Essex boy gets surprising good news

June 19, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Ten-year-old J. J. Roberts of Essex thought he was going blind.

Last weekend, he was told he wasn't.

But he didn't learn about his diagnosis until after Army officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground gave him a VIP tour prompted by his grandmother, Theresa Winebrenner. She said she regarded it as her mission to provide J. J. with as many visual experiences as she could before his sight was clouded.

"His vision is getting progressively worse," she said. "He has inoperable cataracts."

"There's nothing the doctors can do for my son," said J. J.'s mother, Wanda Lowry. "We don't know when it will happen."

"It's not true he's going blind," said Dr. Timothy D. Polk, chief resident in ophthalmology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center eye clinic in Towson, who has treated the boy. "He has a congenital cataract, but it's not visually significant. . . . There's no reason he won't see normally for the rest of his life [with prescription glasses]. He has 20-40 vision in his right eye and 20-30 vision in his left. That's good enough to legally drive."

J. J.'s mother and grandmother said they can't remember who told them he was going blind, but somehow they came to believe the baby of their family only had a short time to view the world around him. So, they called APG to request a tour for him.

"The initial phone call told us he was going blind," said Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman. "It was from the grandmother. She was trying to get a tour.

"In the second conversation, she reiterated the story and said that over the weekend he had lost the vision in one eye for four hours, that the doctors said he could lose his sight at any time."

"It's the first time we've given this type of tour for a child," said Athena Petry, an APG spokeswoman who provided transportation for J. J. and his mother during their tour June 7.

At the base, Ms. Lowry and J. J., whose full name is Kenneth C. Roberts Jr., received badges that let them enter restricted areas. J. J. rode in an Army truck; visited the robotics testing site; climbed into a M1A1 tank, the kind that was used in Desert Storm; and explored a Cobra helicopter that landed on the airfield especially for him.

At APG, J. J. got to use a hand-held, two-way radio to gain entrance to the weapons firing site and was given the casing from a 60-pound shell fired during his visit. He left the base with an armful of caps, gun muffs that protected his ears during the weapons firing and other merchandise from sympathetic APG workers.

When told that J. J. was not going blind, John B. Ruhl Sr., executive officer of the Combat Systems Test Activity, which helped to arrange the tour, said his first thoughts were of the generosity of the base's personnel.

"They went all out," he said. "The way it was presented to me was that he's got two or three months [to see] and that's it. What it's done is ruined it for the next group."

Told that her son wasn't going to lose his vision, J. J.'s mother said, "That's news to me. You just made my day."

Mr. Ruhl of APG said of the incident: "The thing that makes me not too upset is that, since the boy believed it, [the APG tour] was a really meaningful experience to him."

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