A young man who once dunked a basketball with ease and power lies paralyzed, his mother often hovering over him. To some degree, both are helpless. He hopes to be able to move his arms someday. She hopes to rest hers a little bit.
This is the predicament a Port Tampa family found themselves in this spring, after Brandyn Preston, 20, survived an apparent random gunshot in May that severed his spinal cord.
Preston is 6 feet 7 and unable to move much beyond his neck, fingers and toes. His mother, Kimberly Wood, is about a foot shorter.
"Try taking care of him by yourself," she said.
Her patient can only respond helplessly.
"I wish I could help you," Preston often says. "You know I would."
Preston grew up with his mother and stepfather and attended East Bay and Robinson high schools, as well as Waynesville High School in Missouri where he was a basketball standout. Early this year, he embarked on a personal journey to learn more about his biological father and that side of his family.
He drove to Iowa, found his paternal grandmother, half-siblings and his father. On May 8, he attended a high school graduation party for one of his newfound family members in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
It was a big outdoor party with a bonfire. Someone fired a gun, and a bullet sliced into Preston's neck, derailing his dreams to get his diploma, attend college and continue playing basketball. No suspects have been named in the shooting, which remains unsolved.
His mother, a patient service representative at CVS-Caremark, flew to his side and remained with him when he moved to a Nebraska rehabilitation center. In mid-August, Wood and a relative gingerly loaded Preston onto a commercial jet and flew him back to Tampa.
Back home, the family wheeled him around in an electric wheelchair. Now he spends his days watching football, and he enjoys chicken wings, fresh fruit and Frappucinos. With the help of a younger brother, Preston answers friends' Facebook messages. The family bought a van with a wheelchair lift off Craigslist, which allows Preston to visit the mall — though he must sit reclined during the ride because of his height.
The family had hoped military benefits for Preston's stepfather, Donovan Wood, an Iraq War Bronze Star recipient, would pay for a home nurse. But he is retired and working in the private sector, which limits his benefits. Medicaid finally approved a home health care nurse for the family but has yet to find one who is willing to work with Preston because he's on a ventilator, his mother said.
A fundraising drive the family launched shortly after the shooting raised about $4,000, but the money ran out by August.
So Kimberly Wood, 42, quit her job to take care of her son full time.
In October, Preston developed a blood clot in his left leg and was admitted to Kindred Hospital in South Tampa. He was released earlier this month.
Back home, his mother often deciphers what he's trying to say because his voice is so weak; the sound is barely above a whisper.
Between caring for Preston, Wood also cares for two other children under the age of 8. The Woods also have two grandchildren under the age of 4 living with them.
A full-time nurse, Preston said, "would be nice for my mom."
"I'm not asking for someone to sit with him for a week while I go on vacation," she added.
Preston wishes he could do more.
He wants to move his arms again. If he could, he would lift himself up and — best of all — shoot a basketball again. He could be more self-sufficient.
"That would be at least more hopeful than it is now," Wood said.
In the meantime, she continues caring for her son by herself — until help or hope arrives.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.