SPRING HILL — George Ralston walked into a pediatric care unit in 1989 to see the toddler his daughter had been telling him about.
The child, about 18 months old, was a patient at the facility where Ralston's daughter, Cathy, worked as a nurse. The boy was abandoned and alone. His brain had been damaged by a caregiver who had violently shaken him.
Cathy had fallen in love with him. And she believed her father would, too. She brought him in, hoping he would adopt the boy.
That day, the boy lay on his side facing the wall, his body connected to at least two machines.
Ralston, a career Marine sergeant who was retired and living in New Jersey, had his doubts about caring for a special-needs child. This boy would be particularly difficult. Because of the brain damage he endured during the shaking, he would never talk, walk or swallow on his own.
"I saw all these tubes coming out of him," said Ralston, "And I said to myself, 'There's no way I can do this.' "
Just then, the boy rolled over. He smiled.
"That was it," Ralston recalled. "I was done."
Ralston and his wife, Jane, adopted the boy. They renamed him Jonathan Ralston.
With Cathy's help, they raised him as their own.
Through it all, they knew that he would not grow old.
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Months earlier, police received a call that a baby was in danger. The tip led them to a home, where they found the boy who would become Jonathan.
Authorities diagnosed the boy with shaken baby syndrome, or SBS. About 1,200 children are diagnosed with the syndrome every year. About one-fourth of them die. Those who survive their initial injuries, and who have severe brain damage like Jonathan, usually don't live very long.
Three adults were in the home where Jonathan was found. All denied touching the baby and no charges ever were filed, Ralston said. The child was removed from the home and taken to a long-term pediatric care facility.
The baby was 7 months old when Cathy first saw him.
After deciding to adopt the boy, the family had to hire a lawyer and endure a three-year court fight before finally bringing him home in April 1992. They later moved to Spring Hill.
Caring for the now-4-year-old boy's needs was daunting, even for the makeshift three-parent household. Just keeping him alive required an automatic feeding pump and a sleep apnea monitor. His eyes twitched, he had seizures and he was frightened by voices.
"Especially a man's voice," George Ralston said. "That used to terrify him."
Jonathan retained the mental abilities of an infant. He was incontinent and mostly blind. But he could hear, and turned his head to follow passing sounds.
In 1997, they took a trip to Disney World. They stayed at the Polynesian Resort and rode around on the monorail. It was Jonathan's chrysalis moment. He turned toward strangers ambling past his wheelchair, as if trying to speak to them.
"I watched him come out of his shell," Ralston, 67, said. "We took home a different boy."
The Ralstons' lives had shifted to giving 24-hour care. They fed him Ensure through a tube.
They read his moods, whether it was a belly laugh when he was happy or a scrunched-up face when he wasn't. They loaded his room with stuffed animals and stroked his forehead when he cried.
Jonathan grew to 5 feet 2. He graduated in June 2008 from Central High School's program for students with special needs.
By then, Jonathan had already beaten the odds. His adoptive family tried not to think about what that implied.
"We all knew in the back of our minds," Ralston said. "That thought was always there."
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After a trip to Disney World in June, Jonathan fell ill. He spent part of July in and out of Spring Hill Hospital, where doctors treated him for a stomach virus.
At 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Ralston thought Jonathan, who was now back home, "didn't look right." He told his wife to call 911.
Jonathan Ralston was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m. He was 21.
The only father he knew said he believes God led the boy to his family, and them to him.
"I would give everything I have to have him back again," he said.