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Roberto sat dully in the waiting room. Fidel, Daniel and Tito played nearby. They looked up occasionally, eyes full of questions. But he couldn't rouse himself to respond.

MOM AND SON TIME: Ana teases Fidel in between adjustments to her new legs. Fidel and Daniel like accompanying Ana to the prosthetic clinic and sometimes pass the time swinging her legs about, testing the weight and feel of them in their small palms.

He felt someone sit next to him. It was Richard Chavez, the Anaheim firefighter who had translated for Roberto and Ana the night before. The firefighters and hospital staff had launched a fund drive for the family.

Their generosity was almost Roberto's undoing. Voice breaking, he told Chavez what the doctor's had said moments before: The disease is spreading. We must take the other leg. Ana may die.

They called it streptococcus necrotizing fasciitis. It meant "flesh-eating bacteria." They explained it was a virulent offshoot of a common germ. A bacteria that attacks healthy muscle and fat within hours, forcing blood pressure to drop so low that blood can't enter the kidneys, liver or lungs.

But they could not say why. And they could not explain why it had attacked Ana. They assured him it was not his fault, but confusion and guilt tore at him.

So did his first unguarded tears. Later, when Dr. Brownell broke news of a second surgery to Ana, Roberto held her tight.

She crumpled. Unable to speak with the tube in her mouth, Ana's eyes mirrored her fears: "How will I care for my children? How will I help my husband?"

"All will be well, Ana," Roberto soothed her. "And when it's over, I will take you home."

During the flurry to ready Ana for surgery, Roberto worked with Mindy Halpern, the hospital's social services coordinator, to obtain an emergency visa for Ana's mother in Mexico. He was determined that mother and daughter see each other one last time, should something go wrong.

Then, he and his sons settled in for an agonizing wait, while Brownell and his team cut into Ana's right leg. It had been less than 12 hours since the first surgery. Already, more muscle and veins had been destroyed.

The trick to saving a patient suffering from flesh-eating bacteria is to stay a razor's edge ahead of the creeping disease. With each incision, a surgeon knows he is altering a life. The challenge is to take enough flesh to rescue the body, and leave enough to preserve the soul.

Ana's fragile immune system continued to battle the enemy within, aided by powerful antibiotics pumped continuously into her body.

Seeing her lie so still afterward, Roberto wondered if Ana could feel the commotion about her. Did she know nurse Wilson stayed hours at her bedside to keep her conscious? Did she know the ICU staff voted to suspended the rules and let her boys see her -- wearing hospital gowns and masks snipped in half to fit their tiny bodies?

And did she know he rarely left her side, sleeping on the cold linoleum despite his injured shoulder? His heart told him she did.

Finally, 72 hours after treatment began, the disease surrendered. The deadly welts stopped sprouting. Ana's blood pressure rose. Her circulation increased.

The lethal bacteria had been stopped at the pelvic bone on her left side. Her right leg ended above the knee. And her right middle finger was gone.

The day her mother arrived, Ana began breathing on her own. A little miracle, Josephina Mendoza would say later. After all, had she not prayed on the bus all the way from Guanajuato, Mexico?

One month and eight surgeries after Ana first arrived at Anaheim Memorial, the family left the hospital amid the cheers and well-wishes of its staff.

But Ana's recovery was far from over.

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