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Autistic boy recovers after 2008 accident

Crystal Baehne shed tears of sympathy as she read Monday's Mail Tribune story about Carlos Cortes, the Medford 6-year-old who suffered severe brain damage after choking on a hotdog.

"When I read what was going on with that little guy, I just broke down and cried," Baehne said. "I know exactly how that mother feels."

Two years ago her son, Luke Baehne, was pulled from the cold waters of an irrigation ditch in Jacksonville, unconscious and not breathing. The 6-year-old autistic boy had wandered away from a special education class at Jacksonville Elementary School on Oct. 7, 2008.

Today her smiling son is climbing trees, jumping on trampolines and shaking his ever-present tambourine — thanks to faith and a physical therapy regimen Crystal thought up, said Crystal and her husband, Phil Baehne.

"This is what we have, two years down the line," Crystal said, nodding as Luke scrambled to the top of the family's swing set in the backyard of their Central Point property Monday afternoon.

"I don't have all the answers," she said. "But I do know what we did helped. And I knew I had to at least tell Luke's story."

Crystal said the photo of Carlos, staring off into space, brought back mental images of the aftermath of that cold October afternoon when Luke went missing.

Gail Durst, a teacher's aide, suspected he might have gone to look at fish in a water feature in front of businesses a few blocks from the school. She found him floating in the ditch and held his head up, but couldn't pull him out of the water on the steeply sloped banks by herself. She called 9-1-1.

Emergency medical crews lifted the boy from the cold water and immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was rushed by ambulance to Rogue Valley Medical Center, then flown to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland. Luke was in a coma and on life support, Phil said.

"They didn't give him much chance," he said. "I remember the doctor crying."

As doctors attempted to prepare the family for Luke's expected death, the first miracle happened, Phil said.

The father offered up a prayer, he said, "and then I said, 'Luke, open your eyes.' And he did. He sat straight up, and he looked at me."

The swelling in Luke's brain continued to diminish, allowing doctors to wean him from the respirator. But he was still on a feeding tube and unable to walk, talk or even hold his head up when he was released from the hospital, Crystal said.

"His head was really floppy, and he was staring off into space," she said.

Doctors told the couple not to expect Luke to regain the use of his limbs, that he likely would be bedridden or in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Crystal said.

"Basically they gave us no hope," she said.

Luke ripped out his feeding tube on the way home from the hospital, she said.

"He just pulled it out," she said, adding they didn't have the tube reinserted and instead slowly weaned Luke from formula to pureed baby food.

He also disliked the hospital bed that the Baehnes had been told to set up in their home, Crystal said.

"He hated that bed," she said. "It gave him nightmares."

So she took her son out of the bed, put foam pads all over the floor with pillows surrounding the edges, placed him on his stomach on the mats and slept alongside him. Her reasoning was simple. Luke's brain and body had to relearn all the things he'd learned as a baby. And that couldn't happen tucked in a hospital bed, she said.

"When she said that's what she wanted to do, I thought she was a little on the nutty side," said Phil. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

But his wife's plan seemed to work for Luke. First he began lifting his head on his own. Next he began rocking from side to side. Then came rolling over. Followed by attempts to crawl.

"I'd go to sleep holding his hand," she said. "One morning he'd scooted all the way over by the door."

Finally, Luke was pulling himself up onto chairs and sofas, Phil added.

"Basically he learned in just a few weeks what an infant would learn in one year. Laying him down made all the difference," he said.

Weeks later, when Luke returned to Portland for advanced physical and cognitive therapy, the boy was able to stand and walk with assistance, Crystal said.

"The doctor who had cried saw Luke and ran and gave him a big hug," Phil said. "He said, 'Is that the same child?' "

The therapists, who were expecting Luke to be "a noodle," continued to help him progress. He re-learned how to walk backwards and go up steps, Crystal said.

"The staff at (Legacy) Emanuel there loved Luke," she said. "He kept stealing balloons from the nurses' station."

It's been two years since the accident. Their son is a healthy, active 8-year-old, Crystal said.

"He's just kept progressing," she said. "And I'm convinced it was getting him out of that hospital bed that made the difference."

Luke is now back at Jacksonville Elementary. There are new fences and precautions at the school. And Luke has a full-time, one-on-one attendant, Phil said.

The other day, Luke put a puzzle together by himself, his dad said. "That's hard to do," Phil said. "And he's starting to talk more. Of course, being autistic, he didn't talk that much before the accident. But he says hi, goodbye, me and mine."

Crystal doesn't know whether her on-the-floor therapy would work for Carlos, or whether it would even be medically appropriate. Regardless, she said, she would like his mother to know, from one mom to another, that there is hope for her son.

"My heart goes out to her. But she should not give up hope," Crystal said.

Carlos' mother, Jennifer Carter, said she appreciated the Baehnes' compassion and concerns. Carlos has made some small strides in the past few days, she added.

"He made noises like a baby would the other day," she said. "Before he was just crying. But this was more like a baby trying to talk."

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

Luke Baehne, who is referred to as the 'Miracle Boy,' is now physically active after recovering from an accident that occurred two years ago. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore