NEW ORLEANS (AP) " In the days and weeks after Gilbert "Manny" Ceaser woke in a hospital unable to move, his body paralyzed from the neck down by gunfire from another man's violent rampage through New Orleans, Ceaser did something that surprised his loved ones: he forgave the shooter.
Nearly two months after the shooting, Ceaser did something that surprised medical staff: he started to take a breath on his own.
Defying doctors' expectations, Ceaser is learning to breathe on his own again, according to his family and his girlfriend.
The 24-year-old father and restaurant cook was deemed quadriplegic and unable to breathe after being shot in the face April 22, one of a half dozen people wounded by suspected gunman Charles Williams. Authorities say Williams, 25, committed a series of carjackings and shootings stretching from St. Roch to Mid-City. He faces almost 40 felony charges, including the attempted murder of Ceaser.
Williams is accused of shooting Ceaser when their paths happened to cross at North Claiborne Avenue and Kerlerec Street. Ceaser's girlfriend, Carla Allen, was driving and Ceaser's 1-year-old daughter, Kennedi, was in the backseat of the car, along with a good friend of Ceaser's, when the shooting occurred.
The bullet struck Ceaser's jaw and tore through his throat, lodging on the right side of his neck, Allen said. The gunfire fractured Ceaser's jaw, tore ligaments, damaged two vertebrae and severed nerves and carotid and vertebral arteries, damaging areas that control breathing and movement, she said.
Doctors expect him to remain paralyzed below the neck for the rest of his life, Allen said.
As of early last month, medical staff also expected him to permanently require a ventilator, according to Allen and Ceaser's cousin, Domonique Lemieux.
"Initially we were told there was no help for him, that he would be in a nursing home," Lemieux said on a Monday night.
However, Ceaser's condition has already improved beyond medical workers' expectations, said Allen and Lemieux. On June 10, he began "initiating" breaths on his own, Lemieux said, as opposed to having his breaths completely controlled by a ventilator. In other words, he can begin to take a breath but requires a ventilator's help to take a complete breath.
Lemieux said the family, which holds to a strong religious tradition, had spent a period fasting just before Ceaser initiated his first breath. When Ceaser's respiratory therapist saw he could draw in air, she began trembling with awe, Lemieux said.
Ceaser's loved ones recently received more good news -- a local rehabilitation center would accept Ceaser, even though medical staff had warned the family they would likely have to go out of state to find a rehab center that takes patients reliant on ventilators.
Ceaser was able to move to a rehab center on the West Bank that specializes in weaning patients from ventilators, Allen said. The center also focuses on wound care, which will also be beneficial for Ceaser, she said.
The rehab center projects a six-week period for teaching Ceaser to again breathe on his own, but that timeframe could change, Allen said.
"You just never know what he's going to do," she said.
Allen and Lemieux said Ceaser has also made progress in other ways: his reflexes are coming back, he can drink liquids instead of sucking them from a sponge, and he is better able to control his neck movements. His voice still has not truly returned, as a trach remains in his throat, but he can communicate in a whisper, Allen said.
He can swallow soft foods, another feat he was not expected to accomplish, Lemieux said.
"The prognosis was very dismal," she said. "He's definitely improving beyond their prognosis."
Family is not sure what will be next for Ceaser after his time at the rehab center, she said.
"We're unsure where he's going from here," Lemieux said.
However, his loved ones do know that he is determined to triumph, Lemieux said.
"He remains in good spirits, he remains hopeful," she said.
He is still drawing encouragement from prayer and gospel music, Allen said, as he adjusts to his new environment at the rehab center.
"He won't give up," she said. "My hope hasn't subsided one bit."
Ceaser's coworkers at The Ruby Slipper Cafe have also shown a lot of support, visiting him in the hospital and donating money to help with costs related to the shooting, Allen said. A kitchen manager sat with the family during Ceaser's first night at the hospital and has been checking in with Ceaser since.
"His coworkers were really shocked and devastated to hear about it (the shooting)," said Jennifer Weishaupt, founder and CEO of The Ruby Slipper restaurants. "He was a great employee."
The company is holding a fundraiser Wednesday for Ceaser at all five New Orleans area restaurants, donating 10 percent of total sales to his care.The fundraiser is dine-in only. For restaurant hours and locations, click here.
Along with buying meals, customers can make stand-alone donations that will go straight to the family, Weishaupt said.
When hearing of the fundraiser, Ceaser "was really touched that they are going out of their way," Allen said.
In addition, the Ruby Slipper is encouraging employees at all nine restaurants to donate to Ceaser during the next four weeks, with Weishaupt and her husband committed to matching employee donations.
Those who cannot make it to the Ruby Slipper can still help by donating to Ceaser's GoFundMe page.
Weishaupt said she hopes the event draws attention to the scourge of gun violence and that customers' familiarity with the Ruby Slipper will help people feel a connection to Ceaser-- to someone hit by random tragedy.
"We've become desensitized to gun violence," she said, adding that she fears people will try to distance themselves from what happened to Ceaser. "A lot of times people like to compartmentalize and be like I would never be in that situation."
"He was on Claiborne Avenue," she said. "It could've been any one of us."
'A living miracle:' Young father survives shooting rampage
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com