When Andra Munoz watches her 11-year-old nephew, Joey Slaight, run and play with her four children in the backyard of her Oklahoma home, she is amazed.
“We never thought Joey would be able to interact with people at all, much less be out there playing like any other kid,” Munoz, Joey’s paternal aunt, tells PEOPLE. “It’s almost inconceivable.”
On Jan. 2, 2015, Joey’s mother, 27-year-old Morgan Slaight, a recovering methamphetamine addict and schizophrenic, shot him point-blank in the head before fatally shooting his 6-year-old brother, Jaxon, and then turning the gun on herself.
Joey’s initial prognosis was dismal, with a CT scan showing a .22-caliber bullet lodged deep behind his left eye. “There was no question that he was going to die,” says Munoz, who now calls him a “miracle.”
Not only did Joey survive — he exceeded every expectation during a challenging three-year recovery which saw him relearn how to talk and undergo physical and speech therapy.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Munoz and her family, as well as Joey’s caregivers throughout his rehab, open up in-depth about his tireless fight to reclaim his life and overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles he faced before returning home on March 31.
“Now Joey is going to have a life of miracles and a story of hope,” says Munoz, his legal guardian, who updates his milestones on the Facebook page Joey Strong.
“He never quit,” says Joey’s grandmother Randa Slaight, a retired first-grade teacher who lights up whenever he is around and who is teaching him to read.
• For more on Joey’s life at home and his journey to recovery, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
A key moment came not long after Joey was helicoptered to the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, when neurosurgeon Dr. Joshua Medow decided to take a chance on surgery.
After cutting a flap in Joey’s skull to relieve the intense pressure from his swollen brain, Medow removed all the bullet fragments he could and put Joey into a medically induced coma.
Ten days later, Joey reached for a nurse’s hand.
“The whole family has been restored through Joey’s journey,” Munoz says. His father, Tyler Slaight, a recovering addict, says he was inspired by his son and is now three years clean.
To defray the costs of his outpatient care, Joey’s family has set up the online fundraiser Joey Slaight’s going home fund.
Even in moments of doubt, the family’s strong faith kept them going.
Randa says, “My mantra was, ‘God saved him for a reason.’ ”