His bedtime is 9 p.m. Every two hours in the night, she wakes up to turn him so he doesn’t get bedsores. At 8 a.m., he is fed and given medicine. By 9 a.m., he’s in his wheelchair, receiving a morning kiss on the cheek accompanied by an, “I love you, son.”
“This is our world,” said Doriann Kraatz, who, for the past five years, has been performing these tasks every day for her 26-year-old son, Niko Ramirez.
This world started May 26, 2013, when Niko landed head-first in a ditch after clipping the corner of a truck while riding his motorbike along Burroughsville Road. Kraatz said when he landed, the bike’s handlebar lodged into the right side of his brain causing a severe traumatic brain injury.
Niko is one of about 1.7 million people who suffer a traumatic brain injury annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Traumatic brain injuries range from mild to severe; from a mild concussion to an accident similar to Niko’s.
“The brain is the master controller, and it affects everything we do from the last cell in your toe, to the scalp and skin,” said Dr. Sudha Tallavajhula at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a rehabilitation hospital in Houston. Dr. Tallavajhula is on faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston.
Niko’s injury occurred in the motor system, Tallavajhula said. He is unable to walk or talk; however, he can communicate in some ways.
“If you start talking to him and ask him a question, he’ll start blinking really fast. He uses his blinks to communicate – two blinks means yes, one blink means no,” Kraatz said.
During a therapy session with Tara Laging, a speech therapist, Niko managed to shake his head up and down, very subtly, in response to Laging.
“He’s never done that before,” Laging said.
With more speech therapy, Kraatz believes her son can make more progress.
“We’re not looking for miracles, we’re looking for small steps, and he has made small steps,” Tallavajhula said.
But despite those small steps forward, Kraatz’s biggest fear is that her son will lose ground in terms of support and eventually be forgotten.
Celeste Ramirez, Kraatz’s 24-year-old daughter, said visitors are few and far between, as opposed to the many they had right after the accident. In fact, that day at the hospital, Kraatz gathered about 50 friends and family in one large prayer circle that would ultimately inspire a reverberation of support throughout the following year.
“Once the very last prayer is prayed, then I lose hope,” Kraatz said.
Meanwhile, she said she’s making the best of it.
“Don’t feel sorry for us. We’re living this life as best we can,” Kraatz said.