Interview: The Brisenos
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MS. DENTZER: So Joe and Eva, we’re here again, happily enough, to see you and talk with you.
When we were last here, it was March. Tell me what’s happened since then; what kind of progress you’ve seen in Jay’s situation, how he’s doing. Eva, let’s start with you.
MRS. BRISENO: Well, he can eat now, the soft foods, they call it puree foods, and that happened, –when we went to [the James A. Haley Veterans' Affairs Medical Center in] Tampa [Florida]. And he had a set of teeth that was done in Tampa too, and he’s doing great. He’s doing great.
MS. DENTZER: Joe, what about his cognitive function? What have you seen him do in those months?
MR. BRISENO: Well, for the last few months, we saw that his cognitive [function] has improved a lot. He is more aware of his surroundings. He can choose whatever type of music he wants to listen to, and choose the TV program he wants to watch, and anyone can talk to him and ask him if he’s hungry, or if he’s in pain, or if he’s having discomfort, and he’ll let you know by grimacing or by smiling, or by blinking his eyes.
That’s the way he responds to us and to other people. So his cognitive [function] is much, much, much improved now, since the last time you came here.
MS. DENTZER: And for the two of you, do you see this progress day by day, month by month? How do you judge how he’s doing — as Joe said, feeling more at home in his surroundings, more in control of his environment?
How do you measure the progress?
MR. BRISENO: Sometimes, personally myself, sometimes I don’t see it in a day by day basis. When I’m away, let’s say for a day or two, like when we were in Tampa, I go home for a day or two or three days, and when I see Jay again I will, you know, let my wife know, “Wow, you know, I haven’t seen him for the last two-three days and I can see the improvement.”
Now like my wife said, number one, the swallowing, and number two, the last time you were here, as you noticed, Jay didn’t have any teeth. They were removed for medical reasons, and Tampa replaced his beautiful teeth again and when he smiles, his smile is much, much brighter.
As far as improvement that I see, sometimes I don’t see it, on a day to day basis. Because I see him every day, every hour, I just don’t see it that way. You know, I have to be away for a day or two to see his improvement. And thank God, there’s no step back. Everything from the day you came here, it’s been forward.
MS. DENTZER: Tell me about the whole experience of deciding that he needed more rehabilitation, and deciding to go down to Tampa.
MR. BRISENO: My wife and I talked to the Washington, D.C. VA, I think this was back in April or May. We asked to help us to find an institution or doctor that specializes in Jay’s medical condition, which is spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, and the Washington, D.C. VA said “Okay, just go home” and they’ll do all the work.
And few weeks later they called us and said Tampa answered our prayer. Tampa will accept Jay and Tampa is a polytrauma center. What that means is that any type of injuries, wounded warriors coming from the war, they’ll accept them, and they are the best. So they notified us that we have I think, less than two weeks to prepare.
So to make this story short, my wife and Jay flew from Andrews Air Force Base, and my daughter Melanie and I took the auto train. And we stayed for about four months in Tampa. They call it James Haley Veterans Affair Polytrauma Center.
And on day one, Jay got there, and that was the start of the renewal process and teaching him to swallow. They taught him how to use a device that he can communicate with by blinking or by moving the muscle in his forehead and the machine will talk for him.
MS. DENTZER: And does he use that machine now?
MR. BRISENO: Yes.
MRS. BRISENO: He uses the machine–well, we do it after, you know, after eating or late in the afternoon. And he’s doing great on that.
MS. DENTZER: And what can he communicate with that?
MRS. BRISENO: Well, that machine, there’s a band on his forehead and there’s a sensor, and when he blinks his eyes or raises his eyebrows, the machine will talk for him. Like you ask him what’s your favorite football team, and the machine will give you choices, and then if the machine says “Redskins,” Jay will raise his eyebrow or blink his eyes, and the machine will say “Redskins” for him.
MR. BRISENO: We have to make sure that Jay is in a good mood to use the machine, because sometimes he has a bad day, sometimes a good day, like me and you, and if he’s having a bad day, he will not responds very well to the machine.
So we have to pick the right day to use the machine for him.
MS. DENTZER: One thing that didn’t work out in Tampa was weaning him off the ventilator. First of all, tell me why you were attempting to do that, and then tell me what happened.
MR. BRISENO: The primary reason we went to Tampa was to wean Jay off the ventilator and the respiratory therapist department tried everything they could possibly do to wean him off the ventilator, or partially off the ventilator.
The first time they tried to see if he was a good candidate for a pacemaker, for a diaphragm pacemaker. We went to the second floor to get an x-ray to see if there was any movement of his diaphragm. Unfortunately, he was not a good candidate for the pacemaker because his spinal cord, he was severely injured and there was no movement.
A month later, we went upstairs again to the x-ray room to see if [he would respond to a] nerve stimulator. It’s a wire–the way that it was explained to us, it’s a wire that will connect to his diaphragm and that stimulator will make his diaphragm move up and down. Again, unfortunately, he was not a good candidate at this time for either the pacemaker or the electrical stimulator.
In six months, they want to see Jay again and reassess. Maybe next time he will be a good candidate for, either for the pacemaker or for the electrical stimulator.
MS. DENTZER: What do you think lies ahead? What are you hoping for as the next step in his recovery?
MRS. BRISENO: Well, we’re hoping in, in, that six months, when we go back to Tampa, he’ll make it.
MR. BRISENO: Yeah, that is true. That’s our hope, maybe for the next six months, when we go back to Tampa, that he will be a good candidate for either the pacemaker or the stimulator.
However, my wife and I made a decision, maybe three days ago, that we would like to have Jay, next year, [be a candidate for a stem cell transplant]. This is our goal and I believe we are very, very close to have a successful stem cell transplant to a human being.
MS. DENTZER: And you’ve shared this with the VA Medical Center, correct?
MR. BRISENO: Yes. We sent e-mails to both the VA in Washington, D.C. and the Tampa VA about our plans, how we are going to proceed, Jay’s progress, and this is a major, major goal for Jay. This is what we want and this is what the VA wants to see for Jay, and they are 100 percent supporting us for this, because we’re not going just to any doctors or any institution without the blessings of the VA.
MS. DENTZER: What kind of feedback have you gotten from them?
MR. BRISENO: The feedback that we have from Tampa and Washington, D.C. is like they want to do a thorough look at what is good for Jay. Is stem cell [therapy suitable] for Jay? Does a particular doctor have enough credentials, or does an institution have enough credentials to do a transplant for Jay? The way it was explained to us, [treatment] can be bad also. What we were told [is that there's a risk that stem cell transplants could become] cancerous.
MS. DENTZER: So how does that make you feel, you, as his parents?
MR. BRISENO: Big hope. Always hope. There’s always hope, regardless, and we’re hoping stem cell treatments become successful, not only for Jay, but also for many, many people who have spinal cord injury and other diseases. And if the stem cell therapy doesn’t work, we always have God. We always have faith and we always have hope.
MS. DENTZER: Since we were here last time, there seems to be a changing mood in the country about the whole war in Iraq.
I’m wondering how you all see that. Do you think about it? Do you hear the debate going on? Do you think Jay is aware of it? Do you think it makes a difference into how he feels, or how your family feels?
MRS. BRISENO: Well, we’re trying not to put the TV channel on the news, especially when it’s, you know, news about Iraq. And how we feel–it’s so hard to explain, you know. There’s no word, there’s no word to explain how we feel.
MR. BRISENO: Every time we watch the news, and the Iraqi war news comes, we try not to have listen to what’s going on in Iraq. I’m glad you ask, asked that question, because President Bush plans to have a victory in this war in Iraq. Being retired military, I know, there’s no doubt in my mind, we will win that war, we will win the war in Iraq.
However, President Bush–please include the veterans in your plan. Do not cut the budget, the veterans’ budget. Do not cut at all, give more money to the VA so the VA can take care of the veterans.
And this is part of the victory, because we may win the war, but if you don’t take care of the veterans, we’re not winning at all. So winning the war, you must include our veterans and taking care of the veterans, especially the war we have now and the home care patients.
Most of the wounded warriors now are at home, and home care is the trend of the future. And the future is now. So President Bush needs to give more money to the VA to take care of the veterans.
MS. DENTZER: At the driveway dedication the other day, the Federal Pentagon Credit Union people said that they really wanted to help you all as much as possible, and they said just ask–anything you ask, anything you need, tell us and we’re here for you.
What do you think you need now as a family?
MR. BRISENO: From the very beginning, before the driveway, before Tampa, people came to us [and asked,] Mr. Briseno, Mrs. Briseno, what do you need? What can we do for you? There’s always one answer to that question, that we tell the people, the American people: Prayers. Always prayers. That’s what we ask.
And the Pentagon Federal Credit Union–we are grateful to them for the driveway, because without the driveway before, we could not take Jay outside the basement, it was too dangerous, it was very difficult, and almost impossible to push him on the grass, just to get outside.
And now we have the driveway, it opens up a lot of freedom for Jay.
For instance, Jay can go out from the basement through driveway, and he can go anywhere without worrying about the wheelchair getting tilted or any danger. It’s an extension of a quality of life for Jay. We are very grateful to the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation. Thank you so much.
MS. DENTZER: Another big change that’s happened is, Joe, you went back to work. Eva, you stay home now, take care for Jay. Tell me how that’s working for both of you.
MRS. BRISENO: Well, that was my wish before, that I wanted to stay home for Jay, and that I wished my husband could get a good job. And that wish came true. And Jay is so grateful, Jay is so happy, me being home, you know. The same thing with me.
MR. BRISENO: It’s always been a wish. My wife wished that she could stay home and I go to work. Unfortunately, during those times I had to stay home. I resigned from my work and I tried to look for a job, and unfortunately, nobody answered my prayer. God semt everything, God doesn’t make mistakes.
And when we were in Tampa, Mr. Charlie Richardson, from Northrop Grumman, helped me to get a job with Northrop Grumman.
Northrop Grumman has [a program called] Operation Impact, designed to help wounded warriors. They will train them and basically give them a job. In our case Jay cannot get a job right now and I was the major earner before. They talked to me and they said they would like to interview me, and I went for the interview and they offered me the job. We are so grateful to Northrop Grumman, and it’s another prayer that God answered.
MS. DENTZER: And what is your job, Joe, with them now?
MR. BRISENO: I am a mission assurance analyst. Northrop Grumman has major contracts with the Department of Defense, and under the mission assurance system, I’m responsible for making sure the projects presented to the government are successful. I love it. I’m still learning.
MS. DENTZER: That’s great. Who are the people who helped you most in Tampa?
MR. BRISENO: First of all, we are very thankful to the Washington, D.C. VA, because without the Washington, D.C. VA, we would never have seen Tampa. So that’s number one.
Now we are thankful to Tampa for everything. We are thankful to the nurses. They have great nurses, wonderful nurses, wonderful people. They have the biggest hearts in the world.
We are thankful to all the doctors, to the speech pathologist. She patiently every day taught Jay how to swallow. The first time she tested Jay it took 15 to 20 seconds for each swallow. Jay forgot how to swallow. And that 15 to 20 seconds became 12 seconds, became 10, became 9, and until one day she said, “Jay is ready to take the swallow test.” Oh, wow! “Everybody–let’s go!” And Jay went upstairs to take the swallow test. My wife and I were just outside the testing room because we were not allowed in. We just sat there outside the testing room, quietly, patiently, and praying, praying he would pass this test.
And it took about what? Maybe 15 minutes. We heard cheering, a loud noise inside the testing room, and when the door opened people just rushed to us, congratulating us, hugging us, some crying, it’s just unbelievable the feelings. People loved Jay so much and wanted him to progress.
And the respiratory therapist, he’s the most dedicated respiratory therapist we’ve ever seen, trying to rehab people on a ventilator. He tried everything. He called everybody in the world. You know, he went to the book and he tried everything so Jay could be weaned off the ventilator, or partially off the ventilator.
And the dentist. Dr. Beasley had done a wonderful, wonderful job replacing those teeth.
And overall, the chaplain, the priest in Tampa, they provide spiritual support that is number one. Everything’s number one in Tampa.
MS. DENTZER: When I was here last, when we were all here last, I read you the words of a woman named Susan Mintz, who is an expert caregiving for a loved one who’s disabled. I had asked her what families like you go through and this is what she said to me then.
She said: “Caregiving families grieve, and I call it perpetual grief, because unlike when somebody dies and you can come to some resolution, caregiving, if the person continues to go downhill, or even stay the same, but they’re passing milestones in life, there are losses, and so the grief goes on and on, and just maybe when you feel like you’ve gotten over some of it, something else happens.”
And Joe, when I read you that back in the spring, you said to me, “That is true. That is a true statement because in the basement, every day, tears, laughter, smiles, pain, fear, faith, hope–you name it–everything–love in the basement.”
What would you add to that now?
MR. BRISENO: The perpetual grief, it’s really true. I still grieve, every day. Because I was thinking what am I chasing for? Am I chasing numbers? But my faith in God is the one that carried me along. Without my faith, I don’t know where we’d be right now.
MS. DENTZER: What do you mean, when you say “chasing numbers”?
MR. BRISENO: What I mean by chasing numbers is that with Jay’s medical condition, nothing in this world, in this world that can help him to breathe on his own. There is no doctor in this world, right now, can tell us, look at us, how much he can see or if he can see or not. Nothing in this world, doctors or otherwise, can tell us how much damage he has on his brain. Nothing in this world, that doctors or [an] institution can tell us will he ever walk again.
And these are the numbers, what I meant. Am I chasing numbers? I hope not. And if I do–[sobbing]. I hold on to the memories. [sobbing].
MS. DENTZER: What about you, Eva? What would you say? Is it perpetual grief?
MS. BRISENO: I still cry. I cry every day since Jay left. Since Jay left for deployment until now, I cry every day. I just pray that one day I’ll see Jay get up off that bed.
MR. BRISENO: It’s not easy to see Jay, especially when he’s in pain, especially when he’s in discomfort because he cannot talk. We know how to give the right care if he’s in pain. It is just very hard, you know, when he starts grimacing, we don’t know if he’s having a stomach pain or hungry or anything at all.
You know, that is the hardest part, that is the hardest part, and seeing him lying in bed, almost 24/7, that is the hardest part. We don’t know who suffers the most. Us or him.
But we can handle it, regardless.
MS. DENTZER: If I come back a year from now, and you look back then and tell me about the progress of the past year, what would you hope to be able to say?
MR. BRISENO: Well, I’m hoping, number one, that stem cell treatment will be successful and, hopefully, the next time you come back here, Jay will be [sitting here] between us! That’s what we’re hoping for. And talking to you; not us. Telling his experience. Telling what he looks for in his future. That’s what we’re hoping for. And everything is in God’s hands. It’s no longer in our hands. We are just his servants, to serve Jay and to serve God, as parents.