The family of a 15-year-old Florida boy who was nearly killed when allegedly set on fire by classmates have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, as does the severely burned boy, Michael Brewer. Though he still faces a long hospital stay with multiple surgeries and painful physical therapy, Michael’s doctors say he will survive.
“My son’s courage is incredible, and it helps me to be strong,” the boy’s mother, Valerie Brewer, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. “He still has a very long way to go, but he’s very determined to make it through this and to come home and move on with his life.”
Brewer was allegedly doused with rubbing alcohol and set on fire by a group of five other boys he knew well on Oct. 12 in a dispute over a video game and a stolen bike. The horrific crime galvanized attention on casual teen violence and has led to a worldwide outpouring of support for Michael, who is scheduled for skin graft surgery on Monday.
‘Long way to go’
When Michael first arrived at the hospital, doctors weren’t sure he’d survive. But burn specialist Dr. Nicholas Namias, who joined Michael parents on TODAY, told Vieira that now it’s not about surviving, but healing.
“There’s still a long way to go where he’s doing the hard work now,” Namias said of Michael. “In the beginning, we were doing the hard work. Now, he’s doing the hard work during therapy every day and during the dressing changes.”
Michael’s burns are mostly on his back, from neck to ankles. Pictures released by his family show light bandages on his ears, but no burns on his face. He has only recently been able to speak, and gave a statement to police that investigators are not releasing.
Watching Michael’s battle has inspired his mother.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions: fear, shared enlightenment when he spoke to us for the first time and started coming out of his sedation and he could talk a little bit,” Valerie Brewer said. “Seeing him struggle through physical therapy — the bath he has to take on a daily basis is excruciatingly painful.”
Roots of dispute
Michael’s ordeal began when 15-year-old Matthew Bent gave him a video game and expected him to pay $40 for it, according to the Broward County Sheriff. Michael never paid for the game, so Bent tried to steal a $500 custom bike that belonged to Brewer's father, police said.
Bent and four others ran into him there, and three — Bent, Denver Jarvis, 15, and Jesus Mendez, 16 — are charged as adults with one count of attempted murder in the second degree in the attack. Two other boys are not charged.
After Michael was set ablaze, a neighbor heard the teen’s screams for help and put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. The teen ripped off his shirt and jumped into a swimming pool, but he was still burned over 65 percent of his body.
One of the boys originally charged is 13-year-old Jeremy Jarvis, Denver’s brother. On Tuesday, after the charges against him were dropped, Jeremy read an apology to Michael to the media: “I want to express my deepest sympathy to Mikey and his family. I will pray for Mikey to grow stronger every day, and for Mikey's speedy recovery.”
Afterward, with a lawyer present, Jeremy said he felt he needed to apologize, “’cause Michael was really one of my best friends, but then all this happened.”
But Valerie Brewer told Vieira that she paid no attention to Jeremy’s apology. “We don’t focus on any of that. We focus strictly on Michael’s recovery. To me that is negative energy, and we try to stay away from negative energy at all costs,” she explained.
Brewer added that she, her husband, Michael, Sr., and her son are paying attention not to what happened, but to what remains to be done.
“We’re focusing on helping him physically right now. When the emotional part comes in, we will help him with that, too. The physical struggles that he has on a daily basis — it hurts him just to take a drink of water. It sometimes brings tears to his eyes, it hurts so bad.”
And yet, the Brewers are grateful to all the people around the world who have sent messages of support and donated money to help defray their burgeoning medical expenses. Speaking on the day before Thanksgiving, Valerie Brewer asked that people take the spirit they’ve showed her family and spread it on Thanksgiving in their communities.
“I would like everybody to look into their hearts and truly find what they are thankful for,” she told Vieira. “It’s a hard time for everybody right now. Go out in the community and share that gratitude that you’ve been sharing with us and share it with everybody else.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.