By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006
He lies in a hospital bed, unable to feel his arms, his shoulders, his fingers, his feet or his toes. Breathing is a struggle. His voice, once bright and full, wavers between a murmur and a whisper.
Mesfin Nega, 31, cannot remember the horrifying moment in May when his life changed irrevocably. He knows only what he learned after emerging from an induced coma two weeks later: that a cluster of men had beaten him nearly to death outside an Adams Morgan nightclub; that his neck was broken; that he probably would never walk again.
An unrelenting free spirit with a sprawling crowd of friends, Mesfin has come to rely on them more than ever in the four months since the attack. Every day, they visit him at George Washington University Hospital. They banter, feed him, tend to his long dreadlocks and plan fundraisers -- the first is tonight at a club in Northwest Washington -- to help pay his medical bills.
Inevitably, they pass under the watchful eye of the woman who has long been at the center of Mesfin's life, his older sister, Mamie Mesfin, 35, a nurse who has looked out for him since he emigrated from Ethiopia at age 12.
For the first two weeks after her brother was beaten, Mamie (pronounced "Mommy") slept on a chair in his room. When he's ready to leave the hospital, she hopes to move him into the Columbia Heights rowhouse she shares with her husband. They plan to build ramps for his wheelchair, to widen doorways and otherwise renovate their home to accommodate him.
"I didn't think he'd make it this far," she said, standing a few feet from her brother, his small frame nestled beneath a white blanket.
For weeks after the attack, Mamie said, she struggled with rage and despair. Then she resolved to pour her energy into making Mesfin as comfortable as possible.
"All I want is to make my brother happy," she said. "Wake up and make him smile."
Smiling was never difficult for Mesfin, described by his sister and friends as a perpetual Peter Pan, a child gleefully trapped in an adult's body. By day, he worked construction jobs and searched property records for Montgomery County Circuit Court. But he lived for his free time, when he'd hang with his pals, play golf and basketball, lift weights, listen to Bob Marley and go dancing in Adams Morgan.
His sister nagged him to grow up, get to bed earlier and save money so he could settle down. He knew she was right. Late last year, he went back to school and talked of becoming an airplane mechanic.
But the night life still beckoned.
At 2:30 a.m. May 7, after hanging out with friends at a coffee bar, he went to Anzu, a favorite 18th Street haunt. The security guard refused to let him in, saying the club was about to close. Mesfin persisted, but the guard was unmoved.
Suddenly, said a witness who was in a car a few feet away, four men stepped in, picked Mesfin up and threw him against a metal grating. He crashed to the ground. At 5 feet 7 inches tall and 130 pounds, he was no match for his attackers, who reportedly included a 260-pound man. They punched and stomped him as he lay on the sidewalk. Some ran away, but police arrested Miguel Angel Avalos, 22, and charged him with aggravated assault. His trial is set for Oct. 23. An officer detected alcohol on Avalos's breath, according to a police report, but investigators have offered no motive for the attack.
At the hospital, Mesfin's breathing was powered by a ventilator, and doctors operated to repair his spinal cord. His mother and 90-year-old grandmother flew from Ethiopia to join family and friends keeping a vigil as he remained in the coma and one of his lungs collapsed. A cousin came from Las Vegas, an aunt and uncle from Seattle, a half sister from San Francisco.
Then, one afternoon, Mesfin opened his eyes. A pregnant cousin, standing by his bed, placed his limp hand on her round tummy. Everyone rejoiced. They tried to keep their spirits up even as he endured infections, caught pneumonia and lost 40 pounds. Yet he was resilient, mustering a smile as he stabilized.
A few weeks ago, doctors moved him to the rehabilitation ward. An oxygen tube still helps him breathe, and nurses use suction to clear his throat. But metal clamps no longer keep his head in place. He can move his forearms slightly, just enough to offer hope, even though doctors say he probably won't regain the use of his limbs.
"You never say never, but the odds are unfortunately against him," said Philip Marion, director of GWU's rehabilitation medicine services. "For the rest of his life, he'll need help not just getting around but with everything."
Lying in bed one afternoon last week, taking a break from watching "Wedding Crashers" on a laptop, Mesfin expressed no bitterness over his plight.
"I don't look back. I look forward to what's going to happen," he said, his speech halting and muffled. "Good things are hopefully going to happen." He said he is not angry at his attackers. "It's past," he said. "What's done is done."
After a few more words, he said he was tired and fixed his gaze on an overhead television tuned to CNN. Seated at the foot of his bed was Shimelis Yegazu, 32, among his friends organizing the fundraiser at Bohemian Caverns on 11th Street NW. They also started a Web site, http://mesfinnega.org , to solicit donations. Their goal is to raise at least $20,000 tonight, and more in the future, to pay for physical therapy and accessories that Mesfin will need when he leaves the hospital.
Listening, Mamie chuckled, saying: "You can't hold enough fundraisers to cover the costs. It's unattainable."
A custom-made wheelchair could cost as much as $40,000, a specialized bed $20,000. Then there's the 24-hour nurse he will need. Mesfin's family does not know what his insurance will cover. They still need to work out a plan for his long-term care. Until recently, Mamie said, they were consumed with making sure he survived.
Her own life, she said, has been turned upside down. Her mother now lives with her. She and her husband delayed plans to have a baby. And she stopped working to spend more time with her brother.
What else could she do? Mamie asked. "He's always been with me."
She first assumed a maternal role in his life when he came from Ethiopia. She was 15 and he was 12, and they lived with an aunt in Seattle. When she moved to Boston after finishing high school, she took him with her, enrolling him in school and keeping after him to do his homework. Then they both went to Santa Barbara, Calif., back to Seattle and eventually to Washington. Until a year ago, he lived with her.
From the moment she learned that he was in the hospital, she has grappled with anger, anxiety and overwhelming sadness. How could this have happened to her baby brother? She went to court for Avalos's arraignment, sitting in the first row and staring at him in wonder.
One night, she walked through Adams Morgan with a detective, handing out fliers asking for help in apprehending the attackers. She stopped outside Anzu, staring at the spot where her brother fell, until she was overcome with emotion and pressed on.
Eventually, she tired of worrying whether investigators would solve the case. She decided to focus on what she could control: taking care of her brother.
If she had been in his shoes, she said, she would have insisted, " 'I don't want to live.' I would've said, 'Unplug me.' " But Mesfin, she said, retains his "amazing spirit." She described how he and his friend were talking about an attractive nurse. The friend said he should ask her on a date. Mesfin replied, "What are we going to do, rub noses?"
Mamie giggled. "He jokes. He makes fun of it."
She imagines him moving into a nursing home and shakes her head. Same with a group home. He belongs with her, she said.
She turned to him and asked, "Mesfin, what do you want?"
His lips moved, the sound barely audible, as he looked at his visitor.
"What she wants," he said, smiling before closing his eyes to rest.