Cancer claimed his eye and the chance of recurrence ties him to hospitals, doctors and high-tech medicine. But hope abounds. Forrest is keeping the faith.

SURVIVAL OF THE LITTLEST

November 06, 1994|By LINELL SMITH

Forrest Hunter Renshaw is wearing a white Bedrock Police Department helmet and singing "Thank You, I Am a Life That Was Changed" in sweet, lilting tones. As he performs this favorite song from church -- all four verses -- he has the serene look of those lucky children who have no reason not to trust the world.

His is a 5-year-old's life about negotiating games with three sisters, about riding his bike, about playing guitar and harmonica, about dismantling anything that has screws and -- cross your fingers -- putting it back together.

It's a life with a large green lawn bordered by woods and his great-grandmother's rancher. It's filled with the inspiration of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Ellicott City, where his family travels from their home in Sykesville to worship three times a week.

And it also comes with an artificial left eye he's not supposed to play with.

"When people ask me, 'Why is your eye like that?' I tell them, 'I had cancer in my eye. And if they didn't take my eye out, I would have died,' " Forrest says.

About one in 15,000 children is born with retinoblastoma, which makes it the most common eye tumor found in infants, says Forrest's ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, Dr. Irene Maumenee. World renowned for her knowledge of genetic eye disorders, the 54-year-old physician is director of the Center for Hereditary Eye Disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which researches, diagnoses and treats inherited diseases of vision.

The primary symptom of retinoblastoma is a whitish reflection to light in the pupil of the infant's diseased eye; a healthy eye has a reddish reflection.

When Forrest was 8 weeks old, his mother, Mary Renshaw, noticed a milky blur, what she called a glint, in his left eye.

"After a week and a half of seeing this, I realized he always lay with his left side toward the floor. I got to thinking, 'I wonder if he can see out of his eye?' I put his head straight in the baby carrier and covered his right eye. He kept thrashing his head. When I covered his left eye, he did nothing."

And she called to her husband, "Henry, he can't see!"

Mrs. Renshaw's eye doctor referred her to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who took only a few minutes to reach a diagnosis.

"Her exact words were, 'He has retinoblastoma and that's cancer and it will kill the baby if you don't get it taken care of.' There was no beating around the bush. This lady told us straight out.

"I couldn't say anything," Mrs. Renshaw says, shivering. "This was my baby, my baby boy. This is not what I wanted to hear."

And after Forrest was referred to Dr. Maumenee, there was another tough word: enucleate. They were going to enucleate Forrest's eye. They were going to take out the baby's eye.

As Pentecostal Christians, Henry and Mary Renshaw have witnessed faith healings at their church and believe deeply in God's ability to cure the most deadly of diseases.

The Renshaws spent most of the weekend before surgery in church.

"We held them up in prayer and we prayed over them," recalls L. G. Smith, pastor of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church.

Right before the surgery, the Renshaws asked Dr. Maumenee to re-examine Forrest's eye. If there was any change, if there was any sign that God might be healing the eye, they wanted to cancel this surgery on their 14-pound baby.

"When Dr. Maumenee checked him, she said it had grown even larger," Mrs. Renshaw says. "She said the cancer had engulfed his eye. They had to take it out."

Since Forrest was an infant, a powerful combination of religious faith and high-tech medicine has defined his life. Together with his parents, his physician and his pastor have worked hard to provide Forrest with a healthy, golden childhood.

The boy makes regular trips to the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, visits which he shrugs off as "OK." In the past five years, he has had three surgeries on his left eye. The first one removed the eye destroyed by retinoblastoma, the second and third were reconstructive.

And he and his family spend much of their free time in their church. Forrest performs in the children's choir and he sits on the platform with his father when Henry Renshaw plays the music for the older "young people" to sing.

"I don't think there's anything Forrest can't do," his mother says. "Henry takes him bike riding, although he's sometimes afraid he may lose control when he has to turn his shoulder to look left. He can swim underwater, although he can't swim on top too well yet. He loves any kind of paperwork, loves to color. They told us the only hindrance a one-eyed person would have is depth perception."

Forrest was "born again" last year.

"Not one time in my presence has he ever complained about his eye," says the Rev. Smith. "Forrest is just full of life. He's a little boy that really believes God.

"Some months ago, Forrest came to me and said, 'Brother Smith, I'd like to be baptized.' And I said, 'Baptized?' and he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'All right son, we'll baptize you.' "

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