'Miracle' Boy Amid Bloodshed

September 04, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Close to death, with a bullet wound in his brain, the 4-year-old lay in a hospital bed. His body was motionless; his spirit was not.

"I dreamed I was in a circle with a lot of people who were holding my hand, and we were going around the world," the child recalls today.

His family feared the worst. But Quantae Johnson survived. He awoke and asked to watch cartoons. Doctors called his recovery incredible. Well-wishers, many of them strangers, marveled at his courage and sent cards, cash and toys.

Quantae left the Johns Hopkins Children's Center a celebrity of sorts,just three weeks after being hit in the head by a stray bullet that passed through his grandmother's East Baltimore home on Sept. 7, 1991.

Since then, shootings of young children have become more and more common. For example:

* Kiara Sherrod, 21 months old, of West Baltimore was wounded in the head Friday in a hail of bullets that killed her uncle and wounded her mother. She was listed in critical but stable condition at University of Maryland Medical Center.

* Katie Ellsworth, 2 1/2 , suffered a leg wound Thursday night when a stray bullet fired from a nearby quarry came through a sliding-glass door at her baby sitter's home in Laurel.

* Jacquette Dennis, 4, was wounded in the head by a stray bullet Aug. 23 while playing on a West Baltimore street.

As for Quantae, he seems to have escaped any major impairment. He likes to ride bikes, read books and kick-box the make-believe villains in his mother's living room. This week, he will begin second grade at City Springs Elementary School.

"It's a miracle," says Carmelita Allen, patting the head of her 7-year-old son. "Maybe God has some plan for 'Pookie.' "

Yet Quantae still bears the physical scars of the shooting, and a shadow of fear accompanies him everywhere.

During a recent shopping trip with a neighbor, Quantae says he spotted a man with a gun. Returning home, he told his mother, "Don't send me with that woman anymore."

Quantae recites the rules he must obey for playing outside: "Don't hit anybody, don't make nobody's teeth come out, and if you see someone with a gun, cross to the other side of the street."

Several weeks ago, while walking to a playground near his home in a gritty section of East Baltimore, Quantae says he spotted "a man with an Uzi" heading in his general direction. The child quickly crossed the street to avoid the stranger.

Quantae says he wants to become a police officer, so he can arrest the man who shot him. The three teen-agers responsible for the shooting rampage, in which 13 shots were fired, have been tried and imprisoned.

Ms. Allen still frets about her son's safety, though time has eased her fears somewhat. There is onlyone day each year that Quantae is not allowed to play outside: Sept. 7.

"That's the day we stay home," she says. "I worry about it happening again."

Quantae Johnson is one of at least 13 children who were shot in the metropolitan area in 1991. Most of the victims were treated at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, where surgeons and hospital officials felt compelled to hold a news conference to publicly denounce the shootings and to call for an end to the surge of violence against children.

In the three years since Quantae's ordeal, at least 72 children have been treated at Hopkins for gunshot wounds. Eight of them died. This year alone, at least 21 children hit by gunfire have been treated at Hopkins, which is the region's main pediatric trauma center.

Such bloodshed is outrageous, says Dr. David Nichols, director of the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit. "It's not right for a child to be shot. Nor can you assume that every child who is shot in the head is going to come out OK. Quantae was a miracle child -- the exception, not the rule. It was by the grace of God that the bullet missed the vital areas of his brain."

The injury left Quantae with two unobtrusive marks on his scalp: A 4-inch scar above his right eye, where the bullet entered, and a smaller, crescent-shaped scar behind his right ear, where the slug was removed. The larger scar could pass for a part in his hair.

Otherwise, Quantae shows few ill effects from the experience. He likes to skate, color, play video games and watch "The Simpsons." He will tumble over chairs like an acrobat, then play quietly with his 5-month-old sister, Chantav.

"He has made a remarkable recovery," says Dr. Rebecca Ribovich, Quantae's current pediatrician at the East Baltimore Medical Center, a Hopkins affiliate. "His neurological development is normal. If I didn't know the extent of his injury, I never would have guessed [that it happened]."

Quantae's mother says he rarely mentions the incident that nearly cost him his life. His friends are too young to remember the shooting. The helmet he must wear while riding his bike could be just a basic safety device; actually it is a precaution urged by physicians to protect the soft spot that remains on Quantae's skull beneath the larger scar.

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