Thursday, October 9, 2003

Bomb victim, 10, here for treatment

Oklahoma City boy hopes to breathe on own

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It is hard to imagine a 10-year-old boy, lying on an operating table at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to start a complex, six-hour operation, as being one of the lucky ones.

But P.J. Allen is just that.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, P.J. was an 18-month-old playing with other children in the day care center on the second floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

After a bomb blast ripped the building apart, 168 people - 19 of them children - died. Dozens more were injured.

P.J. inhaled hot air from the blast that seared his lungs, and suffered burns and scars from flying debris. Since then, the Oklahoma City boy has breathed through a tracheal tube in his throat, giving himself daily breathing treatments with a saline solution.

Wednesday, at Children's Hospital, Dr. Robin Cotton began a series of operations to clear his air passages and free him from the tube in his throat.

"This is P.J.'s chance for a normal life,'' said Deloris Watson, the boy's grandmother and legal guardian, who has raised him since he was an infant. "I came here because I wanted the best for him.''

Watson found Cotton by researching who could best help P.J. The doctor responded to her e-mail with a phone call and took the case.

Children's Hospital spokeswoman Amy Caruso said P.J. went to the recovery room about 2:30 p.m. after successful surgery and was "doing fine.''

But the ordeal is not over for the boy, who his grandmother describes as a "bright, fun-loving guy.'' In about two weeks, a second procedure will remove a stent placed in his air passage Wednesday and replace it with a larger tracheotomy tube. Then, about a month from now, the tube will be removed altogether.

Since Watson is raising P.J. alone and quit her job several years ago to care for him full time, she has no health insurance. She applied for money from a private fund set up for survivors of the bombing.

But the fund would not pay for the surgery, Watson said, because she went outside channels to find a surgeon on her own. The Medicaid program in Oklahoma is picking up the costs.

The American Red Cross, Watson said, helped find a place for her to stay in Cincinnati while P.J. goes through the surgeries and during his recovery.

"We're going to be here for a while,'' Watson said. "Somebody told me I could probably register to vote in Cincinnati.''

P.J., his grandmother said, has only one dim recollection of that day in 1995.

"All he remembers is falling and hitting his head,'' she said.

A teacher comes to Watson's home each week to give P.J. his school lessons. He can't attend school with other children, she said, because he is highly susceptible to airborne germs.

"If a kid in his class had a cold, he'd get the flu,'' Watson said.

But, other than that, P.J. is "all boy, just like any other kid.''

He plays basketball and is serious about his school work, He's especially good at math and science.

Watson said she has told him "bits and pieces'' of what happened the day he was injured. She did not attend the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted in the bombing. "I didn't really want to celebrate anyone's death," Watson said.

She said P.J. knows "the bad man is gone.''

Two years ago, though, when the World Trade Center towers went down and the Pentagon was attacked, P.J. started going through the same kind of trauma again.

"He said, 'I thought they got all the bad men,' " Watson said. "I hated to do it, but I had to explain: There are a lot of bad people out there.''

But soon, Watson said, P.J.'s tracheotomy tube - his daily reminder that there is evil in the world - will be gone.

"He'll be able to breathe and live his life like anyone else,'' Watson said.


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