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Brave Buffalo boy, shot in the head, has no home to return to

Juan Rodriguez is coming home. But he has no home to go to.

Juan is the 11-year-old boy who went to the front door of his home on Humason Avenue in the early summer to get younger children out of harm’s way when he heard gunfire outside. As he opened the  door, a stray bullet struck him in the head and passed through his brain.

Two days later, on his 12th birthday July 1, he was on life support and his family wanted only one thing, for the brave boy they called Macho to survive. He did. And his summer was spent in several surgeries, then rehab. Now he can return home.

But there is no way that his mother, Sonia Pagan, said she can take her son back to the house on Humason Avenue where he was shot, even if the house were accessible, which it isn’t.

Sonia Pagan, the mother of Juan 'Macho' Rodriguez, becomes emotional when talking about how far Juan has come since the shooting. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Sonia Pagan, the mother of Juan 'Macho' Rodriguez, becomes emotional when talking about how far Juan has come since the shooting. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“My main thing is making sure this boy is in a better environment,” Pagan said.

She needs a home that is safe and also can accommodate his needs as he continues to recover. She hasn’t been living on Humason, either.

Pagan stayed with Juan at Women & Children’s Hospital during his recovery and later at Unity Rehabilitation in Rochester, where he has been receiving therapy. Relatives have cared for her other children while she divided her time between them and Juan.

His doctors believe Juan is ready to go home, even with the open wound that keeps pressure off his brain.

This should be a triumphant moment for Juan’s family. His mother has lined up therapists for him and arranged for tutoring. She has learned how to change her son’s bandages and take care of his other basic treatment. And his 15-year-old sister and the 7-year-old twins can’t wait to be reunited.

Juan Rodriguez with family members n the hospital. (Photo from family)

Juan Rodriguez with his siblings in the hospital. (Photo from family)

All that is missing from this heartwarming picture is a home for Juan to return to.

Trying to arrange for that from Rochester while she learns how to assume her son’s care has been nearly impossible for Pagan.

“They offered to put us in a shelter, with people coming and going all the time,” she said. “I can’t do that. He still has an open wound. I need someplace that can be sterile.”

She thought she had found a place and paid an $800 security deposit. The landlord told Pagan the house needed some work but would be ready when they were. Now, however, the landlord said the house needs more work than expected and won’t be ready for months.

Also, she told Pagan she can’t return the security deposit.

And Juan is scheduled to come home in a week.

While Pagan searches for a new home, she takes comfort in the progress of her son’s recovery.

Juan uses a wheelchair and doesn’t have practical mobility in his left arm or leg. Vision in his left eye also is damaged. But he recently was able to eat “real food.” Juan devoured the sushi, his first taste, his mother brought him in rehab.

“He eats anything but he loves sushi, ice cream and cheese nuggets” — that’s chicken nuggets stuffed with cheese, Pagan said.

He also is getting ready for Halloween.

Juan told the staff members at Unity he wants to dress up as a banana for the holiday, and they’ve already gotten him his costume. His mom has a photo of Juan enjoying a silly moment, peering out from a huge yellow peel that drapes perfectly over his wheelchair and the padded helmet he wears. His siblings calls him “Spaceballs” when he has it on, but he doesn’t mind.

He loves to laugh and joke and even flirt. Just ask his mom or the women on the hospital staff that he sings to, with “You are my cupycake, gum drop, snoogums boogums.”

Juan’s irrepressible attitude kept them going right from the start, Pagan said.  She knows her son, and she never lost hope.  He rewarded her within about two weeks of the shooting, she said, when he started to become responsive.

Movement became consciousness, and it has been steady progress ever since, she said. Juan was moved from trauma care at Erie County Medical Center to Women & Children’s and then to Unity in Rochester.

He and his mother developed a sign language to signal “yes” and “no” and “I love you,” and so on. She captured images on her phone of Juan smiling without a hint of fear.

“I wasn’t worried,” Pagan said. “I have faith in everything he does, period. He was telling me (not to worry) all along -- he was writing before he was talking -- and I believed him.”

“My only feeling was he shouldn’t have to be going through this.”

She smiles widely as she recalls one of his really good days.

“I woke up (in his room) and I heard a conversation with two people ... Hmmm .. I looked up and it was a doctor and him — talking. A whole conversation. He said he wanted to hear his voice, and said ‘Mom, do you hear me? I can hear me.’ ”

She showed an early video when he tried to sing along with her and got out a few notes.

In another video from September, after he moved to rehab, he speaks about how hard he was working and how well he was doing. It was like watching a miracle.

But as Pagan noted, “He’s still got a long way to go.”

A piece of Juan’s skull was removed because fluid still collects where the bullet caused damage and must be tubed away. The bone from the skull is still around, surgically nestled under the skin on Juan’s right side for safekeeping until doctors can put it back, hopefully by the end of the year, Pagan said.

And yet, she is buoyed by hearing Juan talking and seeing him trying so hard to be a normal boy again.

In an interview with The Buffalo News in Buffalo on Friday, Pagan made a call on her cellphone.

“Hello,” a bright young voice answered.

“How are you doing?” Pagan asked.

“Good. I’m getting ready to go to OT,” Juan responded.

When his mother put the phone on speaker, he said hello to everybody in the room and related that he was going to make a card for one of the nurses, because it’s her birthday.

Then he got into little back and forth contest of “I miss you” and “I miss you more” with his mother before breaking up in a giggle. He sounded exactly like a 12-year-old boy.

A family photo of Juan Rodriguez in the hospital.

A family photo of Juan Rodriguez in the hospital.

The bullet clearly didn’t damage Juan’s personality, and he has retained his long-term memory, too, his mother said. The biggest cognitive problem so far appears to be with his ability to focus for very long.

“We’ll say something, and then an hour later, he’ll ask about it again,” she said.

But some abilities seem better than ever. While on the phone, he easily ticked off all his medications by name.

“He was smart before, but he is coming out of this even more intelligent,” Pagan said.

She recalled one day when he woke up rattling off numbers and equations.

“I asked 'what was that?' and he said, ‘Mom, for some reason I was dreaming up these numbers,” she said. “Now they’re calling him ‘the calculator.’ ”

But Juan is not likely to dream up a solution to his family’s housing predicament. Pagan said she doesn’t talk to him about those worries.

They also don't talk about the day Juan was shot. Police are certain Juan was hit by a stray bullet. They are still investigating the involvement of 20-year-old Datavion McGee,  who also was wounded in the gunfire.

Pagan's problems have been compounded by the lost security deposit and by solicitations others made on Juan’s behalf - collecting money that she and her son have never seen.

She has received about $1,800 through a GoFundMe page under the name Mucho Macho, set up when Juan was shot. But contributions fell off when Juan’s fate, at least publicly, was uncertain.

The uncertainty now isn’t whether Juan will get better, it is where he will get better.

She needs a place that is wheelchair accessible, or at least with few enough steps that they can get a wheelchair in. Inside, there has to be room for Juan to get himself around and for his sisters and brother to have some space, too.

Pagan is trying hard not to get discouraged. She takes her inspiration from her son.

“He says, ‘Mom, we’re going to walk out this door together,’ ” Pagan said, “and I’m ...” -- she makes a skeptical face -- “and he says, ‘Mom, we are going to walk out this door together.’ ”

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