By Susan Reed
Updated March 25, 1996 12:00 PM
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CYNTHIA BATES MENDAT WALKS into a sunlit bedroom of her family’s new beige-stucco home in Coral Springs, Fla. She leans over a hospital bed and runs her fingers through her son Justin’s wavy, blond hair. At her touch, Justin arches his neck, pushing toward her. Mendat takes his left fist and gently unfolds the fingers. “Everything about him has relaxed,” she says. “His feet are more relaxed. His complexion looks good, and his color is much better. The day he came home, he smiled all day.”

For Justin Bates, the homecoming was long and cruelly overdue. For 11 of his 12 years, he lived in Room 268 at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, dependent on a feeding tube, a tracheostomy and a brain shunt—the victim of a series of medical errors that left him severely brain-damaged. “All I ever asked was to have him home,” says Mendat. “I love him with all my heart, but I could never have given him the care he needed on my own.”

For more than a decade, Mendat, 30, fought for the wherewithal to give Justin that care. Her battle against Broward General, which admitted negligence in Justin’s treatment, seemed won in 1990, when a jury awarded mother and son $8.6 million. But the hospital refused to pay, claiming protection under a state law that limits the liability of government agencies to $200,000. Only the intervention of the Florida state legislature, which last June passed a special bill lifting the liability limit in Justin’s case, forced payment of the award, though it reduced the amount to $4.7 million. (Broward General has sued Mendat to recover $1.5 million of Justin’s hospital expenses.) “It was an enormous burden for Cindy to undertake,” says her lawyer Sheldon J. Schlesinger. “She has never wavered, never given up hope.”

The tragedy began on Jan. 14, 1985. Justin, an active, already-talkative toddler, awoke one morning listless and wheezing. “He’d take some orange juice,” recalls Mendat, then a 19-year-old single mother, “then lay back down. I knew something was wrong.”

Mendat rushed Justin to Broward General, where doctors diagnosed asthma. By the next day, a seemingly straightforward case had turned into a medical nightmare. According to Mendat, a hospital staffer mistakenly inserted a breathing tube into the baby’s stomach, instead of his lungs, and that left his brain deprived of critical oxygen. As Justin lay in a semicomatose state, the hospital, says Mendat, stonewalled. “They kept saying they didn’t know what was wrong. After three months I went to the hospital administrator and asked why my son wasn’t getting better. A doctor and nurse took me in a room and started telling me I was in denial and asked me why I wouldn’t admit Justin had brain damage. I was in shock.”

Five months later, Justin’s mother sued. As the case dragged on, she finally got a break, though not one she had anticipated. In May 1991 she began dating Matt Mendat, an electrician who was the single father of two, Matthew Jr., now 17, and Rowena, 16. Six months later the couple married, vowing to care for each other’s children regardless of circumstances. In May 1993 their daughter Alyssa was born.

The battle over Justin, meanwhile, had shifted from the courts to the legislature. After four years with no action taken, Rep. Ben Graber of Coral Springs, an obstetrician by profession, interceded. “I wanted to know if this was a fight over money or the boy,” says Graber, who went to see Justin in 1995. “He hears; he responds to music; he gets annoyed if you turn on the wrong station. I think he’d become a victim of a very cruel situation.”

On June 9 the Florida legislature agreed with Graber’s plea that Justin return home, and last November he was finally transported by ambulance to the Mendats’ new house, customized with ramps, a backup generator and closed-circuit television monitors. The first thing Cynthia Mendat did was to remove his hospital identification band. “We know your name here,” she told him.

With the help of six nurses working 12-hour shifts to monitor Justin and his equipment, including a feeding tube and a lung-clearing suction device, the Mendats are taking their new life step-by-step. Gradually they plan to increase his physical and speech therapy. “Now he’s laughing all the time,” says a delighted Mendat. “He’s taking to this home really well.” Alyssa, 2, has become Justin’s “best buddy,” she adds. “She crawls up in his bed, kisses his head nice and tells him she loves him.”

As Mendat sees it, that’s the contact Justin has been missing all these years. “We’re here now,” she says. “I can walk in his room and say hi whenever I want. This time next year, I bet he’s a whole different person.”

SUSAN REED

MEG GRANT in Coral Springs