of her spouse, whom she has known since grade school in their homeland, the Philippines. A lesser woman would cringe at the wound care and bodily indignities that Eva has learned to manage for her son, Joseph says.
“I can’t walk away from this. She can’t. I’m very proud of my wife,” he said.
What keeps Eva going is hope that stem cells or some future treatment advance will help her son.
“I do believe in miracles,” she says.
Yet desperation clouds her prayers. “Most of the time I ask God if I can take Jay’s place,” she confesses, unable to suppress a sob.
Hearing his mother, Jay cries too, the tears silently slipping from his blind eyes.
For Eva, the tears began the day Jay shipped out, on his 20th birthday in 2003. He was a student at George Mason University, hoping to become a forensic scientist. He had joined the Army Reserves and was surprised to be called up so soon. Eva took a cake to his unit before he left.
At first, she wasn’t very worried: Jay was assigned to civilian work, building community relations. A few months later, the call came. One of those civilians had shot Jay in the back of the head at point-blank range. His spinal cord was shattered, and cardiac arrests led to brain damage that left him unable to see or to speak more than an occasional word.
His family became a mass casualty of the wound.
His parents quit their jobs and drained their savings to take care of him after he came home from hospitals and rehabilitation centers. His younger sisters, Malerie and Sherilyn, help when they can, and Joseph does a big share. But much of the care falls to Eva, a small, doe-eyed woman who weighs 100 pounds to Jay’s 147.
At first, she took care of Jay in the basement, using a hoist that some charities provided to lift him into a wheelchair and the shower. But descending those stairs became a descent into hell. After a while, Eva could no longer bear caring for him in that cavelike setting.
So they moved Jay upstairs, surrounding him with white walls, bright flowers and Washington Redskins gear so he will have cheerful things to look at in case he has glimmers of vision the doctors can’t detect.
Eva fills Jay’s days by reading him news stories, telling him how good he looks and how nicely he is dressed, and playing the “young people music” he likes on the radio. He grins when the Redskins win, or when Linkin Park, Eminem, Jay-Z or Beyonce are on. Others get a grimace.
“He doesn’t like Mariah Carey or Kelly Clarkson,” Eva says.
Jay’s care requires a schedule with such military precision that trips to the grocery store or to church must be planned two days in advance.
It starts at 6 a.m., when Eva gives Jay medicines, logs his blood pressure and temperature, and begins his bowel care.
Next comes grooming, and cleaning the breathing tube that attaches to his respirator. By noon, Jay is dressed and into a wheelchair, a lunchtime sludge of nutrients draining into his feeding tube while he listens to the TV. Afternoons bring physical therapy and twice-weekly prayer sessions with a deacon who comes to their home.
When taking care of basic needs in babies, “you see them grow” and have the joy of watching them progress, Eva said. “Now, every day is the same,” and the only changes are bad ones, she said, starting to cry again.
A year ago, Jay had a setback and lost the ability to swallow. Two months ago, he suffered a nicked kidney and internal bleeding after an operation for kidney stones.
The degree of care the Brisenos provide is unusual, said Dr. Mitchell Wallin, one of Jay’s doctors and a neurologist at Georgetown University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“Most patients in this kind of condition would not be able to live at home,” Wallin said. The Brisenos “are doing an incredible job,” he said. “They don’t take enough breaks. They’re almost too dedicated.”
Jay’s father has a plan: forming his own home health care agency to supply nurses for Jay and other wounded veterans.
“The only way we can move on with our lives is to hire and interview, from the start, these nurses,” he said. “One of them straight-up told us, ‘I’m in it for the money.’ We just looked at each other and said, ‘You’re in the wrong house. You’re not coming back here.’ ”
The Brisenos are proud of their son’s service, despite the price they all pay for it now.
“This is the effects of war, its effects on families. War is ugly, and the American people need to know this,” said Jay’s father, who spent 17 years in the Army himself.
Eva admits regret but also feels gratitude.
“Probably other mothers regret having their sons or daughters go to war, especially when they come home hurt. It’s not easy seeing your child be in this position,” she said. “We are so proud of Jay and we thank God every single day that we have him.”