MANTECA — Mauricio "Mo" Alaniz can raise his head. He can make eye contact and swallow on his own.
It doesn't sound like much, unless you realize how close the former Turlock High basketball standout has been to death.
Mo was looking forward to playing for the Modesto Junior College basketball team 18 months ago and was on his way to school Nov. 28, 2007, when another car swerved into his path, resulting in a head-on collision on McHenry Avenue just north of Kiernan Avenue.
He suffered severe brain damage and was in a coma for months.
Mo, 21, now lives at the Manteca Care and Rehabilitation Center, and even the most minute improvement in his condition is cause for celebration for his family.
"There has been significant progress," said physical therapist Bon Estrella. "He's able to keep his head up. He wasn't able to do that in February. He's even opening his eyes, which was so hard for him."
Angie Alaniz, Mo's mother, lives for such moments.
Every day brings the potential of a "first" — giving a thumbs-up sign, moving his feet on command, voicing the word "Mom."
"I wasn't here when he did it, so I told him it doesn't count," Angie said, playfully rubbing her son's head. "We took him to a family barbecue (May 16) and as soon as he was there, he lifted his arm up. He had never done that."
She attributes the improvement to the hyperbaric oxygen treatment that Mo has been receiving since March. She believes, as do many others, that the pure oxygen pumped into his system helps regenerate cells and repair damaged tissue. Still, it is considered an experimental therapy for brain injuries and is not covered by insurance.
Mo is shuttled to his oxygen treatments at the Manteca office of Dr. Melford Larson each morning, where he sits in a podlike apparatus for up to 50 minutes. The mask he wears to receive a concentrated dose of purified oxygen is usually dry after each session, rather than full of saliva, illustrating his ability to swallow.
His caregivers have kept him from developing any pressure points or skin irritations that could hinder his treatment. That treatment is expected to go on for a very long time. Brain injuries have no timetable for healing, and many do not.
'Baby steps' on a long road
But his family refuses to give up hope. And neither have his caregivers.
"For him, it's going to be a long process," said Jeanette Elwood, the business manager at Manteca Care Center. "Baby steps."
Mo's youth and fitness have been positives, Estrella said. "With someone in his condition, we'd expect a lot of complications. We have avoided that. This is really a team effort."
A bumper sticker cut to read "I (heart) Mo" is stuck on a frame bar and his favorite Bible passage, Hebrews 10:39, is stitched into the back of the seat.
"But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul."
Family members from Turlock visit every day, talking to Mo and rubbing his hands and feet. His stepfather and uncles help lift him into vehicles and the hyperbaric oxygen pod.
Angie Alaniz said they often watch the highlight video from Turlock High's 2005-06 Central California Conference championship season.
Mo held eye contact with cousin Quimi Alaniz as she sang his favorite song, "Mighty to Save," with tears in her eyes at Big Valley Christian Church on May 18. Quimi is a professional Christian singer, and Mo is her biggest fan.
Mo was able to see his cousin perform thanks to Escalon's Sharon Larkin, an occupational therapist at the Manteca Care and Rehabilitation Center. She let the family borrow the van she used to transport her son. Michael Larkin was debilitated by a brain tumor in 2006 when he was 17.
"She looks at Mo all the time and says, 'That's how my son was,' " Angie Alaniz said. Sharon Larkin gives the Alaniz family hope; she said her son can talk, move with a walker and go out with friends.
Mo gets physical, occupational, respiratory and speech therapy five days a week. He has a specialized wheelchair that tilts easily and is outfitted with a cushioned halo to hold his head up.
The Alaniz family has been an inspiration for the medical staff. Elwood is one of many helping with the dinner fund-raiser.
"We fell in love with Angie," Elwood said. "She wanted to do something, but she's working and she has two other kids and she's with Mo so much. She didn't know where to start."
Bee staff writer Kelly Jones can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.