Injured Warhill student 'strong enough to pull through'

Sixteen years ago, Elizabeth Butler waited patiently for her son to take his first steps, to utter his first words.

Now she's waiting again for 17-year-old Juan Spence to walk and talk.

On May 22 — she knows the time, down to the minute — Juan was riding shotgun in 18-year-old Ruben Davila's car outside Warhill High School when it slid on the wet road and rolled, landing on top of Juan. Ruben, a Warhill senior, walked away not seriously injured.

Juan, a junior, was rushed to the hospital.

"We all have been trusting in God since day one, since they pretty much didn't think that he was going to make it," Butler said. "I knew that he was strong enough to pull through."

So far, he has pulled through.

Juan isn't walking or talking yet, but he's no longer on life-support. Butler said the staff at VCU Medical Center moved him out of the ICU last Friday and he's breathing with minimal help.

Given the extensive head injuries he sustained in the accident, Butler called his progress "tremendous."

"They're even talking about rehab now. He is going to be expected to get physical therapy, speech and language therapy," Butler said, her excitement echoing with each word. "He's a candidate for all that now."

Butler makes the drive to Richmond each day, sometimes sleeping in Juan's hospital room. He's learning to sit and communicate via sign language.

She said there wasn't a time she doubted his recovery, but there was a moment when she really knew he'd make it.

"When I just saw, after a few days of nothing, on that third day an arm moved, a leg moved, a toe wiggled, I just knew," Butler said. "Now we can see him smile."

The call

She was at work when her husband Alex called four weeks ago on an otherwise normal Monday afternoon.

"I was just immediately in shock," Butler said. "I was very afraid for what I was going to hear, all I knew was there was an accident. … I just physically could do nothing."

The crash happened just after school let out for the day at 2:25 p.m. Butler said a neighbor ran to Juan's house to tell his parents.

That neighbor was 16-year-old Logan Layman.

She was still at Warhill when she heard about the accident through the grapevine. She raced to the scene in her car, but police officers barred her from getting close.

"I saw the car flipped over and Juan was getting taken into the ambulance on a stretcher, I wanted to go back there so bad," Logan said. "I was in such shock because nothing like that had ever happened to me before."

Logan and Juan are close; he was the first friend she made after moving to the area six years ago.

She had been planning to drive Juan home that day. But because she's 16 and her driver's license is restricted, 10 minutes before class let out she told Juan that Ruben should drive him instead.

Thirty minutes later, after seeing Juan loaded into the ambulance, she was rushing home, then running through the rain to Juan's house.

"I ran up to the door and (Alex Butler) opened it, and I asked if he knew about the accident. He didn't," Logan said. "That I was the first person to tell him that his son was in a critical car accident is crushing."

Plans on hold

Logan and Juan were going to go to prom together — scheduled June 3, two weeks after the crash. She asked him, she said. They paired up for homecoming last fall, too.

He didn't want her to ask in front of a crowd — "so of course I did," Logan laughed.

Are they more than friends? Logan said it's complicated.

"Everyone in the neighborhood knew they should be together a year ago," Sandy Layman, Logan's mom, said. She said all the parents see it happening.

Since he couldn't go to prom, Logan wanted to bring the night to him. She was going to wear the dress she bought and bring his boutonniere, but the doctors said no.

Once he makes it to rehab she said she'll make prom happen.


Logan and her family visit often.

Sandy Layman is working with Juan on sign language — he perform the signs for yes, no, and I love you. He can shoot a basketball and give his mom thumbs up.

Butler said he's processing commands and learning to sit up. This week he stood with nurses supporting him.

"He's already Juan again," Layman said. "He's joking as much as he can with the communication he can do, it's just a matter of time."

Members of the Layman family — Sandy, Logan and brother Cole — form the band In Layman Terms. They've been using their gigs around town to raise money for Juan's family and have collected more than $1,000 in donations.

Juan's family also has an online GoFundMe fund raising campaign online that has eclipsed its $8,000 goal by $2,800. At Warhill, the basketball team sold "Juan Strong" bracelets and the track team made t-shirts with the same phrase.

Butler pointed to the community support as a source of strength, for her and Juan.

"We're just rooting him on as he's getting stronger," Butler said. "It's our faith that has really carried us and continues to carry us."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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