Family struggles to cope after accident shatters world

GONE IN AN INSTANT

July 18, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Philip Bice clings to his father's hand and says, "When can I go home?"

The boy speaks in a whisper. His eyebrows arch, and his big green eyes plead. He wants to get out of this hospital.

His father, Steve, following Philip through another day of therapy, says gently that he'll see. He'll talk to the doctor about Philip going home.

But the father knows that home is an empty place now.

He knows what other victims of sudden, unpredictable tragedies have learned so painfully: that life's comforts and security can be shattered in an instant, that lives so ordered and fine can be transformed forever.

A dump truck ran a red light in Columbia on April 29 and slammed into the car driven by Philip's mother, Suzanne Bice. She was taking Philip to the dentist.

The truck, which was carrying a load of stone, demolished the driver's side, killing Mrs. Bice, 43. Philip, 11, clung to life in a coma for nearly a month.

Now he is doing remarkably well, considering the severity of his brain injury. He walks with canes. He talks, although his raspy, strained voice is difficult to understand.

As Philip adapts to this new life, Steve Bice has awakened from the numbness of tragedy and found himself in his own strange, uncharted world.

He lost his wife, the outgoing organizer of their Columbia household. He became solely responsible for his 19-year-old son, Aaron, who was not in the wreck, and for Philip, who may need special care the rest of his life. He gave up the job he loved -- for the time being, at least -- for a less demanding one.

"Everybody goes through life believing they've got considerable control over their life," Mr. Bice says. "And if they manage it correctly, it will pretty much come out like they want it to.

"My wife fully understood that isn't the case. She really understood the finality of it, the transitoriness of life. That explained how she approached life. She really celebrated every day. . . .

"It can all be gone in the twinkling of an eye."

Mr. Bice's new world has revolved around hospital visits, discussions with therapists and a frenzied array of unwanted, unending tasks: choosing a cemetery for his wife, understanding the complexities of brain injuries, dealing with legal issues and medical bills.

He is 49 and an architect by training. He headed the department that plans construction projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt -- until two weeks ago, when he voluntarily stepped down to become a senior planner. He had worked 10, 12, 14 hours a day.

"It would have been nice to have gotten all that sorted out a couple of years ago so I could have spent more time at home," Mr. Bice says. "Now I feel shortchanged."

His wife realized this. When she was in college, her father died suddenly.

"In a lot of ways she tried to tell me over the years," Mr. Bice says. "There are no absolutes and certainties in life. I guess I've always understood that intellectually, but not emotionally."

Persevering

Mr. Bice is stoical and analytical. Before the wreck he was withdrawn and uncomfortable in social situations.

His wife talked and made friends easily.

Now Mr. Bice has been forced to become more outgoing, to speak up for the family and to open up to visitors.

"I think this is changing his personality," says his next-door neighbor, Sola Jones. "It's a complete turnabout for him."

Carole Spranklin, Suzanne Bice's best friend, says he has responded wonderfully.

"He's been there for Philip every step of the way," she says.

It's been a horrible 11 weeks -- the hole drilled through Philip's skull to monitor the swollen brain, Philip's uncontrollable thrashing in bed, the infections, the pneumonia, Mr. Bice's anger over the wreck, the uncertainty about the future and the relentless, numbing fatigue.

But Mr. Bice has persevered because of tremendous support, he says.

That's the main reason he agreed to this story, to thank friends and neighbors -- the Spranklins, Charamellas, Garthoffs, Pisseras and Joneses, especially Sola Jones, who spends most days at the hospital with Philip.

Mr. Bice's co-workers have donated their personal leave time so he can meet his responsibilities at home.

"I'm overwhelmed," he says. "I've gotten cards from people who don't even know me. I've come home at night, and there's a warm supper on the table or in the oven, and I don't even know who half these people are."

Most are friends of his wife and Philip -- faculty members and the PTA at Dasher Green Elementary School, where Philip was a fifth-grader; faculty members at Glenwood Middle School, where Mrs. Bice was a media aide; employees from the Howard County library, where Mrs. Bice worked as a substitute librarian; and Philip's soccer coach and the parents of the players on his team, the Owen Brown Panthers.

Teachers at Dasher Green sent Philip videotapes of events at school, including the final assembly, where Mr. Bice accepted the principal's award for citizenship on behalf of his son.

A mother's mother

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