In An Instant, Lives Shattered

April 29, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

One year later the wreath still rests against the young maple tree at Route 175 and Thunder Hill Road in Columbia.

An unidentified person set it there after Suzanne Bice, 43, was killed and her son, Philip, now 12, was seriously injured when a dump truck ran a red light and broadsided their car on April 29, 1993.

The tragedy still pervades the lives of Philip, who was in a coma for nearly a month, and his father, Steve, 50, whose comfortable life was shattered in an instant.

Neighbors call Philip "the walking miracle." Yet he has not recovered completely. He probably never will, his father said.

Mr. Bice this week drove Philip to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, where Philip underwent intensive therapy last summer, for tests conducted by researchers studying head injuries in children.

"They made it pretty clear to me again just how miraculous his recovery has been," Mr. Bice said.

But Philip still undergoes physical therapy. He limps slightly and must limit his physical activity.

He was able to return to public school; he is a sixth-grader at Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia. An exceptional student before the wreck, he makes good grades but takes less demanding classes and needs help from special-education teachers.

He has trouble reading, comprehending, analyzing and acting properly in certain situations, Mr. Bice said. For example, when he finishes an assignment at school he stands up, ready for the next assignment, and refuses to sit down.

Philip has other "deficits," as Mr. Bice termed them, that result in inappropriate behavior in and out of school. Such behavioral problems are typical of people who have suffered brain trauma.

His prognosis is still uncertain. It's too early to tell, for instance, whether he could ever succeed in college or hold a professional job.

Asked whether he'd mind answering a few questions, Philip turned off the video game he'd been playing and plopped onto the couch next to his father.

He said school's OK, although some subjects are harder than others. The main problem, he said, "is just remembering things, I guess."

He doesn't understand why he can't play soccer anymore -- although he does practice with his team -- or why he can't do all the things he used to do.

"Say I'm doing fine, I guess, from my point of view," Philip said.

As the anniversary of the wreck approaches, he said, he tries to remember good memories of his mother.

The truck driver who ran the red light, Gary Bernstein, 38, then of Finksburg, was sentenced to 22 months in jail and fined $4,560. He was found not guilty of manslaughter, but guilty of 10 traffic violations, including driving with a revoked license, negligent driving and making false statements to police.

Mr. Bice says Bernstein got off easy. The Bice family has sued Bernstein, his wife, the company he worked for and his insurance company for $50 million.

At Bernstein's sentencing last month, Mr. Bice read from a 14-page, single-spaced victim-impact statement he had written. He read:

"Philip is a constant reminder to me that joy and despair are two sides of the same coin -- joy that he is alive and there is still hope for his future, despair at what might have been, of what will never be.

"My wife's death is a constant reminder to me, also, of how ephemeral, unfair and cruel life can be."

Mr. Bice lost his wife, the outgoing family organizer, and stepped down from his job as head of the department that planned construction projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

He took a less demanding job, architectural planner, but still hasn't returned to work full time because of his obligations to nTC Philip. Chief among them are driving him to therapy several times a week.

Finances have become a problem, especially now that insurance benefits for Philip's outpatient therapy have run out.

Mr. Bice is still going through his wife's possessions; he's reluctant to get rid of them.

"I guess you could say my life is very compartmentalized," he said. "A part of me is just trying to function in the real world. A part of me hasn't dealt with all the grief issues yet.

"A part of me is trying to build a treasury of all the cherished memories of my wife. A part of me is trying to be a more social person and do the things she used to do -- much better than me, I might add."

After the interview, Mr. Bice drove his son to Mountain View Cemetery in northern Howard County. They watered the four young dogwoods they planted a couple of weeks ago near Mrs. Bice's grave. The dogwoods will be in bloom on the anniversaries of her death.

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