With the flip of a light switch, Cesar Mancebo — a strong, healthy husband and father of three — was paralyzed.
During an early morning blackout in November, Mancebo walked to the bathroom in his Fort Avenue home in Salem. Groping in the dark for the light switch, he tumbled down the stairs and smashed headfirst into the wall. The fall resulted in a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the shoulders down. He is still recuperating at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
His wife, Alexis, has barely left his side since — and the Salem community has banded together to find the Mancebos a handicapped-accesible apartment so Cesar can return home to his family.
“It’s hard to believe what has happened,” said the Mancebos’ oldest son, Cesar Jr., 21. His brother, Alex, 20, is a junior at Boston College, and sister, Bianka, 17, is a senior at Salem High School. “His mental state is fine, he’s still my dad. But this is a dramatic change.”
For Alexis and Cesar Mancebo and their children, the sudden tragedy has been softened by the outpouring of support from friendships that first blossomed nearly 17 years ago with other parents at the former Federal Street School.
Cesar and Alexis Mancebo immigrated to Salem from the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s. Their children were part of the school’s two-way bilingual program, in which Spanish-speaking children learned English, and English-speaking children learned Spanish.
“We were all together always, like a family,” said Shirley Burke, whose children grew up with the Mancebos’ children. The kids all went to school together, played sports together, and remain friends today.
Shirley Burke and Pam Burns are among those parents who are helping the Mancebos navigate the web of health insurance, caseworkers, housing and Social Security Disability, and help them figure out how to acquire medical supplies. The group set up a trust for donations to defray mounting costs and to assist with the children’s college educations.
“The major goal is for the kids to finish college,” Burns said during an interview with the Mancebos yesterday morning at Burke’s home on Station Road in Salem. “We want the trust to help their family in the long term.”
Before the accident, Cesar Mancebo, 52, was a healthy, fit and trim man — “he didn’t drink or smoke,” said his son. In the Dominican Republic, Cesar worked as an accountant, and he was the strict, organized head of the household, said his wife.
It’s been three months since the accident, and he has regained movement in his shoulders, which enables him limited use of his arms for eating. He can also operate his wheelchair and manipulate a large, specialized computer mouse to access the Internet. But the last three months have also been a struggle.
Immediately after the Nov. 17 accident, Cesar was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he underwent a seven-hour emergency surgery on his neck. He was released to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital 10 days later, but developed pneumonia and landed back in the emergency room at Mass General.
“It was very scary,” his son recalled.
Alexis Mancebo didn’t leave her husband’s side for 11/2 months, and every day, still, she takes the train into Boston to visit and help care for him at the hospital.
“It was hard,” she said through tears. “I didn’t eat and I didn’t sleep. … He’s sad if I’m not there.”
“She feels bad for my dad every day,” Cesar Jr. said of his mother. “It’s difficult for my mom. She and my dad have known each other forever.”
Alexis Mancebo hasn’t been able to return to her work as a housekeeper, and Cesar won’t be able to return to his job at a shoe company in Saugus.
Being the oldest son, Cesar Jr. has had to step in as a father figure during his family’s crisis. His mother doesn’t drive, so he’s taken on his father’s role getting his mother around. He had to stop full-time classes at Salem State College and now works full time, but his mother and the Mancebos’ friends are determined that he go back to school.
Another former Federal Street parent, lawyer Scott Grover, established and is administering the fund for the family, called the Cesar Mancebo Supplement Trust. The Mancebos’ friends also plan to organize some fundraisers.
“We want them to be able to pay rent without worrying about finances so that Cesar can get better,” said Burke, whose husband, Phil Burke, is the principal of Carlton Elementary School in Salem.
The accident has tried the entire family. Bianka is very close to her father and was accustomed to his guidance. She is applying to college and works at Sears after school.
“Everybody in the family is pulling their weight and doing the best they can,” Burns said.
Cesar Sr. is scheduled to return to Salem next week to their home at the Vinnin Square Apartments. Alexis will become her husband’s full-time caregiver, and a skilled caregiver will also visit their home daily. They’re working to equip the home with the necessary medical supplies, including a lift and a roll-in shower.
“We are learning about this whole process, too,” Burns said. “There is still a lot to be worked out.”
“The next two months will be the most difficult,” Alexis Mancebo said.
Around her husband, Alexis remains strong and positive, as do the children, and they try to joke around as much as possible. His injury is classified as an incomplete spinal cord injury, so there is hope for movement in the future, according to his son. Alexis and Cesar are devout Christians, and they also believe God will help him recover.
“He’s progressing, that’s the good part,” his son said.
Now, the Mancebos are bracing to start life again, with a new kind of normal.
“We have to help them recreate a new ‘normal’ — and a new life,” Burke said, “which is daunting and overwhelming, but they are a wonderful family.”
Want to help?
Donations may be sent to:
Cesar Mancebo Supplement Trust
c/o Tinti, Quinn, Grover and Frey law office
Shetland Park, Suite 114
27 Congress St.
Salem, MA 01970
By Amanda McGregor