Doctors treating Rene Betancourt at Jackson Memorial Hospital said Monday the 22-year-old could have been killed by the serious injuries he took in a savage beating Friday night in downtown Miami.
But after two major brain surgeries on Saturday, including one in which doctors inserted a titanium plate in his fractured skull, the doctors said it looks like Betancourt will survive — although it is too early to say what impact the injuries ultimately will have on him.
Dr. Ricardo Komotar, a neurosurgeon, performed emergency surgery Saturday to remove a blood clot in Betancourt’s brain. Betancourt was admitted to the Ryder Trauma Center several hours after an attack that police are still investigating.
“He was very close,” said Leo Harris, a physician’s assistant for the neurosurgery team. “This type of blood accumulation in the brain can be very sudden.”
Miami police spokesperson Kenia Reyes said Monday the beating was the result of an apparent robbery that could have involved as many as three people. Betancourt’s family, however, said they checked with his bank Monday morning and his accounts had not been touched. If robbery were the motive, Betancourt had only about $20 cash on him, said Betancourt’s mother, Rosie.
In addition to his head trauma, which doctors said was inflicted by a blunt object, Betancourt’s nose was broken, several of his teeth were knocked out and his left eye was injured.
Betancourt spoke to his family on Monday but could not recall what happened Friday night, his sister Daniela said. The family released photos of Betancourt taken Sunday and Monday.
His family knows him as a “free spirit” with a love for adventure and skateboarding. Friday night, he set out to find a skateboarding group that he discovered through YouTube. About 11 p.m., he parked his sister’s Fiat 500 in a city lot near the Pollo Tropical restaurant at 320 SE First St., according to family members who found a parking stub in his car the next day.
What happened next is unclear. About 2 a.m. Saturday, Betancourt made five phone calls seeking help from his best friend and his younger sister, which went unanswered. The next day, Betancourt’s parents contacted police after their son hadn’t come home. Police got in touch with Betancourt about 9 a.m. Police said Betancourt didn’t plead for help, and he told the officer to tell his parents he had slept over at his aunt’s house.
Betancourt’s mother and father didn’t buy the story. They called their son again.
“We heard the distress in his voice and put two and two together,” said Rene Betancourt. “I think he didn’t want to worry us.”
When Betancourt told his mother he was parked near Jackson Memorial, his parents rushed to find him. About 11 a.m., they saw Betancourt slumped in the driver’s seat, bleeding and barely recognizable.
“We were horrified, but we immediately took action,” his mother said. They drove their son to the Ryder Trauma Center, where emergency room doctors got him on an IV and performed a brain scan, which detected the blood clot. The neurosurgery team removed the clot, then performed a second operation to insert the titanium plate in Betancourt’s skull to prevent his brain from being exposed.
The clot in his brain was the same type of damage that caused the death of actress Natasha Richardson in 2009 after a skiing accident. Pressure in the brain from head trauma can build up almost undetected because a person can still walk and talk, said Dr. Nicholas Namias. He said timing is crucial because the brain swells and pressure builds, causing clots and potentially deadly damage.
“Before trauma centers existed, people used to think people that had head trauma were just drunk,” said Namias. “Then, it’s too late.”
Betancourt, who graduated from Westwood Christian School in Kendall Lakes, had just come back from Spain. He also had studied in China for four years, learning Mandarin, his mother said.
His independent steak held up even after his attack.
“When we got out of the car I was helping him get to the door, and he told me, ‘I can walk,’ ” said his father, Rene.
Doctors will keep Betancourt under a close watch for the next few weeks, said Komotar, an assistant professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“It’s still early, but we’re expecting him to recover.”