Leann Rodriguez remembers the first time she saw her baby smile.
He was not quite 2 months old when he woke up in the middle of the night. She pulled him from his crib and walked into the living room, turned on the TV and fed him a little. In those sleepy moments, Lukuz Gelb cracked his first grin. Today, he turns 3 years old and his smiles still melt his mother's heart, but she has little else to cling to in his development.
Lukuz, born healthy and normal, can't sit up or talk. He gets his food and medicine through a pump in his stomach. He's blind.
About a week after the night Rodriguez witnessed that first smile, she came home from work at a Walmart photo center to find the baby in his father's arms, gasping for breath. She called 911 and performed CPR with a dispatcher's help until paramedics arrived. At the hospital, doctors determined he had bleeding and swelling in his brain, and he underwent an operation to remove much of his skull.
Investigators concluded he had been shaken violently. Jonathan Gelb was charged with aggravated child abuse.
Gelb was Rodriguez's boyfriend at the time and had been caring for the baby at home when he stopped breathing, authorities say. His lawyer says he denies hurting Lukuz (pronounced like Lucas).
Whatever the cause of Lukuz's injuries, Rodriguez now lives with the effects.
"It's like taking care of an infant on a daily basis, knowing that he's possibly not going to progress any more," she said.
She wakes up each morning to Lukuz's cries and coos and feeds him by connecting a tube to a port in his stomach. Next he gets his medicine through the pump, all from a soft nest of pillows arranged on the hospital bed set up in his bedroom. Then Rodriguez wakes up her daughter, Leticia Swing, who is 18 months old. By the time she's ready for a nap, it's time to tend to Lukuz again.
Rodriguez also has two sons, ages 8 and 9, who live with their father but come to her home in Hudson on weekends.
Rodriguez's fiance, Dustan Swing, joined the family a few months after Lukuz was injured. Trusting another man took a while, Rodriguez said. She was even wary of leaving Swing alone with their daughter at first.
With Gelb, she says, there were no signs that he might harm their baby. "He was loving," she said. "He seemed like he cared about my son."
Willie Pura, Gelb's attorney, says his client doesn't know how the baby got hurt, and Pura plans to present medical testimony that Lukuz's injuries could have happened days before the baby began having trouble breathing. Pura said science is important in the case. For instance, if the baby was bleeding from the tiny capillaries in his brain, it would have taken longer for the signs to turn up.
"We believe the window (of when the injury occurred) is much greater and we don't know exactly what happened to the baby when he was injured," Pura said.
But his mother can reach only one conclusion.
"There's no logical explanation other than that (Gelb) had something to do with it," Rodriguez said. "He was the only person home with my son."
Gelb, 27, has a criminal record for burglary and battery going back to his teenage days. He was supposed to go to trial on the child abuse charge this month, but it was delayed because a witness wasn't available. He remains in the Pasco County Jail. Rodriguez said she doesn't focus on what should happen to him — whether he goes to prison, or for how long — she just wants the answer to this question: "What was going through his head that he could do this to his own blood?"
In the meantime, she struggles to live on Lukuz's disability check while giving him the best quality of life she can. He can't take extreme heat or cold, so even an outing to the park is complicated. He needs his wheelchair everywhere he goes, and it's heavy. Her other kids love to help with Lukuz — nicknamed "Lucky" while he was still in the womb — but it's still hard.
And yet, she's grateful Lukuz is still with her. She is encouraged to see that his neck muscles have strengthened and he can hold up his head. He perks up when she plays music for him and seems to know when a light is turned on. And every now and then, he smiles.
"The good moments are basically every morning I see him and hear him. If I know he's still here, that's a good moment for me," Rodriguez said. "I just want him to be okay. I know he's not going to be perfect. I know he's not going to be like other children."
No one can tell her how much Lukuz will ever be able to do, or even how long he'll live. Doctors have told her they're concerned his respiratory system won't develop with the rest of his body, and that could threaten his life.
"I think the doctors are mostly amazed that he's survived this long," she said. "So as far as a prognosis, it's a lot of hope, a lot of faith and a lot of prayer.
Rodriguez is having a birthday party for Lukuz today. Her parents and cousins and aunts and uncles will come to the house for cake and games.
Lukuz is the reason, even if he doesn't know it.
"He may not understand," she said, "but it's for me to celebrate another year that my son has been here, another year he survived when they said he wouldn't."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.