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'I Must Be Strong' : As Socorro Lopez Struggles to Take Care of Her Injured Son, She Prays for the Fortitude to Handle the Job Ahead


Over and over, Roberto Hernandez's mother recalls the day her son left home:

He tosses a small canvas bag over his broad shoulders and heads down a dusty Mexican road to catch a bus. Destination: California.

Before he left, "I said to him, 'God Bless you, mijo (my son),' " says Socorro Lopez. "He hugged me so tightly."

Roberto eschewed a tearful farewell. " 'Mama, stay here at the door. Don't go out into the street. I can't bear to see you cry.' "

So Lopez stood behind the screen door of her two-room house as she wept and watched her 18-year-old son walk away, a $20 bill pressed between the bottom of his left foot and the leather of his sandal. The money was for Roberto's journey from Purisima in central Mexico to a new life in a new land. Eventually, he found work and shelter in Corona.

That was almost two years ago--when Roberto was alive with curiosity, unafraid of the unknown.

He spoke often about returning to Mexico, getting married to a young woman from his hometown and raising a family of his own.

Lopez shared his dream. Until Jan. 2.

On that night, Roberto was a passenger in a car that was broadsided by a drunk driver, and the accident left him in a "vegetative state," unable to speak, walk or feed himself. Summoned by another son, Estefan, who lived with Roberto, Socorro Lopez set out on the journey of her life.

It was the first time Lopez, 51, had ventured from Purisima, a town of 40,000. There was little money for travel, so she left her husband and five other children--ages 10 to 22--behind. As did Roberto, she put a $20 bill in her shoe and started the trip with little else.

Seven days later, she arrived in Corona. (A government visa assured her of a safe passage at the U.S.-Mexico border.) She knew no English. She had no friends. She had no understanding of what awaited her.

All that mattered was Roberto.

Somehow, in a matter of days, Lopez mastered the essentials: housing, transportation, hospital bureaucracy and survival English. She became a familiar fixture at Loma Linda University Medical Center, where her son had been hospitalized since March. She learned how to take care of Roberto all over again.

Only now she has no hope that he will grow up.

"I know his dreams are lost," she says. " El Norte steals our children and their dreams."


On this particular summer afternoon, Lopez--a small, round woman with a braid of dark brown hair--is sitting next to Roberto at Loma Linda.

His physician, Murray Brandstater, says Roberto is in a coma-like state, "but he's awake and unresponsive."

Roberto's torso, legs and feet are strapped in a wheelchair so he doesn't fall and injure himself. His neck and head are held up by a brace. A tube is inserted into his stomach for the baby formula-like meals that are fed to him four times a day.

He can hear, but he cannot speak. He can sit, but he cannot walk. He can see, but to what extent he recognizes anyone, including his mother, no one knows. When he extends an arm, wiggles a finger or slightly moves his head, it is not in response to a request by a therapist or his mother. Doctors say the movement is involuntary.

This has been Roberto's life since January. It will be this way forever.

Sometimes Lopez believes her son recognizes her. She talks to him constantly, touches him, squeezes his hands, places her palms on his cheeks. She reminds him that Purisima's La Semana Santa (Holy Week) is coming up. She tells him that his favorite niece was recently baptized. And she shares a dream:

"I had a dream that you were in your wheelchair and stood up. I asked, 'Where are you going?' And you said, 'I can walk, Mama.' You went into the kitchen. 'Are you hungry?' I asked. And you said, 'Pizza.' You wanted pizza. I wanted to hold you up and you said, 'No, Mama, I can walk by myself.' "

But Lopez sobs after she recalls her dream.

Roberto suffered extensive damage to the brain stem, which connects the brain to the spinal cord, says Brandstater, Loma Linda's medical director of rehabilitation.

"Roberto's case is much like a spinal cord injury at the base of the brain. The damage to the brain stem has affected all four limbs, swallowing, speech and eye movement."

In addition, Roberto's motor skills were severely damaged. "He has some, but limited, control over his muscles," says Brandstater, adding that Roberto's "lungs and heart are intact."

After the accident, which occurred in Corona, Roberto was taken to Riverside General Hospital. He was later transferred to Loma Linda for rehabilitation. Brandstater began treating Roberto in early March.

Roberto's care at Loma Linda, estimated at $140,000, has been covered by the Medi-Cal Recovery/Casualty Section of the Department of Health Services, according to Stephen Bellinger, a clinical social worker at Loma Linda.

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