Freeport resident Tracy Hermer’s 17-year-old son, nonverbal and diagnosed with autism, was increasingly difficult to control.
When he started banging his head against walls and injuring himself, she brought him to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.
Then something happened that the hospital's chairman described as “miraculous": The teenager, Michael DeLuca, slowly began to emerge from his shell and improve.
Eventually, he was smiling, making eye contact and playing board games and sports with staff members. The dangerous behavior was largely gone.
“I think this is nothing short of a miracle,” said George Tsunis, chairman of the hospital's board of directors.
On Monday, NUMC officials honored Michael Rayson, a patient care assistant at the hospital they said was responsible for DeLuca’s turnaround. Tsunis said Rayson spent “thousands of hours, hundreds of sessions” working with the teenager.
Hermer said she was grateful and hopeful for her son.
“It was getting harder and harder” to handle Deluca “as his behaviors became more difficult to manage,” she said. “Now I feel like I have my son back.”
The hospital’s Employee of the Month honor took on added significance since April is National Autism Awareness month.
Rayson said he did not have a magic formula or a groundbreaking scientific method to help DeLuca. He simply remained patient and worked hard with the teenager.
“It takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort,” he said. “You be a brother, you be a friend, you be a helper.”
Within two or three weeks after DeLuca arrived in October, Rayson said, he saw a change.
“Right away he started to look more in the eye, started to smile, started to walk around, started to play ball, started to even go to the bathroom himself,” Rayson said.
He showed the teenager how to eat properly and take a shower, took walks with him, and played basketball and even football, he said.
DeLuca still did not speak, but was able to understand sign language, Rayson said.
Hermer said she considers the hospital staff family because of their treatment of her son.
"They understood him. They treated him with such respect and joy and love and Michael responded to it," Hermer said. "He felt comfortable here.”
She said her son had his favorites "and [Rayson] was definitely on the top of that list.”
The hospital also did a “complete overhaul” with her son’s medications, which helped, she said.
“Once the medication started to work, he became comfortable and opening up and becoming joyful and looking forward to seeing the staff,” she said.
Rayson said DeLuca was not the first nonverbal patient with autism he'd worked with at the hospital in his decade there. Some of them also made significant strides, Rayson said.
DeLuca left the hospital a few weeks ago. He was lucky enough to land a spot in a facility on Long Island specifically for children with autism and "is making great progress," his mother said. "He's thriving."
“I love him” she added. “He is my world.”