Joey Slaight came close to dying when his mother, a recovering methamphetamine addict and schizophrenic, shot him point-blank in the head on Jan. 2, 2015, before shooting his little brother and then herself just a day after she had been released from a psychiatric hospital.
Joey’s brother, 6-year-old Jaxon, was killed immediately. Their mother, Morgan Slaight, 27, succumbed to her wounds 11 days later.
But Joey, now 11, survived.
The boy who spent the last three years in two different hospitals and in a pediatric brain rehabilitation center, learning to walk, talk and even eat again, finally came home to Oklahoma on March 31.
Now he lives with his paternal aunt, Andra Munoz, her husband, Jason, and her four children: Max, 15, Brooks, 12 and 4-year-old twins Champ and Tripp.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Joey’s relatives and caregivers open up in-depth about his tireless recovery.
“From day one, we saw miracles,” says Munoz, Joey’s legal guardian, who updates his milestones on the Facebook page Joey Strong. “He kept getting better and better, and doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t understand why this is happening.’ ”
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Despite the challenges Joey has overcome, no one knows how much he remembers about the horrors of that fateful morning in 2015. His doctors asked his family to avoid talking about the shooting and let Joey bring it up when he is ready.
Still, the trauma and monumental loss he suffered seem to be simmering in his subconscious: One of his first words was “gun,” as well as “almost died,” Munoz says.
Joey hasn’t yet mentioned Morgan or Jaxon by name during his waking hours, she says. But one night when her mother, Joey’s grandmother Randa Slaight, was staying in the room with him at Oklahoma’s The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital, where he spent four months in 2015 after he was released from the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, “she heard him whimpering and calling out for his mom.”
Munoz he says Joey has only said Jaxon’s name once, when he was under anesthesia. The two did practically everything together, with Joey often looking after his younger brother.
“They were very close,” she says.
“He’s been saying ‘my brother’ since he’s been home with us,” Munoz says — and he often tells her he plays outside with “a little boy. But there is no little boy there.”
Coming to terms with what he does remember from the day his whole world collapsed is “one of the unknown areas for our family,” Munoz says. She remains hopeful that he will work through it in time, as he has faced many other seemingly insurmountable obstacles so far.
“There’s no limit on what he can accomplish,” she says.
Joey’s Home Life Now
His family is happy to say that Joey is doing things like any other kid. He plays Xbox, eats dinner with his family and cuddles up with his aunt to hear his favorite bedtime stories.
Just weeks ago, they went on a weekend trip given to them by Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine, Texas.
“I never thought we would ever be able to bring him to a water park to bring him to play,” Munoz tells PEOPLE. “It’s all just amazing.”
To defray the costs of his outpatient care, Joey’s family has set up the online fundraiser Joey Slaight’s going home fund.
While he received high-quality care, part of why he did so well has nothing to do with medicine, says Becky Mitchum, his Joey’s speech language pathologist at NeuroRestorative Timber Ridge in Arkansas, where he spent the last two years.
“A big part of his recovery is that Joey is loved,” she says.
Adds Randa, his grandmother: “Joey has all of us around him with love and he will always have us right with him.”
“Faith got us through this, and what keeps us going is the hope that Joey will keep doing better and better,” Munoz says. “We hope to help others with Joey’s story.”