The Comeback Kid Terrence Tolbert's Road To Recovery

January 19, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch

His name is Terrence and he's a clever, quiet third-grader with a passion for Nintendo and the Ninja Turtles. That's him in the photo above left, munching a chocolate chip cookie on the examining table at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia. He smiles for the camera on this hot June day, a smile that seems surprising considering all he has endured and will endure in the ++ months ahead.

On an early evening in April of last year, Terrence Tolbert reached into an unlocked transformer box near his Annapolis home and brushed against live electrical wires. Thirteen thousand volts entered his body and caused third-degree burns on his face, legs, feet and arms, burning his right arm and left toe so severely doctors were forced to amputate both.

After a long stay at the burn unit of a Washington children's hospital, Terrence arrived at Shriners to be evaluated for a prosthesis. Eileen Ryan was there, as well. A Baltimore Sun photographer, she was assigned to cover Terrence's recovery. With the permission of Terrence and his mother, Juanita Johns, DTC she documented the comeback of a stoic little boy.

Summer was a period of adjustment and trial. Terrence rejoined his friends at play in the Robinwood community, playing football in the streets and video games in his home with a special joystick and control panel that opens up the video system to one-handed players. In July, he checked into Shriners for a nearly two-week stay to be fitted for his prosthesis and begin intensive physical and occupational therapy, relearning the routine motions of daily life: tying shoes, brushing teeth, pulling on a T-shirt. Because the prosthesis is bulky and can chafe the skin, Terrence would wear it only for short periods. He filled in the empty hours away from home playing Nintendo with other patients in the children's wing. Because he was so adept at Nintendo, occupational therapist Jane Daniels nicknamed him "Mario King."

By early fall, Terrence had caught up with schoolwork missed after the accident and was practicing imperfect but legible writing with his left hand in Lita Brown's third-grade class at Hillsmere Elementary. Given his choice, Terrence would rather leave his prosthesis at home, where he stows it atop a stereo system in his bedroom. When prodded to wear it, he receives assistance from his older sister, Katrina Coleman, and other family members, who tighten and loosen the straps that hold the arm in place. In October, the Annapolis Housing Authority agreed to pay Terrence's mother $200,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused the authority of negligence in failing to repair a broken latch and lock on the transformer box. A $25 million suit against Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is pending.

Occasionally, Terrence is the target of teasing and name-calling in the neighborhood, but he seems to take it in stride. A psychologist says he is coping well but cautions there may be difficulty when he enters his teens. He will outgrow a number of artificial arms by then and will undergo cosmetic surgery for burn scars on his face. Terrence says little about his ordeal and pain, and his mother is not surprised. "That's Terrence," she says.

Several months after the near-electrocution, the transformer box was repaired and fenced off. Terrence agreed to have Eileen Ryan photograph him next to it, flanked by his protective sister, Katrina, and younger brother, Taron. If wasn't until we began editing this photo project that we noticed Taron, who looks up to and often talks for Terrence, had posed with his right hand pulled into his shirt sleeve.

Eileen Ryan has been a photographer at The Sun since February 1990. Born and reared in Philadelphia, she worked as a contract photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four years. Anne Arundel Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch assisted in the research and writing of the accompanying text.

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