The long shot that may yet come in...

January 11, 1994|By Mike Downey | Mike Downey,Los Angeles Times

PASADENA, Calif. -- The ward is so quiet when Wayne Lukas gets there. Beeps from a few monitors. Pulses from a few phones. The nurses all know him, and by now he knows all of them.

Karen, on day duty. Kelly, on nights. Rendy, who called four times on Christmas Day to inquire how he was doing.

They and the others, pulling 12-hour shifts. Sticking around afterward, simply to see if there was anything else they could do. Handing manuals on brain trauma to Wayne, so he could study up on the fate that had befallen his son.

The nurses. They took Brady Wayne Lukas, age 3 1/2 , by the hand and led him into an anteroom of the Huntington Memorial Hospital to help him understand. Brady had been wondering why his daddy hadn't been home.

Jeff Lukas had always set aside one hour per night to read bedtime stories to his boy. Ten days before Christmas, Brady's daddy did not come home. He was knocked down by a horse. He was knocked unconscious. He had lapsed into a coma and his condition was grave. Wayne Lukas had witnessed what had happened to his son through unbelieving eyes. Now his grandson wanted some answers.

"Where's my dad?" he asked.

So, they took Brady to the hospital.

He entered the room and saw his father on the bed, sleeping the deepest sleep.

"Wake him up," Brady said.

Wayne Lukas bent to touch his hand and said: "I would love to wake him up."

No one could. Jeff would only awaken on his own. Long days and longer nights would pass before there was even a glimmer of life. The stillness continued. The cerebral pressure fluctuated. He lost 39 pounds, unable to take nutrition, even intravenously. And then, a flicker of movement. A blink. A hint of comprehension.

Jeff's wife, Linda, squeezed his hand. His father, Wayne, whispered into his ear. He read the daily sports page to his son. He told of the phone calls, the faxes, the letters. Then that uplifting moment came when Jeff moved his hand. Not much, but he moved it.

The nurses. They took Brady Lukas to a room occupied by a mannequin. Tubes protruded from it, every which way. They explained how oxygen is supplied to the human brain. He asked what "head injury" meant. Brady is a sharp boy. He listens. He learns.

And he began making tapes. At home, Brady spoke into a hand-held recorder, making conversation with his father. Now he would tell him bedtime stories. Day by day, he would fill up the tapes. He or his mother or grandfather would go to the hospital. One of them would press the recorder to Jeff Lukas' ear. They would never be sure how much he would hear. All they could do was check for a response. For life.

Wayne Lukas had tried to go about his business, training horses at Santa Anita, but the distraction made it difficult. Out the threshold of Barn 66, he had a clear view of the washing stall where Tabasco Cat, a potential Kentucky Derby horse, had broken free from his rein and gone galloping.

When Wayne Lukas heard the commotion outside his office around 8:30 on the morning of Dec. 15, he went outside in time to see his 36-year-old son stand in front of Tabasco Cat, trying to intercept the stampeding horse. Struck, he flipped into the air. Jeff's skull struck the gravel.

Wayne rushed to his side. "Call for an ambulance!" he shouted, and an exercise girl did.

The wait for the paramedics seemed endless, remembers Wayne, 58. And then suddenly he had a vision, or at least what he thought was a vision. A woman in a crisp white dress. A nurse. What was she doing there so quickly?

She turned out to be Denise Constantinide, not a nurse but a technician from the Dolly Green Nuclear Imaging Center, an equine facility on the Santa Anita grounds. She knelt and felt for a pulse. It was weak, but it was there.

It was some solace until the paramedics came. They prepared to take Jeff to a nearby clinic. No, an onlooker said, take him to Huntington, they have a trauma center there. Take him by helicopter. Wayne Lukas has this man's name. He hopes to thank him properly some day. He hopes he helped save his son's life.

But first he must wait. The vigil continues.

"Another day we finally had the cerebral pressure in check and then the pneumonia hit us," Wayne says, making his daily call to his son's side. "Jeff's temperature shot up to 104. But today things look better. The scans look excellent. The nurses taught me how to read the scans. The scans look excellent today."

He is unnerved. He tries to work.

"It's probably therapeutic for me to talk about it," Wayne says later, in his office. The private phone number to Jeff's room is pinned to a bulletin board above him.

The phone rings.

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