VISTA, Calif. - Nine years ago last month in Oceanside, a teenage drunken driver plowed into a stroller carrying 18-month-old Izaiah Wallis, forever changing the toddler's life and those of his young parents.
Now 10 years old, the child once known as "Baby Izaiah" remains severely disabled and his parents, Jacob Wallis and Lucy Verde, struggle to make ends meet as they provide their son with 24-hour nursing care. But Verde said she's grateful for every day she has with her son.
During a family visit to a park in San Marcos on Sunday afternoon, Verde, 30, said caring full-time for Izaiah, and his 7-year-old sister, Caliah, is the most important job she could wish for.
"I enjoy being a mom and I love taking care of him," she said. "It's a good feeling to know you're helping someone."
On the morning of Oct. 18, 2010, Izaiah was riding in a stroller pushed by his grandfather on an Oceanside sidewalk when they were struck by an SUV driven by Noe Hernandez, a 17-year-old unlicensed driver whose blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.
Izaiah suffered a traumatic brain injury, was paralyzed from the chest down, left unable to breath without a ventilator, was comatose and lost his vision. He wasn't expected to live, and if he did, doctors warned Wallis and Verde that he'd probably be in a permanent vegetative state.
But Izaiah defied expectations. He regained his sight and many of his cognitive functions. He learned to use his arms to pull his lower body around and to use his hands to turn book pages and clap whenever he's happy. He also learned how to use an iPad to watch his favorite animated movies and use software to create simple sentences on the iPad like "I want a book."
Although Izaiah never regained the ability to speak, he can say a few words, like his name, "hi" and "hey." Verde said she thinks she heard him say "Mama" a few weeks ago, but she wonders now if it was wishful thinking.
Although a Vista judge ordered the driver, Hernandez, to pay the family $55 million in damages, very little money was ever recovered.
Fortunately, the family has been helped over the years by Passion 4 Kids, an Encinitas nonprofit founded by Charles and Linda Van Kessler. Through donations to its website (passion4kids.org), the group helped the family buy a home in Vista, get reliable transportation and cover unexpected expenses. And in 2013, the Kesslers helped Izaiah's family land an appearance on the "Dr. Phil" show. Viewers raised $170,000 for a special fund to pay for Izaiah's medical and therapy care. Today, most of the money from the "Dr. Phil" Foundation account has been spent.
"We're doing OK right now," Verde said. "It's a struggle, but we're managing."
The couple gets by with one of them working full time and the other serving as Izaiah's full-time caregiver. Wallis, 30, recently started a new job selling cars with his uncle. His income pays for the mortgage, utilities and groceries.
A mix of insurance, disability payments and grants pay for Izaiah's physical therapy and for a night nurse four evenings a week. Verde covers the other three nights. Every two hours, Izaiah needs medical care, including diaper changes, catheter bag changes, breathing treatments, body adjustments to avoid bedsores and maintenance of his ventilator system.
Verde said she tried attending college last year - she dreams of working in the medical field one day - but exhaustion from the all-night shifts and Izaiah's periodic medical crises led her to drop out. Over the years, Izaiah has been hospitalized dozens of times, usually for pneumonia or high fevers.
In recent years, Izaiah's lungs have grown stronger, so he hasn't required as many hospitalizations for pneumonia. But in September, he was hospitalized with a broken leg. Because of his paralysis, Izaiah's lower limb bones have grown fragile. When he was using his arms to move around in his bed a few months ago, his hip became locked and he broke a femur.
To build muscle and bone strength, Izaiah attends physical therapy sessions every week. The therapists put his body in a swing-like sling and position him over a treadmill, where he practices a walking motion.
"That's his favorite thing. When he's on the treadmill, he stares down at his feet and he claps his hands. It makes him so happy," Verde said.
Although Izaiah is generally a happy boy with a big smile, his brain injury sometimes leads to fits of temper. Last month, he became frustrated and threw his iPad and broke it. The family hasn't been able to afford a new one, but Verde said she can usually guess what her son wants by reading his eyes.
On weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Izaiah attends adaptive fifth-grade classes at the California Avenue School in Vista. This is his last year at the school for children with special needs. That worries Verde, because her son is so happy there and will miss his teachers. She's now looking for a middle school that he can attend next fall.
Their daughter, Caliah, attends second grade at a local Montessori school. Because she has grown up watching her parents care for Izaiah, "Cali" prides herself in her own nursing abilities. During the visit to the park on Sunday, Cali would ride a swing for a few minutes, then periodically rush to her brother's wheelchair to adjust a hoodie to protect his eyes from the sun. Later she admonished her mom for talking too loud because Izaiah needed a nap.
"All of her life, Izaiah has been this way so she's used to it," Verde said. "She's really good with him and so loving."
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