Dan Salcedo sat at the bedside, holding his son's hand. The odds were not good for his boy. He was in intensive care, connected to pulsing monitors and plastic breathing tubes--eyes closed, head bandaged, body still.
He had been hit by a car near his home in Kensington.
His father was aching inside--feelings that cannot be fathomed, not explained. But as he waited and wished and prayed for his 13-year-old son, he pored over words that consoled him. He read them aloud to Alex. His wife read them to Alex, too.
"We want you to know he is in our thoughts, and there are candles burning here in Caracas for his swift recovery. Tell him we look forward to a visit from him when he's better, and that our cat--Augusta--still complains that no one plays with her like Alex used to."
The message from Venezuela landed from cyberspace at 1:15 p.m. on an August day when Alex's vital signs were up and down, when he veered wildly between calm and calamity--and when 94 other e-mail messages also were propelled into the insular world of family trauma.
Once when families struggled through the abyss of life-threatening crises, contact with friends and neighbors was left to a trusted relative or family friend. Now the Internet has changed the nature of grief and trauma in unintended but profound ways.
As Alex battled to stay alive hour by tense hour, his father created a Web page for medical updates and messages to the family. Friends looked in from Paraguay and Portland, Ore., from Mozambique and Massachusetts. They posted messages about God, about kids, about life's fragility, about the boy Alex was and the teenager he had become.
They read each other's notes. They sobbed at their keyboards.
The goodwill that accumulated in the cyber-world then multiplied and reached beyond it. Prayers were whispered continents away. A brigade of friends brought dinner to the hospital, inspired by the electronic closeness. A free Web service was created to help others in similar crises.
In three months, the world grew smaller. The circle grew larger. And in one realm of the cyber-universe, the Internet was no impersonal innovation--not a tool of commerce or pornography--but a comfort, a forum for human connection at the most critical time.
The moment that changed everything came Aug. 9, as Alex made his way home from a swimming pool near Wheaton Plaza. On an ordinary summer day, he cruised along on his beloved skateboard. At busy University Boulevard, he started out against the light.
Just then, the driver of a 1995 Chevrolet Tahoe was headed west at 42 to 46 miles an hour, according to an accident reconstruction done by police. His view was obscured by a pickup truck in the next lane. There was no time to swerve.
Alex was knocked onto the hood. He hit the pavement twice.
Sirens wailed and ambulances rushed in, and by the time his father showed up--just several minutes later--paramedics were hovering around his youngest child.
Alex's parents posted themselves near his bed at Children's Hospital round-the-clock. Friends started showing up and calling, with questions, with worry, with tears.
Overwhelmed by it all, Dan Salcedo could hardly talk about what had happened. His voice cracked. He broke down. The morning after the accident he asked two colleagues to set up the World Wide Web site (www.peoplink.org/alexsalcedo).
"It was a simple administrative tool," he said--not much of a leap for a man who uses the Web every day at work in his job at an international nonprofit.
Writing on the Web, Salcedo imagined, would be somehow easier.
The first report:
"Monday at 6:30 PM Alex was struck by a car . . . just a few feet from our house. He is in the intensive care unit . . . and the next 48-72 hours are going to be critical."
But as time went on, the father who so struggled with spoken words managed to deliver written dispatches that stirred hearts across the cyber-world--strikingly optimistic, with moments of tension, of uncertainty, of dogged hope.
In the Dominican Republic, the Colemans got word from a friend that Alex might not make it. It was hard to absorb.
They had seen Alex 10 days earlier, the picture of teenage promise: tall and dark-haired, a gifted athlete with a winning streak as a wrestler. He had a dog named Pepita and a lizard named Chico, and a large sense of the world for a boy of 13; his parents worked in international development, and he had traveled across the hemisphere.
Now, the Colemans were in their family den in Santo Domingo peering at a Web site that flashed Alex's photograph the way they remembered him, all long legs and teenage gusto.
They clicked on a line that said "Alex updates."
"We're at 36 hours," Dan Salcedo's update read, "and things are looking better. Alex's vital signs are all stable and in the right range." Alex's mother, Marijke Velzeboer, thanked friends for their prayers. "I know that Alex feels them," she wrote, "for in spite of many odds against him, he is surviving."
It was no small relief. The friendship between the two families went back to the late 1980s, when Dan Salcedo was Peace Corps director in the Dominican Republic and Tito Coleman was managing an AIDS-prevention project in the country. Over the years they had grown close.
The Coleman children, ages 12 and 10, typed in a message to Alex:
"We know you're gonna be fine because you are a strong guy. . . . We love you."
Their father looked on with a touch of amazement. While the Web was not a voice or a caress, it had its virtues: vivid photographs, medical details, continuous access, the soothing assurance of reading that other people cared.
Soon he passed on the word to the Salcedos' former landlord--who passed it along to two families whose children had played with Alex. Coleman told his friends at work, and his wife told her office friends--and they all logged on from half a world away.
In Galveston, Tex., Dorcia Salcedo, 70, knew her grandson was fighting for his life. The family phoned her once a day, but with Alex's condition so volatile, she longed for more involvement. In desperation, she mailed fruitcakes to the hospital nurses.
With help, she found her way to the Web site. There she would sit, reading updates about her grandson 10 times a day and poring over his old photos: Alex feasting on pulpy watermelon, at the beach with his mom, hugging his bearded father, standing on the shoulders of his two older sisters.
Her own first message was brief: a few jokes about her cyber foul-ups and some old-fashioned rooting. "Fight hard. You can do it! Abuela."
Later, as she readied for a trip to see Alex in person, she paused to tell others on the Web page that a friend had urged her to pack a black dress.
"I said, 'No, I will not need it.' . . . When I went to Mass this morning, I was very sad and with red eyes. But about halfway through, I began to feel peaceful--I felt like my prayers must be on target."
At 4 p.m. on Day 3, Alex started backsliding. His vital signs were jumping around in the morning. That afternoon, the monitors showed trouble again. His brain was swelling dangerously.
"Now is the time for maximum prayer power," his father wrote. "Alex is entering a very, very rough period and we need all the help we can get now, please."
At 5:19 p.m., a Kensington neighbor posted: "We are deep in prayer that Alex will make it through this tough period you describe. We are grateful for the days he has survived."
By 8:30 p.m., stability returned and Alex's father apologized for the scare. "We were devastated," he wrote, "partly because we had let our expectations get too positive. This is what the doctors had described as most probable."
There was a welcome lull.
But by the afternoon of Day 4, Alex's father gave his update the title, "Rough Waters." He wrote: "Alex has taken a step back."
An hour later, the mother of Alex's 19-year-old sister's best friend wrote:
"Alex, you are coming back to us, aren't you? I know you are trying. And we are praying, sincerely and deeply, and I do see the moment that you are opening your eyes and singing, 'Mom??!! Dad??' . . . Alex, hang in there. You are a strong man."
A girl from school chimed in: "I'm going to tell you something that I never told any guy, 'I LOVE YOU!' I'm deeply sorry."
Fifty-three other messages poured in through the evening.
Alex's problems grew worse.
The doctors concluded that he needed more tests--and brain surgery. Even worse, they warned his parents that Alex could die as they wheeled him to the laboratory and then to the operating room.
"We had no choice," his father wrote, "so we watched while a squad of nurses/technicians unplugged the spaghetti of tubes and wires that are in our boy."
They followed the gurney to another part of the hospital.
"We prayed and we sang and we cried," he father wrote on the Web. "We really felt this would bring resolution to the matter, one way or the other."
The tests were done. The doctors opted against surgery. Better, they decided, to induce a coma and minimize brain metabolism.
"So Alex lives on," his father wrote with relief at 12:16 a.m.
His teacher from fourth grade was tuned in. "You keep passing all of the medical milestones and amazing all of us. . . . Smile for me, Alex, smile for all of us!"
But again, the calm was not for long.
The swelling in Alex's brain started again, making one of the monitors start "boinging like crazy." Doctors and nurses swarmed in. He was at the brink again.
"Marijke and I were . . . were clasping on to each other like frightened baby monkeys, which was the state we were reduced to. Marijke, ever the spiritual one, was praying and sending Alex soothing thoughts in which images of crickets near a calm lake were the theme. . . . In my usual style, I chose the numbness routine and just kept a channel open to overhear what the doctors were strategizing."
In their anguish, they phoned their neighbors in Kensington.
Judy Higgins took the call. Her family was especially close to the Salcedos. Both lived on Midvale Road, a leafy little sidetrack in the shadow of the Wheaton mall--no sidewalks, plenty of flowers and trees.
Higgins left her home and started up the street knocking on doors. People came out of their houses with little explanation. They knew. They had kept up on the Web.
Higgins quietly told them it was time to pray.
The neighbors walked together, growing in number, until they reached the Salcedos' front yard--sober faces, tears trickling, 30 strong. "You could just feel it coming up the street, walking like a wave," Higgins said.
They were not the same religion, not the same age or background. But someone started out, and a few more joined in, and soon their words gathered force.
"Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . . "
The Web's world was not all parents. It was teenagers, too--kids who hung out with Alex, who traded jokes and song lyrics and who at the just-blooming age of 13 could not comprehend that Alex was hanging on by a thread.
Girls tended to write more often, some of their messages reading like notes passed between classes.
Milena Girma wondered--electronically--what she would have done without the Web.
She and Alex had "gone out" a few times in a seventh-grade kind of way. Lately they were friends. Her vision of him: a skateboarder with spiked hair who told funny jokes. A good rapper and a good-natured tease--who loved the bands 311 and Limp Bizkit. At Sligo Middle School, he was "Salsa," partly a takeoff on his last name.
On Day 3: "Come on, Salsa, you have made it this far. You can do it. All of us are praying this hard. Now it's your job to get better. Just think about what you said to me on the last day of school, okay? See if that keeps you going."
A few hours later: "Salsa do you remember the report we did in Mrs. Graham's class: 'Twenty years from now.' And you did one on professional skateboarding? Well, sweetie you have a long way to go. So come on. Don't let go of the rope, sweetie."
On Day 5, Milena wrote that she would urge her grandmother in Ethiopia to pray: "When she prays, miracles start happening."
The family believes she was part of something larger.
On Day 6, Dan Salcedo told his cyber friends that the chief doctor in intensive-care had concluded: "Your friends and their network have something amazing going on. I feel that it helped Alex and it even helped the kid in the next bed."
Finally came definitive news from the doctors.
"Alex probably will survive," his father wrote on Day 10.
At the neighborhood pool, the Alex updates were posted on the guard shack every day for all swimmers to read. They arrived by way of the mother of Erica Corson, 15, who was Alex's favorite lifeguard. Erica's grandmother in Florida followed the Web site, too.
At a Washington law firm, Alex's page flashed across computer screens many times a day. Jack Kurtz, who analyzes mergers and acquisitions and whose daughter Katelyn is a friend of Alex's, kept up. "I would close my door and wipe my eyes," he said.
The Web site got hits in Atlanta, from MCI employees who know a family friend in Silver Spring. It was the talk of Findlay, Ohio, where a prayer group of 239 Christians took up Alex's cause. It was tracked in North Carolina, by a neighbor's sister, and in distant offices of the Pan American Health Organization, by colleagues of Alex's mother.
All sent messages.
Some came before the first morning light, and others in the quiet of midnight. They delivered countless hopes and prayers. They contained Bible quotations. Stories of tragedies that ended well. Jokes. Chitchat. A poem by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
They had power.
Through the Web, Marie Marinari, a neighbor who had talked only casually with the family, became one of its closest supporters--writing with an intensity and faith that Alex's parents came to rely on. As she put it: "On the Web, people get to know you from inside out."
As another friend put it: "The Web site reminds us of your front porch, filled with friends from near and far who love you."
The Web gave momentum to traditional interventions, too.
Every night without fail, a friend arrived at the hospital with an impressive spread of food for the Salcedos. This started among neighbors, then led to a rotating crew of meal makers from Kensington and beyond, thanks partly to mentions on Alex's page.
The volunteers ate with the Salcedos at a table in the hospital cafeteria--sometimes bringing tablecloths, flowers, candles--and the ritual became companion to the electronic intimacy, closer in, with faces to see, hands to clasp.
On Day 13, Alex's father wrote that doctors would begin slowing down the drugs that had induced Alex's coma. Already he noted signs of feeling in his son--twitching eyes, rising blood pressure, a pulling back when pinched.
On Day 14, his father wrote with virtual glee:
"My son is gagging and I'm thrilled!! I can't believe that this parent is saying this but my perspective has changed. I now look for the tiniest detail and praise the Heavens above when I see a wee bit of improvement. I am a rich man."
He noted that Alex responded to being tickled on the foot.
"And HE IS BREATHING!! Still needs a little help from the respirator but it's improving as the barbiturates wear off."
There was celebration in the cyber-world.
"This is such good news!" a close friend wrote. "My heart is dancing and I've got tears in my eyes. Thank God, thank God."
In spite of its intrinsic public nature, the Web site seemed like a private gathering place to Dan Salcedo. It was visited, as far as he knew, only by friends--and the people they had told.
Even so, when private grief goes public at all, when a Web site gets 66,000 hits, the risk rises that some will be less sympathetic. One stranger vented on the message board in October:
"I am sick of everyone giving their thoughts and prayers to Alex and his family. Two years ago, my son was hit by a drunk driver and you know what, he died. The only people that gave a xxxx about my son was his family. We did not start a webpage about his tragedy, why did you? Let me guess, next you are going to start asking people for money to help you through this?"
This is not what the family said it plans. But Salcedo said he understands the anguish underlying the message, which he sees as confirmation of the Web's value, in extending comfort and prayer in sharing a sense of loss.
"They are doing what we're genetically programmed to do when crisis comes into the family," said Dennis Klass, a professor at Webster University in St. Louis and one of several experts who embraced the Web idea. "They are gathering and marshaling psychic forces for the family. It's what communities and clans and villages have done from time immemorial.
"They're becoming much more old-fashioned in a very new-fashioned way," Klass said, adding: "In the modern world, we don't know when to go in and when to go out. We've lost the etiquette. How do you do this? . . . This family has invited us in."
They have also helped extend the idea beyond Alex. Thanks to the Alex site, Pitas.com has set up a free Web page service for other families in crisis: www.medicalstatus.com.
Which is largely why Salcedo agreed to a newspaper interview.
He hoped not for publicity but to wrest a larger good from the heartache. His goals are twofold: to spur blood donations for other injured children and to spread the word about using the Web to help "other families living the same nightmare."
"I can't explain what it would bring you," said Higgins, the neighbor, "but it was some kind of attachment, some kind of feeling like you were all holding hands."
Alex was in Children's Hospital for six weeks. There were other dramatic moments--when he first breathed on his own, when his right lung collapsed, when a life-threatening blood clot was spotted--but mostly changes were smaller over time.
At a few points, Salcedo explored his own feelings.
"If it hurts this much just to watch Alex," he wrote one day, "I also have to ask myself how much pain is he enduring? Can you imagine reliving that split second of terror just before the impact?"
By September, he wrote that he felt like a changed man, less rattled by small frustrations. His daughter misplaced her car keys, he said, and he sighed, "No big deal."
Another day, he noted that Alex's favorite band, 311, sent a few guitar picks, an unreleased CD and some photos. They did this for Alex's birthday.
He turned 14 in Children's Hospital -- with three cakes and a stream of visitors, amid a party hosted by his parents and two sisters, Adriana, 19, and Nadya, 20, both college students.
The day before, his father wrote, "The neurosurgeon assured us he is no longer in a coma but rather 'in a state of suppressed consciousness.' "
For an additional nine weeks now, Alex has been in the nearby National Rehabilitation Hospital. He held his head up so well in early November that his physical therapist said, "I think Alex is starting to wake up."
At times, Alex opens his eyes. He grips a wrist. He moves a foot. He makes sounds as if he is trying to talk. His heartbeat rises most, his father says, when teenage friends visit, which they do remarkably often--taking Metro to the hospital again and again.
One day, the hospital room is quiet. Alex looks as if he is sleeping, long skinny legs tucked beneath a crisp white sheet. His mother lifts his hand to her cheek.
She whispers, "Alex, open your eyes."
"Alex, open your eyes."
"Alex, open your eyes."
The doctors who pegged his survival at 5 percent now say 100 percent. But because of extensive brain damage, his future is hard to predict.
His mother sits on the side of his bed.
"Alex, open your eyes."
His lashes flutter.
His mother smiles broadly.
"Hey baby," she says.
She strokes his boyish face.
"Someday, Alex," wrote one friend on the Web page, where 2,000 notes have been posted so far, "you will read all of these daily journal entries and messages from around the world. You will see how time stood still while we all held our breath. You will feel the power and love of your family during this time, and of a caring and believing community."