Tuesday, January 7, 1997
Scalded boy belongs to all of us

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Have you been thinking about Matthew Richmond? Me, too. I can't get him out of my mind.

He's just 12 years old, covered by third-degree scald burns, and is not expected to live. Think about how much a burn - any burn - hurts. And he has burns everywhere.

Well, not everywhere. He doesn't have them on his head, hands, forearms and toes. Police have said this means he was immersed in hot water, not sprayed with a hose as his mother's boyfriend, Richard Joseph Klein, has reported.

Mr. Klein is charged with felonious assault. Sharon Richmond, Matthew's mother, has not been arrested, although police say charges against her also are possible.

The Westwood boy, who is mentally and physically handicapped, has the mind of a 4-year-old. Picture some toddler you know. Think about how much they understand. And feel.

Is there hope?

He is in the best possible place, Cincinnati Burns Institute of the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The name is slightly different. It used to just be called the Shriners Burns Institute, but the services are the same. Extraordinary. And free.

They don't even have a billing department. It is one of only three hospitals like it in this country, and about 85 percent of its patients come from out of town. They are flown in - still free of charge.

Families are brought in, too, and housed and fed. The burned child is the first concern, but they surely do take good care of the family.

For instance, there's Cindy DeSeSerna. Her assignment is to help explain the child's chance of survival, give the family ''painfully honest'' information.

Well, we're not Matthew's family or anything, but could you pretend that we are? They said they would if I promised to tell all of you that you should turn down your water heaters. Most of the burns they see could have been avoided and an unholy amount of them are from scalding.

It's a deal.

Debbie Harrell, the nurse in charge of his case, says Matthew is in critical condition. I understand, I tell her, that you have rules about confidentiality, but how about if you describe what might happen to somebody with burns exactly like his.

''We generally say that you spend a day in the hospital for every percent of burn,'' Ms. Harrell says. It was first reported that the boy was burned over 90 percent of his body. Doctors now say that the burns cover 74.5 percent of his body.

That's still awful, terrible, but it's better than it was. And maybe it's 15 fewer days in the hospital, if he lives. They don't think he will. They won't say so, but I know they don't.

I only found out one piece of information that we - his pretend family - could cling to. Third-degree burns, according to the nurse, burn away your nerve endings. So, although they are more lethal than second-degree burns, they don't hurt as bad. At least at first.

A life of struggle

When we talk about people like Matthew, sometimes we call them challenged. That would be about right, I guess. Things that you and I do without thinking - eating, walking, talking - would have been an extra effort for him. So many struggles for this little soul trapped inside a body for a dozen years that challenged him all the time.

None of us who have children gets a guarantee on what kind of child we'll get. But every child should be guaranteed somebody who will take care of him no matter what. And if it is not his mother, then it is the rest of us.

If Matthew Richmond makes it out of the hospital, he will have years of pain, of therapy, of surgery, of - well - more challenge. His needs will be enormous. And difficult. Someone must take care of him and must care what happens to him.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.