An oxygen mask covers his mouth and nose, and his breaths are short and rapid. A pillow supports his frail body. Taped along the foot of his hospital bed are the letters "DNR," meaning do not resuscitate.

Every hour, a different volunteer stays with him, stroking his face and talking softly to him, as part of the hospital's No One Dies Alone program.

For months, Luis has been comforted by strangers. His mother, Guadalupe Carranza, illegally secreted him into the country in hopes of medical salvation from cancer. But after she found helpful health care and social services in this West Texas town, she was deported to Mexico.

She struggled to return to her son before it was too late, separated by hundreds of miles, a border and strict U.S. immigration laws. She entrusted his care to doctors, nurses, social workers and attorneys, who also worked to find a legal way to unite the mother and son.

A year and a half ago, the scene was so different. Luis hopped onto a snazzy bicycle, modeled after a motorcycle, beaming as he pedaled around the cancer ward at University Medical Center on the campus of Texas Tech University.

The bike, his first, was a seventh birthday gift from a hospital charity in March 2005, just days before Luis was set to begin months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

"They looked at this little boy and wanted to provide him with the comfort and care he needed ... No one looked at immigration status," said Greg Bruce, vice president of corporate services for the university's health system.

Doctors in Luis' hometown of Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, diagnosed him with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The serious but treatable cancer attacks white blood cells, bone marrow, the spleen and occasionally the central nervous system of young children.

As Luis became more ill, his mother decided to slip across the border to seek better medical care. She was turned away from a hospital in El Paso because she lacked medical insurance. Then someone told her that the university hospital in Lubbock might treat Luis, so they boarded a bus and made the 10-hour trip.

For seven months, Guadalupe and Luis traveled by bus between the border and Lubbock for his treatments, which he needed about every two weeks to improve his chances of survival. Hospital charity workers arranged for free bus tickets.

Sometimes the 39-year-old single mother brought her two other children, Lourdes, 6, and Tony, 10, and the family stayed at a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital. Other times, Luis' siblings stayed in El Paso, where their grandparents live.

Carranza feared deportation each time she and her son boarded the bus. But when hospital charity workers offered to help her obtain documents that would allow her to visit the Unites States legally, she never submitted the paperwork because she didn't trust the system.

As the months passed, Carranza missed a couple of appointments by a few days. Last September, she arrived at the hospital 10 days late. The tardiness prompted someone at the hospital to call Child Protective Services to report medical neglect.

Neal Burt, an assistant district attorney who handles CPS cases in Lubbock, said Luis' situation was not the typical neglect case, since his mother was doing the best she could to help him.

"She had a horrible set of circumstances to deal with," Burt said. "You can certainly understand the difficulty this single mother had in addressing these issues." The whereabouts of the children's father is unknown, he said.

In October, Judge Kevin Hart removed Luis, Lourdes and Tony from Carranza's custody and placed them in foster care, but made the rare exception of allowing her to share custody.

Hart called it one of the toughest decisions he's ever made in his six years of handling CPS cases, but he said he thought keeping the children in Lubbock would ensure Luis got treatment and provide stability to his brother and sister.

"Essentially, she was homeless with three children," Hart said. "I had no doubts at all about her level of concern of the children's welfare ..."

Luis was separated from his brother and sister to live in a foster home for children with medical needs; all three children adapted well, CPS supervisor Debbie Perkins-McCall said.

Carranza left Lubbock to arrange for Lourdes and Tony to stay with their grandparents in El Paso. About two weeks later, she failed to return for a court hearing. Sometime around mid-October, Hart said, immigration authorities in El Paso discovered her.

Luis had good days and bad days during his treatment, social worker Bliss Williams said. Sometimes she put Luis on her back and took him for piggyback rides to raise his spirits, or she would talk to him softly to soothe him.

At Christmas, caseworkers helped Luis get gifts for his sister and brother so they'd have "something to remember him by," Perkins-McCall said. Lourdes got a bracelet with a charm on it that read, "Love, Luis." Tony got a dog-tag necklace with Luis' name on it.

Progress came slowly, and within months Luis' leukemia was in remission. He was in good spirits, court documents show. Doctors were optimistic.

Chemotherapy via his spine and radiation ravaged his central nervous system, and the boy, his immune system suppressed, suffered "terminal and irreversible" brain damage, Dr. Melanie Oblender, one of Luis' doctors, wrote in court documents.

The boy lapsed into a vegetative state, and his doctors, concluding he had little chance of recovery, insisted on a do-not-resuscitate order. A lawyer appointed on his behalf, Elizabeth J. McRae-Juarez, agreed that what was best was to minimize suffering.

After Hart signed the DNR order in February, Luis continued to suffer seizures and apnea, brief pauses in breathing, and was placed in hospice care - though he returned to the hospital April 21 with pneumonia.

Luis' siblings and grandparents came from El Paso and stayed a couple of days, but work obligations prevented them from staying longer, said Guadalupe's court-appointed attorney, Lina Reyes-Trevino.

Attorneys for the children and the mother, CPS, and even Hart, continued to work to bring Carranza across the border. They contacted U.S. border officials, Mexican authorities and even members of Congress.

The office of U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer learned about the case in a late February call from The Associated Press, and U.S. Sen. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's office a few weeks later. Spokespeople for both said confidentiality rules prevented them from commenting on what they did on behalf of the mother and her dying child.

Roger Maier, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, said his agency was first contacted by Hutchison's office April 28. The agency told Hutchison's office to get in touch with Guadalupe and tell her to come to a border port, Maier said.

A relative from New Mexico went to a border crossing at El Paso with a cell phone so Carranza could talk with the Mexican consulate and with McRae-Juarez and Reyes-Trevino. After a series of calls and faxes to border and consulate officials, she was granted humanitarian parole visa and legally crossed into the Unites States on May 8. The visa allows her to stay for 60 days, but border officials agreed to let her stay beyond that so she can be with her son until he dies.

"When it comes to health care, there's more than medicine," said Dr. David Smith, a pediatrician and former chancellor at Texas Tech who provided verification to border authorities to get Carranza into the United States. "You think sometimes they really do know. And I think that's important for all of us to believe."

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