Love keeps crash victim alive

Joseph Enriquez turns 21 years old in November, but he isn’t aware of the approaching milestone.

Fact is, Joseph hasn’t been aware of much more than the voice of his aunt, who has tended to his every need every hour of the day, for the past six years. He seems to like it best when she reads to him.

Jayne Mendez isn’t certain her nephew understands her words, but the rhythm in her voice seems to draw his attention. The cadence soothes him.

He is, she says, just like a newborn baby. A 5-foot, 8-inch, 147-pound newborn baby.

Joseph has been in a persistent vegetative state since Aug. 16, 2004, the day the young boxer sustained traumatic brain injuries in a horrific single-vehicle rollover that killed Joseph’s father, Frank, and two other members of two families that rented a 15-seat Ford passenger van in Las Vegas. They were on a highway near Moab, Utah, headed to a boxing tournament in Kansas when a front tire failed.

Hurt worst of all was Joseph.

The families sued the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and in 2008, after a Clark County judge took away Goodyear’s ability to defend against liability for stalling and other bad faith allegations, a jury returned a $30 million verdict. According to court papers, the jury intended for Joseph to get nearly half of the money.

Two experts who testified at trial estimated that Joseph’s care to date, and into the future, would approach $14 million.

That care is extensive and in most cases is provided by professional caregivers. But Mendez wouldn’t think of turning over Joseph to strangers.

With the case still in litigation — the Nevada Supreme Court last week agreed to hear oral arguments for a second time after affirming the judgment July 1 — Mendez struggles emotionally and financially. Her husband, a truck driver, supports the family. Taxpayers through Medicaid foot the big bills.

Goodyear has not paid anything for Joseph’s care.

The final chapter could be written once the high court responds to "friends of the court" briefs filed by national business organizations that fear the judge’s harsh sanction will have a profound impact on future cases.

Joseph’s attorney, Al Massi, agreed to let the Review-Journal interview Mendez, but he wouldn’t address specifics of the court case.

"We don’t want in any way to attempt to influence the court by commenting on legal arguments that are before it in the press," Massi associate Chad Bowers said.

A quadriplegic with fixed limbs and diagnosed as minimally responsive at age 14, Joseph hasn’t spoken since the day of the accident. He can’t control bodily functions. He has to be turned over and have his diaper changed every two hours, around the clock.

"He can’t do anything for himself," said Mendez, his paternal aunt.

Joseph’s mother was out of the picture years before the accident.

Mendez’s day starts by giving Joseph his medicines, which include a prescription that helps control spasms. He frowns a certain way to tell his aunt when he’s in pain. The spasms come in waves, always on his right side .

Unable to chew or swallow under his own volition, Joseph is fed through a tube in his stomach. His limbs are contracted; his fingers curled. Mendez manipulates his arms to stimulate his range of motion.

He will never get better.

"The Joseph you see today is the Joseph you’ll see in 10 years," explains Mendez, a catch in her throat. "That’s what the doctors tell me."

Mendez said she fights a nonstop bureaucratic nightmare with Medicaid. Joseph has a van customized to accommodate his wheelchair, a lift, and a medical bed with an air mattress, Mendez said, and for those items she is grateful.

But she spends hours and days on the phone, where she is often left on hold or dropped altogether.

She writes letters. Occasionally Medicaid writes back.

"Sometimes I get a letter (from Medicaid) and I just sit there and cry,” she said. "I have to fight with the system to get any little assistance. Every month I spend a total of four or five days, hours on the phone."

It’s the little things that make a difference. Mendez said her epic battles deal with supplies such as underwear, bedpans and feeding tubes.

"There’s never enough," she said. "They even cut some of his supplies. He uses feeding bags and they don’t always work. How is he supposed to get fed? Joseph doesn’t eat like we do."

Mendez also takes Joseph to all his appointments. She keeps a calendar.

"He has an appointment every day one week and then a couple the next week," she explained.

Unable to communicate with Joseph in any reliable way, Mendez said meeting his needs is a process of elimination.

"You have to rule things out," she said. The best Joseph can do is provide a specific face to describe what he’s feeling. Pain, pleasure, stimuli of any kind is not something he can express.

With severe injuries and needs greater than most, Joseph began life right after the accident in a long-term care facility in Chino, Calif.

With aunts in Texas and Las Vegas, where Joseph lived with his father, it was up to Mendez to travel from her home in Fontana, Calif., to visit Joseph and check up on his caregivers. She didn’t like what she saw and soon made the monumental decision to dedicate her life to her late brother’s son.

"They didn’t take care of him," said Mendez. "He wasn’t clean. They left him up in his chair all day. He had bruises. He had sores."

She said putting him in another facility, as doctors have suggested, is out of the question.

"It’s easier for me to take care of Joseph than it is for me to fight with them.”

For Mendez, some days are better than others.

"Some days I get depressed, but I can’t give up on him," she said. Her strength ebbs as she finishes her thought: "He’ll never be able to play basketball again, have a girlfriend, and have a baby … raise a family. I do this because I love him and I loved my brother."

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.

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