Nico Loza practices speech and movement, playing Uno with speech therapist Missy Licata at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital.
Since June, 7-year-old Nico Loza has not been able to do the things he loves most: be outside and play soccer. Instead, Nico has been at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in D.C., re-learning how to do everything from talking, to eating, to walking, after suffering a severe brain injury.
Nico's doctors say he's making great progress. But he and his family are still grappling with what happened that day in June, when police found Nico crying in a hotel room in Northern Virginia.
Just your ordinary 7-year-old boy
Nico seems to be everyone's favorite 7-year old at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He's clever and funny, and a little mischievous.
Speech therapist Missy Licata has been working with Nico since he first arrived. Back then, he couldn't talk at all. He had to use buttons to communicate — just two choices, yes or no.
"Do you remember the buttons?" Licata asks Nico, during a recent session.
"Yeah," he says, sitting up in his wheelchair.
"We don't need anything like that anymore. Just your voice," Licata says.
"Yes and no buttons," says Nico. "I loved the no button."
"I know you loved the no button," laughs Licata. "'Do you want to go to therapy?' No!" she says, pretending to hit the "no" button.
Nico plays along, pretending he's still using the yes and no buttons. "'Do you want to take a shower?' No! 'Do you want to go downstairs?' No!"
Nico still struggles to talk clearly, but he's making progress. Nico's dad, Luis Loza, sees it when he comes to the hospital each day after work.
"Some things came slowly," says Loza. "Some things came just one day to the other. Talking for example. When I left one day he wasn't talking. The next day I came and he was talking. I couldn't believe it. Probably that's one of the happiest days in my life, when I heard him talking again."
A tragedy and a mystery
Probably the worst day was that day six months ago — June 12.
"First of all, they were missing," recalls Denise Puntriano, Nico's grandmother. It was her daughter, Melissa — Luis's ex-wife — who was missing, along with Nico. "After like the second day, you know, I mean, none of us had dreamt that, what had really happened, and then when they found them."
"The police called me and said that they found them," says Loza. "She committed suicide, in a hotel. And Nico was by her side, crying."
Loza and Puntriano say nobody knows exactly what happened.
"He doesn't remember what happened to him," says Loza. "He doesn't know. All we tell him is that his brain got hurt, and that's why he's here. That's why he cannot walk, and he couldn't talk."
"What he tells us is that they went to a hotel," says Puntriano. "Mommy told him they were going to take a break, or at some other point, he said an adventure. Then he talks about that he woke up.
At first, Nico seemed fine, his dad says, but then he started going numb on his right side.
"What I first thought is that he was under so much stress, all that happened with his mom, he was going to be okay. It was just a matter of going to the hospital, everybody telling me, "Oh, he's going to be okay." And then go home and keep going with your life. But that's not what they told me."
Over the next week, Loza watched as his son slipped away: speech, movement, the ability to eat.
"I was losing him. I didn't know if he was going to talk again. I didn't know if he was going to survive."
Dr. Justin Burton, medical director of children's rehab at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, says Nico's injuries to the deep structures of the brain made the simplest movements a challenge.
"What that does is throws off your movement patterns. So if you're trying to initiate a movement or trying to do something, your muscles fire in an abnormal way," says Dr. Burton. "Your arm moves in a different way than you expect or your leg moves in a different way than you expect."
To overcome that, Nico's days have been packed with every kind of therapy — speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy.
Occupational therapist Olivia White spends five hours a week with Nico.
"We're playing connect four," explains White, as she picks up the checker pieces.
"I won," says Nico, interrupting.
"You totally cheated, so this is not a winning game. This is not a winning game at all," White says. "We're playing connect four, and Nico, we're working on which hand?"
"Lefty," says Nico.
"We're working on lefty. So working on coordination of his left hand. But also working on him being able to incorporate the right hand into these functional activities," White says. "And right hand is hard, so that's why we have to work on it so hard."
Resolution where this in none
Nico has lots of people at National Rehabilitation Hospital working hard on his behalf, people who adore him. But no amount of affection can make a hospital the same as home.
And that's where Nico was finally headed one week ago.
But as they walk out the hospital doors, Nico's dad and grandmother are still coming to terms with what happened to Nico.
"I've been through every single emotion," says Loza. "Anger. Anger towards his mom. For a long, long time I felt so angry and trying to find an answer to why she did it. I'm not going to find the answer. The only one who has the answer is her. Right now I have to focus on my family and Nico's recovery."
Puntriano feels anger too, toward Nico's mother.
"Unfortunately I'm having a very hard time forgiving her," Puntriano says. "I can't fathom that my own child would try to — I know she didn't want to hurt him. She wanted to take him with her. Someday, I guess I will be able to face the tragedy of losing my daughter but right now it's almost like, I don't know who she is."
They both know that as Nico gets older he will have more questions about his mother, and about what happened. For now, they want him to know she loved him: "She was an absolutely doting mother," says Puntriano.
As Nico heads home, the hospital lobby doors open onto a wet wintry day. Puntriano is rushing Nico and his dad out of the hospital to meet her moving truck, arriving that afternoon from Florida. She's relocating to Northern Virginia so she can be close to Nico, and help him, as he learns to do more and more for himself.
[Music: "Comptine d'un autre ete" by Yann Tiersen from Le Fabeleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain]