RACINE — It is difficult to imagine that anything good could come from being beaten into a coma.
But for Heraclio (José) Torres, a 42-year-old family man, a legion of living angels stepped into his life since he was nearly beaten to death by two men on June 19, 2009.
As he left his home to go to work, the men savagely beat and kicked him repeatedly, and stole his car. Despite his near fatal injuries, José walked into the Racine County Offender Correctional Facility on Albert Street for help.
A rescue squad took him to Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital, but due to his severe head injury, was transported to Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Wauwatosa.
Unable to communicate clearly, the Racine police listed him as a John Doe for two days, until his wife, Maria, filed a missing person report. After police showed her photographs, she identified the badly beaten man as her husband.
For three months, Maria, 40, traveled to Froedtert with their son, Alexander, who was just 1 at the time, while 4-year-old Litzy attended school. She spent every morning at José’s bedside, praying for a miracle. Each afternoon, she went to work at her part-time job, while her brother cared for the children.
Family dealt another blow
When José finally came home to their one-bedroom Racine apartment, he was unable to walk, talk or sit up on his own. With no medical insurance, the family was unable to get any in-home rehabilitation services for José.
Not long after José came home, the family was dealt another blow – young Litzy was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. Maria quit her job so she could take Litzy to Children’s Hospital for treatment, sometimes for three days at a time.
As Maria’s world crashed around her, the angels stepped in to help.
According to Fr. Esteban Redolad, pastor of St. Patrick and Cristo Rey parishes, he learned of the plight of his parishioners about a year ago after Litzy’s diagnosis.
“Here the otherwise average life of the Torres family was dramatically put to the test: José was bedridden, Litzy, his only daughter, was sick, Alexander, the 2-year-old, was needing all the attention 2-year-olds need, and Maria, José’s wife, was in the middle of it all,” he explained. “It was difficult when Maria had to quit her job, but she knew she couldn’t take care of her husband and daughter. It was especially difficult since José would not qualify for any social service that would allow him to have some home care while alone in the house.”
Parishes create roster of volunteers
Once word spread about Litzy’s condition, St. Patrick and Cristo Rey parishes created a roster of volunteers that included parishioners as well as others who knew of the devastating situation.
“This generous group of people took care of José during the hours, at times 12 hours a day, so Maria could go to the hospital with her daughter,” said Fr. Redolad.
Normally, private and self-sufficient, Maria learned to allow others into her home to care for her husband’s personal needs while she kept watch over Litzy in the hospital.
“Some volunteers would care for her husband, others would do chores for her, and some stayed at the hospital overnight with her daughter so she could go back to visit her family,” said Fr. Redolad. “She was strong enough to somehow realize she had to trust others because it was impossible for her to cope with everything on her own. She accepted the fact that she had to have faith in a group of basically unknown people.”
Angels at work behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, other angels were at work. When Joe Hanneman, member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Racine, learned of the Torres’ situation at a Knights of Columbus Coats for Kids last February, he ached for them.
“My fellow Knight, Bill Fayer, and I were discussing how the free coats would help the families during these tough times. Dr. Shirley Heck, director of the Blessed Pope John XXIII?Educational Center in Racine, mentioned one family that was having a very hard time,” said Hanneman. “I sat in stunned silence as Dr. Heck described the family’s situation and found it hard to imagine one family having to shoulder so much pain. I immediately told Dr. Heck that the Knights of Columbus would help this family.”
After learning that parishioners of Cristo Rey and St. Patrick were helping care for the family, provide meals, and funds for medical supplies and rent, the Knights were determined to build on the efforts to lighten the family’s burdens.
“Our Racine Knights of Columbus council cut a check for $250 to help with immediate needs,” said Hanneman. “I drafted a grant request to the Wisconsin Knights of Columbus charity fund and was grateful it was approved for $2,500. But we were just getting started. As the Torres’ story was told to our membership, Knights stepped forward to organize a fund drive to help.”
Parishes take ‘bucket brigade’ collections
After Knights’ officer, Matt Nelson, approached St. Lucy pastor, Fr. Mark Jonas, the priest approved a “bucket brigade” collection after all Masses.
“As Father read the story of the Torres family at the end of the Masses, you could see tears in the eyes of parishioners,” said Hanneman. “The response was very humbling. One older woman came up to one of the Knights and dropped a few coins in the bucket. With great emotion, she said, ‘I wish it could be more.’ We thanked her for such a heartfelt gift. We had children collecting and children donating. At the end of that weekend, we had raised just over $6,000.”
A similar collection at St. Edward Parish raised $2,000. So far, the Knights have raised approximately $10,500 to assist the family, but they are not finished.
After meeting with Fr. Redolad and parish staff to learn what more could be done, Hanneman contacted Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Institute in Milwaukee and they agreed to evaluate José to map out a therapy strategy.
“We stand ready to work with some of our other Racine parishes to raise more money once we know the potential costs of therapy to help Heraclio gain back some of his life, and assured Fr. Esteban that we would see this through to make sure he gets the help he needs,” said Hanneman. “This story has touched everyone’s hearts and giving was made from the depths of the heart, whether the donation was the handful of change or a large check. Our Catholic community responds with great generosity when made aware of a family that is hurting.”
Faith has grown despite challenges
In spite of the challenges, Maria said her faith has grown the past couple of years. Though she only gets about four hours a sleep each night, she finds blessings on every level. Litzy completed chemotherapy and José’s health has leveled.
“He doesn’t have his bad cough any more,” she said. “He stays the same, but at least he isn’t worse.”
Recently, thanks to the Make-a-Wish foundation, Maria and Litzy traveled to Walt Disney World where they forgot their trials for a short time.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, can we take a couple more days?’ laughed Maria. “It was hard to return to real life.”
Back to work again, Maria hopes to qualify for medical insurance soon in order to get José ongoing medical treatment. Despite outside efforts to obtain physical therapy, because her husband isn’t a resident of the United States, and they have no insurance, José is left with no treatment to get him back on his feet again.
“I am hoping that in three months I might get insurance and then I can get him some PT, but right now, there is nothing,” said Maria. “All the people who have come to help us have been wonderful, but I worry that people might get tired of helping me.”
‘God gave her angels’
Though tired, Maria insists she has never asked God why this happened to her family, because she knows that he has never left their side.
“He has never let me alone all the time we have been going through this,” she explained. “He gave me angels to do things for my husband and me and he gave me patience and everything I need to take care of my family. I don’t feel bad or depressed, but just tired – all the time he helps me. Every day I am thankful to God because he has given us these angels and made me stronger and closer in my relationship with God.”
Her strength is encouraging to Fr. Redolad, who has witnessed Maria’s vulnerability and total dependence on others – yet, a strong faith and purpose for her life.
“I am sure many times she felt lonely and wondering,” he said. “I am sure, too, that her faith in God, her love for her husband and daughter and her capacity to struggle has been and still is even stronger than her fears and doubts. Maria is no quitter. She won’t stop thinking about what is the next step to take, or the next plan to discuss. She is a sharp thinker, but she knows her limits. She has grown the courage to act, but also the courage to ask for help.”
Through the trials and the loss of what was once normal, a community of strangers banded together to pray, donate money, provide food, and volunteer time to care for the most personal aspects of the Torres family.
“People were compassionate; they prayed for the family and tried to help as much as they could,” said Fr. Redolad. “I can confidently say that it was the help of many individuals that made it possible for the Torres family to move forward. We hope there will be even more people ready to assist in giving faith to a struggling family.”
“To me, what I admired the most was, and still is – Maria’s strength and Litzy’s smile,” said Fr. Redolad. “They are both contagious.”