Eduardo Loredo leans against the wall of the cardiology clinic at Children's Mercy Hospital. Slouched like a kid at his locker, with a blue backpack slung over his left shoulder, the 14-year-old wears the look of casual indifference that matches his wardrobe: baggy Dickies' pants low on his hips, an oversized Ecko hoodie that blares its brand in black lettering across the front.
Eduardo stares past twin boys playing with magnets that cause tiny wooden cars to glide across a tabletop. He doesn't flinch when another young boy's excited laughter collapses into a rattling wheeze. He's twice as tall as the other patients here, but he blends into an otherwise Disney-tinged setting.
His face has the same gray pallor as that of the young twins. His eyes are ringed with dark shadows. He blinks slowly through a deep fatigue that resists the bright room.
The 14-year-old is dying. Slowly.
His heart beats with the assistance of that backpack. Instead of books, it's fitted with a small IV machine that pumps medicine through an orange-and-green valve that dangles, day and night, from the inner crook of his left elbow.
The plastic tubing grazes the shoulder of Eduardo's mother, Karina Loredo, as he slumps on the arm of her chair. The two seem to move as one entity, rarely breaking physical contact. When Eduardo sniffles, Loredo sniffles back. Eduardo taps her shoe with his foot; Loredo playfully stomps back. They lean into each other like a pair who share more than the typically strained bonds of a teenage boy and a single mother.
The two have grown closer over the past several months, Loredo says. This past summer, Eduardo was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition that kept him in bed at Children's Mercy for three months. Loredo had to explain to her son that his heart will keep him alive only until he's 17 — if he's lucky.
When they're called to the nurses' station, Eduardo shrugs off the Ecko hoodie and extends his arm for the blood-pressure cuff. The reading is low but not cause for concern. Still, in the three steps between the chair and the scale, Eduardo lets out a shallow, dry cough.
"Do you need to spit?" the nurse asks, digging into a cabinet and pulling out a yellow-plastic container.
Eduardo takes the tray limply and spits once, and then his slender frame heaves forward. The nurse lunges for the trash can, and the teenager vomits. Loredo's eyes fill with tears, and she releases one hand from a blue binder of hospital documents so she can lightly touch her son's back. For 20 seconds, the room is paralyzed with the hiccuping of Eduardo's rasps.
He pulls away from sympathy, looking down and answering in quick, single syllables when the nurse asks if he's OK. He scoops up the bag and is the first one down the hall to the exam room.
Then he waits. And waits. When he finishes a bottle of water, he taps texts into his cell phone. He studies his silver bracelet with an eye instrument. He rips open alcohol swabs and delicately touches the injection point in his arm. "We haven't forgotten about you," a nurse chirps as she passes the doorway. "The interpreters are slow!"
More than an hour later, Dr. Catherine Simon walks in with a weary-looking interpreter. The exam and consultation take less than 20 minutes. When mother and son return to the lobby, their reactions are mixed. Munching a Rice Krispie treat, Eduardo kung-fu-kicks at the elevator door, free at last. Loredo hugs the blue binder to her chest. She's confused.