The long, silent road back

Dan Rodricks

June 21, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

These are the words on the bulletin board in the physical therapy room at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital:

Today is Thursday. The date is June 20. The year is 1991. The season is Spring.

And so, if he could read and comprehend this -- if his abilities in English were sufficient enough and if his brain could still translate the words -- Pedro Lugo would look to the bulletin board -- if someone, perhaps, would direct his attention to it -- and he would count -- if he could still count -- the days since he was beaten unconscious with his own baseball bat.

If he could do all that, the count would be one month and three days.

It was on May 17 that four teen-agers demanded his baseball bat in Patterson Park. When he asked for it back, Pedro Lugo was kicked and beaten. He was in a coma, on a life-support system at Johns Hopkins Hospital, until June 4. Last week, they transferred this quiet son of a restaurant dishwasher to Montebello for what is expected to be three to five months of therapy.

It was a minute or so after 1 o'clock when the afternoon therapy session began.

Karin Seeley, his therapist, pushed Pedro Lugo, thin and frail, the right arm limp on his wheelchair tray, into the therapy room, a bright, square chamber with a linoleum floor and square, matted platforms in each corner.

Lugo's head had been shaved; there was a white smile of scar in the dark brown fuzz left on his skull. His expression was odd, disarmingly calm and contented, ironically tranquil. Pedro Lugo, 24 years old and a native of the Dominican Republic, is blessed with wonderfully gentle eyes.

Karin Seeley, a cascade of blond hair dangling as she hovered over her patient, pointed to a small square of white paper taped to the tray in front of Pedro Lugo. On the paper were several names.

4 "Which one of these people is me?" Seeley asked.

Pedro Lugo pointed to the name, Karin.

"Very good," she said.

The most serious injury was to the left side of Lugo's brain. This has left him nearly paralyzed on his right side, and with an impaired ability to speak and comprehend. He was silent, for the most part, as Karin Seeley instructed him through therapy.

She helped him out of the wheelchair, then pointed to the matted platform in the corner of the therapy room.

"Can you sit down here?" Seeley asked.

Pedro Lugo, his body moving so slowly it appeared to drift, slid across the platform. Then, again as slowly as a feather falling through space, he moved so that he was first on his stomach, then on his knees, facing Karin Seeley, and smiling again, even giggling.

"Why are you laughing?" she said. There was no answer.

"I want to do the bean bags now. I want you to take the bean bags and put them in the box."

Seeley held up colorful bean bags, one at a time, one to Lugo's left, another to his right, one at a 90-degree angle above his shoulder, another at 45 degrees. Each time, to the left and to the right, his left hand reached successfully for the bean bag, grabbed it and dropped it into a plastic box at his knees. The right arm stayed limp at his side.

Next, Seeley pushed gently against Lugo's shoulders, first his right, then his left, to test his balance. He managed to stay on his knees.

It went like this for an hour -- Karin Seeley massaging the dormant muscles in Pedro Lugo's right hand, speaking to him in Spanish and English, holding her hands in the air and ordering him to reach out and touch them. It goes slowly, at times painfully. "He has to think about every move he makes," Karin Seeley said. "Every step he takes, he has to think about each one ahead of time."

Now Seeley helped Lugo seat himself on a large green ball, his feet firm on the floor. A stocky therapist named Smitty stood behind Lugo for support. "I want you to rock on the ball side to side," she said, "backwards and forward, adelante y a detras."

Back . . . slowly. Forward . . . slowly. Hands reaching out for gentle support. Except for a few minor slips, Pedro Lugo managed to keep his balance on the large green ball. "Good, good," Karin Seeley said. "Very good."

Lugo had said very little during the hour of therapy. As I left him there, knowing that the months and years ahead would be terribly difficult for him and his family, he held out his left hand. I held it. "Good luck," I told him. And the frail young man, who had little more than nodded when others spoke to him, answered with the same salutation. "Buena suerte," he said.

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