When Christopher Lopez Jr. was 10, he was a happy, healthy kid who enjoyed playing with his two younger siblings, liked watching “Two and a Half Men” and Jack Black movies and loved Mario video games. Tragically, a missed case of appendicitis led to his appendix rupturing, septic shock and cardiac arrest – he was revived after nine-and-a-half minutes, and while he survived, life has never been the same.
Nearly four years later, Christopher’s current life bears little resemblance to those carefree days. The lengthy episode of cardiac arrest depleted Christopher’s brain of oxygen, resulting in a traumatic injury with lasting physical repercussions: He is nonverbal, cannot walk, has a feeding tube, uses a ventilator through a tracheostomy at least 10 hours a day and requires 24-hour care.
The family of five – Christopher, now 14, his mother Renee Lemos, his father Christopher Lopez Sr., and his 11-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister – still share the same modest apartment in Sylmar they’ve lived in for years, but everything inside is dramatically different than it was before.
Today, the meticulously organized home is filled with numerous boxes containing an array of medical supplies, and Christopher’s room – where he spends most of his days – has a hospital bed and neatly separated stacks of formula, clothing, sanitary items, cleaning supplies and other items needed to care for Christopher.
Despite his extreme limitations, Christopher recognizes his family, understands basic language, still enjoys watching his favorite programs – and he smiles, especially when he sees his mom.
“Whenever I come home, he gets so happy and he always gets this big smile on his face,” said Lemos, adding that those moments “make my day” and help her keep moving forward.
The Night Everything Changed
“It’s a long story [and] it’s heartbreaking,” said Lemos about the events leading up to the night when their lives were irrevocably altered. Christopher had been feeling under the weather, but he felt well enough to perform in his school’s holiday show that day. What his family didn’t discover until much later was that he was experiencing a rare form of appendicitis, which was causing a leakage that later resulted in a near-deadly case of sepsis.
Outwardly, Christopher continued to appear fine until he suddenly took a turn for the worse two days later, when he became lethargic, only responding when his mom spoke directly to him.
Delayed Care At Olive View ER
“I noticed how much he was starting to sweat and his body was starting to feel cold, [so] I called the paramedics,” said Lemos. He was taken to the Emergency Room at Olive View UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, where his condition worsened – his appendix ruptured followed by cardiac arrest.
“He coded in my arms and it took them nine-and-a-half minutes to revive him,” she said.
Those were the longest nine-and-a-half minutes of her life, Lemos recalled tearfully.
“That was Dec. 15, 2019,” she said, explaining the trajectory of events in detail. That night, Christopher was airlifted to LA County USC, where he remained until Feb. 17, when he was transferred to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). He was released from CHLA in mid-March – “the day before COVID hit and the world shut down,” said Lemos.
“We had to [take classes] to learn how to take care of him at home, because we [didn’t want] to send him to [a long-term care] facility,” she continued, adding that limited in-person support services due to COVID restrictions further complicated an already challenging situation.
“Since then, life with Christopher has been extremely difficult – all of our lives have changed,” said Lemos. “It’s been hard on all of us in every way – financially, job-wise, our mental health and it’s been so hard on all the kids. Before everything happened, we were just a normal family.”
Lemos said they believe medical negligence in the emergency room contributed to Christopher’s complications and current condition – including a delay in getting him admitted and seen by a doctor before his condition deteriorated. She thinks the severity of the situation should have been recognized right away, especially because Christopher fell within the age range when appendicitis is most common – between 10 and 30. Unfortunately, the misdiagnosis rate for appendicitis in children 2 to 12 years of age ranges from 28% to 57%, and is nearly 100% in children younger than 2, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health.
“No one was taking the time to give him the attention that he needed,” recalled Lemos.
Despite repeated efforts with different lawyers, they’ve been unable to launch a malpractice lawsuit against the medical facility, but Lemos said they remain hopeful they can in the future.
Family Works Around the Clock
Before Christopher’s illness, Lopez worked days at his long-term job with Galpin Motors, and Lemos worked nights in retail, ensuring someone was always home with their children. But when Christopher became disabled, Lemos took a leave of absence and eventually left her job to look after Christopher.
Today, their days revolve around his 24-hour care. A home care nurse looks after Christopher for eight-hour shifts three days a week, and the rest of the time his mom and dad – with occasional support from loved ones, such as his grandparents – alternate shifts.
To accommodate the rigorous schedule, Lopez had to change jobs, which reduced their overall income. To help make ends meet, Lemos is working again, picking up part-time retail shifts.
“We both work around each other’s schedules to be there for Christopher’s daily care: feeding him through the g-tube, flushing him for hydration, washing him up daily – bathing him, changing him, dressing him – giving him medication, and staying on top of his appointments and monthly supplies, and making sure he has everything that we pay for out of pocket,” she said. “Plus we have to be there for our other two children – for parent conferences, school activities, drop-offs and pick-ups. Doing everything makes it difficult for us to live a normal life.”
When Christopher has a doctor’s appointment, insurance provides scheduled medical transport, but aside from those outings, he is confined to his bed at home, said Lopez.
“Christopher always liked being outdoors, but ever since this happened to him … the only time he sees the sun is when the ambulance picks him up, either because he’s sick or because we’re going to a regular doctor’s appointment,” he recalled. “Other than that, he sees the same walls all day long. It’s very tough to see him like that.”
Despite the stress and isolation, there are positive moments, such as Christopher’s weekly sessions with a communication therapist who is teaching him how to use eye gaze software on a laptop, said Lemos. The long-term goal is for him to learn to use his eyes to select words and create phrases, and allow the software’s audio to serve as his voice. For now, they’re celebrating a recent small victory: He put together a six-piece virtual puzzle on the computer screen.
“It was a small puzzle, but it’s progress,” said Lemos. While Christopher’s overall progress has been limited, he has reached some important milestones. While he was hospitalized and for a long period of time afterward, Christopher was largely in a vegetative state and required a ventilator most of the day. Today he is alert and breathing on his own for up to 14 hours daily.
GoFundMe Page Set Up
“With Christopher making a little progress, we’re hoping in time things will get somewhat easier for us, especially [if] we can have our own transportation for him,” said Lemos. “Then we can all step outside together to get some fresh air.”
The family has launched a GoFundMe page to collect donations to help them purchase a used medical accessible van with a lift so they can safely transport Christopher on their own, to medical appointments or “just to go outside, to go to the park and enjoy the day,” said Lopez.
Graffiti Artists Kickoff Fundraising
To help them get started, longtime friends of Lopez from the local graffiti art community organized a unique fundraiser last weekend in Pacoima. The graffiti art-themed event was held in the backyard of a private home. Organizers collected entry fees and participating artists made additional donations for the chance to paint blank wall space set up throughout the backyard. They also sold raffle tickets for art supplies, and proceeds from the sale of food, beverages, paints and other items were donated to Christopher. The contributions totaled over $2,000.
“This [was] a blessing to us,” Lemos said. “We didn’t ask for it – it was just friends reaching out [to say], ‘We’re going to help.’ It was so nice to have that unexpected support from people.”
Lemos said she tries her best to remain optimistic about the future – and tries to avoid dwelling on “What ifs” – but admitted she sometimes succumbs to moments when she wonders “Why?”
“It’s hard, of course. You question, ‘Why did this happen? Why to us – why to him?’” she said. “Christopher is an angel, of course, but at the same time I wonder, ‘What’s the reason he’s here?’”
While in many cases, so much pressure can break a family apart, she notes in their case, her family has bonded more closely together.
“Because of Christopher, our family has become one again,” said Lemos. “He is a blessing to everybody.”
Christopher’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to help them buy an accessible van and help with out-of-pocket medical expenses: www.gofundme.com/f/1ug1tlrzqo?utm_campaign.