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Jennifer Carter needs help with her son, Carlos Cortes, 6, who suffered brain damage after choking on a hot dog. - Bob Pennell

Choking on hot dog leaves child disabled

Life changed in an instant for Jennifer Carter one hot August day when her 5-year-old son choked on one of America's favorite foods — a hot dog.

"He hadn't had that hot dog more than 30 seconds," said the 28-year-old Medford mother of five. "It's just crazy."

Carlos Cortes moves his head fretfully on the pillow and rolls his eyes toward his aunt, Angela Beeson. She leans over his hospital bed and smooths the wavy blond hair on the 6-year-old's sweaty head.

"It's OK, buddy. It's OK," soothes Beeson.

Whether Carlos recognizes his aunt, or anyone, is unknown, said Carter.

"It feels like it's been forever," said Carter. "It's just so hard. At first, I cried like crazy."

The family says Aug. 3 was a typical summer's day, filled with fun and laughter. Carlos had been pried from the backyard swimming pool where he'd spent the better part of the afternoon playing with his siblings and cousins, she said.

"He'd just learned to swim," Carter said.

Standing by the sliding-glass door, eager to get back in the pool, the strong and energetic boy engaged his 4-year-old sister, Jasmine, in a hot-dog-eating contest.

"He bit and pushed and bit and pushed," said his uncle, Josh Beeson. "I think he was trying to put on a show. Everyone laughed. When Carlos laughed, that's when he choked on the hot dog."

Carlos knew he was in trouble, said Carter. He raced to the kitchen trash can, desperately trying to spit out the lodged meat. But it was wedged fast and her son was turning blue, she said.

"We tried the Heimlich. We tried to call 9-1-1," Carter said. "Finally I threw down the phone and said we have to get him to the hospital."

Emergency-room doctors at Providence Medford Medical Center tried desperately to dislodge the hot dog.

"The hot dog had blocked off his airway," Carter said. "They had to try and break it up. They tried to pop it up and grab it."

But it wasn't working. At one point Carlos' heart stopped beating, she said.

"He actually died," Carter said. "They used CPR to get him back."

Providence doctors finally were able to dislodge the hot dog. Carlos was airlifted to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland for treatment and was placed on a ventilator, she said.

"He was in a coma for a week," Carter said. "He came out of it on the ninth day."

The doctors said Carlos suffered an anoxic brain injury as a result of severe oxygen deprivation.

"His whole brain swelled from the lack of oxygen," said Josh Beeson.

As specialists came and went from Carlos' hospital room, Carter tried to organize a special event for her son and his twin sister, Isabel. The pair celebrated their sixth birthdays at the hospital, she said.

"(Isabel) was really angry in the hospital," said Carter, adding that her 10-year-old son, Jose, cries when he thinks no one can hear him.

Carlos was released from the hospital a few weeks ago. He is off the ventilator. But he still remains on a feeding tube, Carter said.

"We feed him a special formula," she said.

Carter had to quit her job at Walmart to care for her son. The Beesons are staying at Carter's two-story Medford townhouse because her brother-in-law is the only one strong enough to get Carlos up the stairs to the bathroom.

The family is struggling not only with the tragedy of Carlos' medical condition, but also with financial and logistical worries, said Larry Kahn, executive director of Help Now!

The nonprofit organization is providing Carter with professional advocacy services, including helping her prepare for interviews with Social Security so Carlos can receive disability coverage, Kahn said.

Kahn also is negotiating with Carter's landlord so the family can move to a single-story dwelling where Carlos can be more easily cared for, he said.

But all that will take time. And the family has immediate needs for cash donations for everything from diapers to security deposits, he said.

Carter hopes she can find a way to get her son a better-fitting wheelchair and a vehicle that can carry him safely.

"His wheelchair won't fit in my car," she said. "And it's not the right kind for his type of injuries. He's floppy and has no muscle control so he keeps sliding out of it. He needs a tilt-in-space wheelchair."

Everyone misses the lively young boy who worshipped comic-book heros, played video games and "loved to dance and swim," said Angela Beeson.

"He liked to ride his bike on the Bear Creek (Greenway) trails and the BMX tracks," Josh Beeson said, adding that Carlos had won a singing and dancing competition at his kindergarten class at Jackson Elementary School.

Now Carlos' days are spent in bed as his family, physical therapy specialists and other medical professionals try to help him get well.

"The biggest thing now is that we're awaiting purposeful movement," said Carter. "We want to see Carlos look at us when we say his name. Or move his arm or leg when we ask."

Looking at family photos of her son and his siblings and cousins picnicking at a local lake just before the accident is bittersweet for Carter. But they also provide hope.

"Just since he's been home, he seems better," Carter said, looking across the room toward her son. "He lived most of his life here in this house. And I feel like he's more aware with his eyes."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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