One chilly day last week, Andres and Crystal Yepes packed up the car and headed to the neighborhood playground a short drive from their home in Sterling Hill.
Their boys — Preston, 7, and Dylan, 4 — laughed as they pushed their Super Mario Bros. toys down the slide. Their 18-month-old brother, Logan, remained in a stroller.
When Logan began to cough, his father removed a clear plastic chamber from a hole in the boy's throat and used a portable pump to gently suck away the mucous. A home health nurse came along to lend a hand.
It was the family's first outing since Logan nearly drowned in the family pool last month. The boy, who once ran and laughed with his brothers, can no longer walk and needs around-the-clock care. They still don't know the extent of any brain damage.
But he was here with them in the park after more than a month in the hospital.
That, his parents say, is a gift from God.
"It felt nice to be united again," Andres said. "We could have come home without our son."
Everyone was home that afternoon on Oct. 2.
Andres was playing inside with Logan and Dylan, while Crystal helped Preston with his homework in another room.
Andres went to check on Crystal and Preston. When he returned to the family room, he found Logan in the pool. The boy had slipped through a small opening in the sliding glass door.
"It was like the blink of an eye," said Andres, 36.
Logan was rushed to Oak Hill Hospital, then flown by helicopter to All Children's in St. Petersburg.
Forty-one days of exhausting advances and setbacks followed.
The brown-eyed toddler with silky brown hair would eventually emerge from an induced coma and start breathing on his own. Surgeons inserted a feeding tube in his stomach and the tracheal tube to help keep his lungs free of mucous.
He was moved out of the intensive care unit on Halloween. He responded to hearing and smell tests and cried out when physical therapists moved his tiny limbs.
A brain scan didn't produce conclusive results. Doctors told the couple it could take a year for the swelling in Logan's skull to ease, said Crystal, 30, as she sat in Logan's bedroom last week.
"That's when we'll know if he'll be like a normal little boy again or if … ," she began.
" … or if there are things we'll need to work on."
Logan's nursery is painted a pumpkin orange. The inspirational phrases stenciled in black, flowing script have taken on a poignant significance since the accident.
Above the boy's crib: Every day is a gift.
The doorbell rang, and Preston ran to answer it.
A few moments later, home health nurse was Lois Talbot was taking Logan's vitals. She then started to gently press her palms into the soles of the boy's feet, straightening his tiny curled toes through white socks.
This is a critical time for Logan's brain and body, said Talbot, a licensed practical nurse who has worked with children her entire 35-year career. Diligently stretching his limbs, exercising his muscles and stimulating his senses, she said, will spur recovery.
"I think he hears and understands everything we say," Talbot said. "He's just a little trapped right now. We're going to work on that and get him untrapped."
The boy's eyes tell a story of progress. For weeks, they shifted, seemingly unfocused.
"Now," Crystal said, "he's actually gazing at me."
• • •
Andres and Crystal have always made a good team, her mother says.
"They're like a puzzle," said Marie Alagna, an LPN who lives a few minutes away. "You put them together and the puzzle's done."
Crystal's from Staten Island and attended Springstead High. Andres came to the United States from his native South America at the age of 15. About a dozen years ago, Crystal walked into the New Port Richey convenience store where Andres was working. It was the first time she'd given her phone number to a stranger. They were married within two years.
On Oct. 18, their 10th anniversary, Logan was still in intensive care.
Before the accident, Crystal stayed home with the boys and volunteered at their schools while Andres ran his video production company.
Now teamwork means making sure Logan gets his myriad medications on schedule. It means using four hands to delicately clean and replace his tracheal tube. And it means working together to meet the needs of the other two boys.
It also means having patience, with tempers shortened by stress and sleep deprivation.
"We're not perfect," Crystal said. "We get into fights. But we understand each other. We're going through the same things."
Andres is slowly getting his business running again to bring in an income and help pay the medical expenses that insurance won't cover. Crystal says she benefits by staying active at the other boys' schools.
Somehow, she's doing it. After Logan got home, working on little sleep, she managed to make a few laps around the track for a diabetes walk-a-thon at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, where Preston attends the first grade. She stayed up until the wee hours last week cooking a ham for the school's Thanksgiving celebration.
The family is also getting support from loved ones and strangers alike. About a week into Logan's hospital stay, Crystal created a Facebook page as a way to update friends and family on Logan's condition. By last week, the page had nearly 950 friends, most of them strangers who had somehow heard about Logan and wanted to follow his progress.
One of them, a 9-year-old girl from Spring Hill, sent a message saying she asked her parents to take the money for her birthday party and give it to Logan. Crystal wrote the girl back, thanking her, but telling her not to give up her party. Instead, Crystal wrote, how about helping out at next month's benefit carnival? The event is being organized by a woman the couple have never met.
They're overwhelmed and thankful.
"I am truly amazed that all these people are coming together," Crystal said. "And they're holding their little ones a little tighter."
• • •
Thanksgiving week brought a host of triumphs, including the family playground outing.
Logan gagged for the first time. It was something to celebrate because if that reflex becomes strong enough to reliably prevent mucous from seeping into his lungs, the tracheal tube can go.
On Wednesday, Alagna stayed home with the boys and the nurse so Andres and Crystal could have their first date night since the accident. They saw the new Twilight movie at the Beacon Theater in Spring Hill, then rushed home like the nervous parents of a newborn baby. The next day, Crystal's parents came over for Thanksgiving dinner. Logan sucked sweet potato juice off Alagna's finger, then bit it. Later that night, he smiled in his sleep.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.