Less than two days after being shot in the head, 4-year-old Quantae Maurice Johnson was sticking his tongue out at doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday and identifying all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the balloons floating above his bed.
The East Baltimore boy, called "Pookie" by his family, has no idea how close he came to being killed Saturday night when a gunfight erupted outside his grandmother's house in the 600 block of North Castle Street.
Move the bullet wound a half-inch to the left, and Quantae might be brain damaged, said Dr. David G. Nichols, director of the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit. Move the bullet wound two inches to the left, and Quantae might be dead.
Instead, the bright-eyed preschooler is giving high fives to visitors as he lies in a pint-sized hospital bed with a bullet still lodged under his scalp.
Doctors expect to move him out of the intensive care unit sometime today, and he could go home later this week.
"He's made a dramatic recovery from this wound," Dr. Nichols said.
The bullet, which remains lodged at the back of Quantae's head, could be removed later or simply left where it is.
"Right now, there are no plans to operate," the doctor said. "It's not doing any damage there."
The gunshot did cause some minor nerve damage, making it difficult for Quantae to move the left side of his face.
"We hope that's temporary," Dr. Nichols said. "It's really a miracle that's all he's been left with."
Quantae was standing in the dining room about 11:15 Saturday night when a group of teen-agers opened fire. Police say that their target was a 17-year-old who lived next door, with whom they had argued earlier in the day.
But one bullet flew through Diane Pittman's open living room window and hit Quantae in the right side of his forehead.
The bullet traveled through Quantae's brain without damaging any of the lobes that control speech or movement, Dr. Nichols said.
He was still conscious when he was brought to Hopkins, just two blocks from his grandmother's house.
His quick arrival at the hospital helped doctors keep him from slipping into a coma or suffering any loss of oxygen to the brain, Dr. Nichols said. They put him on a respirator and medication to prevent brain seizures.
They also watched him closely for swelling, which can cut off the brain's oxygen supply and cause permanent damage. But no swelling occurred.
Within a few hours, doctors removed Quan
tae's respirator and watched him bounce back along with his family.
His mother, 19-year-old Carmelita Allen, rushed to the hospital about a half-hour after the shooting. She was terrified when she was told that her only child had been shot in the head.
"I didn't know exactly what had happened," she told reporters yesterday. "A lot of things wentthrough my mind. Death for one thing."
Two other young children have already died on Baltimore's streets this summer -- the victims of bullets intended for someone else.
Tiffany Smith, 6, was shot in the head at 10:45 p.m. July 8 as she played on the sidewalk in front of a friend's house in West Baltimore. Shanika Day, 3, was killed Aug. 17 when two gunmen open fire on a crowded Walbrook Junction street corner at 11 p.m. A third child, 9-year-old Lakiya Bradford, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded July 23 as she walked with her 11-year-old sister to an East Baltimore snowball stand at 8 p.m.
Ms. Allen said that she can sleep tonight knowing that Quantae will recover from his bullet wound. But she feels angry and helpless when she thinks about how close she came to losing him.
"My son's 4 years old, and he's in there fighting for his life," she said. "He ain't even safe in his own home."
Before the shooting, Ms. Allen considered her neighborhood a decent place to live, even though gang members sell drugs just around the corner from her mother's house.
Still, she didn't worry too much about Quantae's safety as long as he stayed within her view on North Castle Street. Now she wants to move out of the city.
"Find somewhere away from all these drugs," she said. "Away from all these guns and shootings. Anywhere."