TOPICS > Health

Revisiting a Wounded Warrior

December 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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EVA MARIE BRISENO: You get some more in your mouth. Okay, you’re doing good.

SUSAN DENTZER: It’s lunchtime for 22-year-old Jay Bresino; paralyzed and brain damaged, he’s among the most disabled of the 16,000 troops wounded so far in the war in Iraq.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: And later on Jay’s going to eat Godiva ice cream.

SUSAN DENTZER: They are tiny bites of mushy food spooned out by Jay’s mother but they represent a huge leap forward. Up until just a few months ago, Jay could not swallow at all and was fed solely through a tube into his stomach. But now Jay can gulp down his mother’s purees thanks to rehabilitation therapy he underwent recently.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: Having to eat now like that after two years and a half, it really, really, you know, means a lot to him.

SUSAN DENTZER: We first met Jay Briseno and his parents Joseph and Eva earlier this year at their home in Virginia. They told us how Jay, an Army reservist and civil affairs specialist, was wounded in a Baghdad market in June 2003.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: Jay was shot point-blank by an Iraqi randomly in one of the bystanders that shot him because there were a lot of Iraqis in that area. And the bullet went into the back of his neck and exited here.

SUSAN DENTZER: The shot severed his spinal chord and left him paralyzed from the chin down. Two subsequent cardiac arrests cut off oxygen to his brain. His injuries left Jay conscious but severely brain damaged.

Although Jay can hear and can communicate by smiling or grimacing, doctors still do not know if he can see.

Dr. Steven Fish is a neurologist who is Jay’s primary physician at the Washington D.C. Veteran’s Administration Medical Center. We spoke with him about Jay earlier this year.

DR. STEVEN FISH: He is unable to breathe on his own. He is dependent on a ventilator for breathing. He requires suctioning through his tracheotomy tube. He requires frequent repositioning and turning.

SUSAN DENTZER: In short, Jay needs care 24/7. It comes partly from a VA-paid nurse but mostly from his parents, Filipino immigrants who are naturalized U.S. citizens.

DR. STEVEN FISH: They are a very close family and they insisted that he remain at home. They’ve created an intensive care unit in the basement of their home to care for him.

SUSAN DENTZER: In the half year since we met him, Jay has made progress, agonizingly small and slow, but progress nonetheless. Much of it occurred during four months Jay spent this year at James Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Florida. The hospital runs a so-called poly-trauma rehab facility for veterans with multiple disabling illnesses or injuries. The Bresinos headed there with one major goal.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: The primary reason we went to Tampa was to wean Jay off the ventilator. And the respiratory therapy department tried everything they could possibly do to wean him off the ventilator or partially off the ventilator.

SUSAN DENTZER: After all, if Jay could breathe again on his own, he would no longer need to be tethered full-time to the ventilator. His family would also be freed from their round-the-clock vigil to make sure the machine is always working.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: I guess that is your first –

SUSAN DENTZER: But although VA medical professionals tried various strategies, Jay’s chest muscles and diaphragm are paralyzed. VA staff concluded Jay would have to remain on the ventilator for the indefinite future.

Fortunately other interventions were more successful. A VA dentist replaced some of Jay’s teeth that had been removed earlier for medical reasons.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: Jay had the nicest teeth in the world. And for some reason, they were taken out -

SUSAN DENTZER: So he got his smile back.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: Yes. He got his 1 million smile back. Yeah.

SUSAN DENTZER: His ability to communicate is also improving. That was evident at a recent ceremony in Tampa where a uniformed Jay was awarded the Bronze Star.

Together with his VA caregivers, Jay demonstrated how he used a special communications device called a vanguard. They first placed on his forehead a band with special sensors. When Jay moved his facial muscles he triggered a preprogrammed voice to speak.

SIMULATED VOICE OF JAY: I just want to say thank you. Thank you to my mom and dad for everything they have done for me. I love you.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: Are you ready to go up –

SUSAN DENTZER: For all Jay’s progress, the day-to-day care giving demands on his family remain intense. Earlier this year Joe Briseno had quit his job as a computer software quality inspector to coordinate Jay’s care. Now he has gone back to work under a program defense contractor Northrop Grumman aimed at helping wounded vets or family members get back on the job. The steady paycheck meant that jay’s mother could leave her full-time job to care for Jay.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: That was my wish before, but I want to stay home for Jay. Jay’s so grateful; Jay’s so happy me being home and the same thing with me.

SUSAN DENTZER: Other wishes have come true too, a Pentagon employees’ credit union paid for a new driveway directly to the Brisenos’ basement door. So Jay could be rolled in and out easily in his wheelchair.

SUSAN DENTZER: When the driveway was dedicated in early December, Jay watched from his wheelchair, warm underneath a blanket bearing the logo of his beloved Washington Redskins football team.

For all the help the Brisenos has received, caring for Jay is an emotional roller coaster, vacillating between utter joy and utmost grief. We asked the Brisenos about that when we visited earlier this year.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: In the basement, every day, tears, laughter, smiles, pain, fear, hope, faith, name it, everything, love, in the basement. Each moment that Jay can — can share with us, we treasure. God can take him away any time.

SUSAN DENTZER: What would you add to that now?

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: I still grieve — every day, I was thinking am I chasing numbers with Jay’s medical condition? What I mean by chasing numbers, nothing in this world can help him to breathe on his own. There is no doctors in this world right now that can tell us, look at us, how much he can see or if he can see or not.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: It looks cloudy, that looks good.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: Nothing in this world, doctors otherwise can tell us how much damage he has on his brain. Am I chasing numbers? I hope not. And if I do, I hold onto the memories.

SUSAN DENTZER: The Brisenos also holds onto hope. They stay up on news on advancing embryonic stem cell research. They plan eventually to enter Jay into a clinical trial to see if stem cell therapy can help repair his severed cord, but they know at best such help is a long way away.

Meanwhile, as we met with them just before Christmas, they said there was plenty else to look forward to.

JOSEPH BRISENO, SR.: We are just going to stay home for Christmas and the new year and just be thankful for God, for all the blessings that we have, and for more blessings coming, right, Jay? And hopefully, the Redskins will go to the Super Bowl this year.

EVA MARIE BRISENO: Again.