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Set afire, teen now struggles for survival

By Rich Phillips, CNN
"Eventually he will be whole again," his parents said of Michael Brewer, seen at 13.
"Eventually he will be whole again," his parents said of Michael Brewer, seen at 13.
  • Police say teens doused Michael Brewer, 15, with rubbing alcohol and set him ablaze
  • Attack came after Brewer reported that one boy had stolen his father's bicycle
  • 65 percent of Brewer's body is covered in second-, third-degree burns
  • Teen suspects appeared before judges Monday in Florida

Miami, Florida (CNN) -- He lies in a bed on a balloon-type mattress, to reduce pressure on his burned body. He is covered with bandages; a ventilator breathes for Michael Brewer because he can't do it for himself.

He's hooked up to the marvels of modern medicine that are trying to give the 15-year-old burn victim a chance to be a kid once again.

Sixty-five percent of his body is covered with second- and third-degree burns.

"People are writing horror stories ... but people just can't imagine the kind of sickness we're talking about," said Dr. Nicholas Namias, medical director of the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital Burn Center in Miami.

Video: Burned boy expected to survive
  • Burns
  • Miami

"I've been to movies like everyone else, and Hollywood hasn't even thought of something like this," Namias said.

Brewer is heavily sedated, and the ventilator does not allow him to speak. His open wounds are covered by bandages, which are changed daily. It's a four-hour process.

He has not been able to speak with police since his desperate fight for life began October 12, when police say five teenage friends, including a 13-year-old, doused Brewer with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire.

The attack occurred after Brewer reported to police that one of the youths had stolen his father's bicycle. Police say the bicycle was stolen because Brewer did not pay one of the boys $40 for a video game.

According to police, witnesses said the teens called Brewer "a snitch" as they used a lighter to set him ablaze.

Namias explained how Brewer's organs are not functioning the way they should be, but that is expected at this early stage of recovery.

"He's still on the ventilator and advanced modes of mechanical ventilation. We are breathing for him. His contribution to the breathing is trivial," Namias said.

Namias also explained that in burn cases, words must be chosen carefully when talking about patients and their condition because so much is at risk and so much can change quickly.

"When you say he's doing OK, in this situation it means he's alive and responding to treatments," Namias said. "We're still dealing with the respiratory failure. We're dealing with infection now and the need to supply the massive amount of nutrition that this person needs to survive."

On Monday, the five teens who are accused of taking part in the attack appeared separately before judges in Broward County, Florida.

State prosecutors were granted additional time to build their case. Formal charges are expected later this month. For now, all five teens are being held in custody.

Four of the boys, all 15 years old, could be charged as adults. The 13-year-old also could be charged as an adult but under Florida law only if Brewer dies.

Michael Brewer's parents, Valerie and Michael Brewer Sr., issued a written statement through the hospital last week. They are not granting interviews.

"The recovery process will be baby steps, but eventually he will be whole again," they wrote.

But their son's injuries enter the realm of medicine and science that has no guarantee.

"There's no evolutionary mechanism to survive a 65 percent burn," Namias said.

"Surviving is a miracle of modern medicine and about the technology and the things we do. This is not like a gunshot and you come out of the [operating room], and say everything's going to be OK," he added.

"We never give up, and we never predict it. ... Our expectation is survival."

Across the hospital floor in the burn unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital, six other people's lives also are at stake: all victims of various accidents, all with burns similar to Michael Brewer's. They, too, are trying to regain at least a part of what they used to have.

"It's understandable that people can be burned in accidents," Namias said.

"But this was no accident. This didn't have to happen at all."