"Patience," Elizabeth Butler chirped. "One step at a time."
It was Tuesday afternoon and the sun was shining. Her son had already walked slowly, methodically from the car to the base of the steps — five mountains of carefully laid brick, with metal railings on either side; his last hurdle before reaching the front door.
Without pause, Juan Spence moved to walk up as anyone would: one foot on each level, four rapid steps in total. But his mom reminded him: both feet stop on each step. "Slow."
Braced by his mom on the right and his uncle Kelly Spence on the left, he lifted each foot with determination.
Little more than a month ago Juan was unable to stand, much less tackle the steps leading to the front door.
After 64 days at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, he was home.
"It's unreal," Juan said. After a long pause, he added, "Euphoric."
On May 21, Juan was a Warhill junior and star of the track team. On May 22, surgeons at VCU Medical Center removed a piece of his skull — a bone slab the size of his palm covering his right brain.
Juan, 17, remembers moments before the May 22 car crash: minutes after school let out and less than a mile from campus. He's been told the rest.
"I just remember my friend was going down the road kind of fast, it was really raining, really hard and he took the turn really sharp and that was it — and it started flipping," Juan said. "I don't know how I ended up under the car, with the car on top of me.… It's crazy that I'm still here. I thank God."
Juan was riding shotgun in 18-year-old Ruben Davila's 2016 Mazda on that stormy Monday. Davila, a Warhill senior, walked away unhurt.
Juan wasn't wearing a seatbelt, a mistake he wishes he didn't make. "Because if I did I wouldn't have flown through the sunroof."
Juan was rushed to VCU where he underwent his first brain surgery — the second is scheduled for Monday, to replace his skull fragment.
In the more than two months Juan spent in the Intensive Care and the Brian Rehabilitation units, "he fought death off four times," Kelly Spence said.
The doctor told the family that 95 percent of patients with Juan's level of trauma — he was barely a three on the scale of three to 15 — don't make it, Butler said. The neurosurgeons opted to do the first surgery because his heart was beating and he was breathing and despite his near coma-state, Butler said.
That was the third time he fought off death. First was the crash. Second was the landing.
"Four times," Juan said. "The crash — the car was on my head — then I landed in a puddle of water as well, it was up to (my nose), I could have drowned if the firefighter never came to get me and he asked if I was alive and he said I stuck a thumbs up at him."
He doesn't remember landing in a puddle. An EMT told him about it later, he said.
And after surgery came the fourth brush with death.
The first night in ICU Juan began having seizures, recalled his aunt, Maria Spence. The doctors and nurses rushed in and the heart rate monitor gave a single, long tone — the kind no parent wants to hear; the kind that means a heart isn't beating.
Doctors asked Butler what she wanted them to do, Maria Spence said.
"I said, 'He's not a DNR (do not resuscitate), do everything you need to do to keep him,'" Butler said.
Juan was in a coma that lasted for three days, Butler said. He was breathing through a machine, eating through a tube. Doctors weren't confident he would make it, she said.
And they told her as much.
"The hardest moment was on that third day when one of the neurosurgeon doctors told us that he gave Juan a 5 percent chance for him to live," Butler said. "It was very heavy for me to hear that. And it was a room full of doctors and I stood there and I was just shaking my head no, it's not going to be 5 percent."
Butler said facing those doctors made her question her faith in God.
Shortly after that, Juan started moving a few fingers, a toe. He could give a thumbs up, use sign language. Then he was standing, walking.
"The journey has been miraculous. We as a family were very scared for him, knowing he would live not knowing how he would live," Butler said. "I heard vegetable, I heard never eat, never walk, never talk, never do any of those things and to see him doing all of those things now is just amazing, it's a miracle right there."
For Juan, the biggest moment by far was walking again.
"It felt great, it felt like I was getting back to normal," he said.
It took nearly four weeks.
Juan moved from ICU to the hospital floor June 16 and was standing within the week. Toward the end of June he could shuffle forward with a walker. By July 19 he walked with little assistance.
"I felt like passing out when I saw him walking for the first time, I was like 'are you kidding me?' " Butler recalled. "And everybody, even the nurses and doctors were like 'I had no idea this kid was this tall, good grief,' because he was in the bed for so many days and weeks so when he starts getting up and walking we're like, 'are you kidding me?'"
Juan stands 5 foot, 10 inches. Nearly all muscle mass going into the hospital, he dropped 50 pounds during recovery.
But that he recovered at all is impressive, Butler said. It was quicker than anyone expected.
Talking was another feat. At first he used sign language, then one-word mumbles. By July 1 he could string together sentences.
Family was there for every moment. Juan's mom visited every day, often with his stepfather Alex Butler. Grandparents, aunts and uncles traveled from out of state.
Family support mattered.
"It made me feel like I'm here (home)," Juan said. "It was great every time they showed up, every time anybody in my family showed up because it meant they cared and wanted to actually see me, sometimes it made me almost want to cry."
Juan came home from the hospital Tuesday to a house full of eager family members: aunt Maria Spence, grandmother Sherylyn Spence and siblings 17-year-old Avanda Harvey-Butler and 10-year-old Gabrielle. Two-year-old Caleb was at daycare, but would be so excited "big brother Juan" was home for good, Elizabeth Butler said.
Still to come
Monday is Juan's last scheduled surgery — to return the skull fragment to his head.
He has to wear a helmet until then to protect part of his unprotected brain, which he said is soft, and feels "weird and itchy."
A short hospital stay follows surgery, but, if all goes as planned, Juan will be sleeping in his bed again by Friday, Butler said.
Tuesday was his real homecoming, she said
"Just being here now, seeing him walk through these doors is just incredible, I never lost faith in God, I knew that if I just held on it was going to work out," Butler said. "I'm so overwhelmed that we're finally here and that rehab is five minutes down the road."
He'll continue speech, occupational and physical therapy. His left fingers are still weak, as is the left part of his face, which made him unsure whether he'd start school again in September.
One thing he knows for certain is to always wear a seatbelt.
"It can happen anywhere, it's a very stupid thing to do, getting in a car and not putting on seatbelts," Butler said. "Teenagers — some of them think they're invincible, I know my son did.… I would just encourage all teenagers, even adults, just wear your seatbelt. It will save your life."
Juan knows this wouldn't have happened if he buckled up that day. His success story is rare, a doctor told Butler.
"I am one in a million," Juan said as he nestled down in a living room chair to a chorus of laughter and agreement from family. "I can't believe it. That five percent chance."
Williams can be reached by phone at 303-249-5033.
The family has raised $11,000 of a $50,000 goal to help cover Juan's medical costs. To donate visit www.gofundme.com/rising-money-for-juan