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The Tragic Aftermath of Near-Drownings

April 07, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

At a time when other boys his age are outside playing baseball and working up enough courage to call a girl on the telephone, 13-year-old Jeremy James Readinger can neither walk nor talk.

The dark-haired boy, nicknamed J.J., needs someone to feed him and change his diaper. He lets people know by his facial expressions or by crying if he doesn't like something. And when he does like something, he will smile brightly or make babbling sounds. Developmentally, his physical therapist says, he's at the same stage as a 6-month-old.

Jeremy was a perfectly healthy and normal little boy until 1978, when, at age 2 1/2, he was pulled from the bottom of a relative's Jacuzzi.

"I work at a junior high school, and Jeremy would be there right now," said Jeremy's mother, Judy Buckley of Mission Viejo. "I see all the other kids going to dances and going to all these things, and I know he's never going to do that."

Near-drowning victims who suffer severe brain damage--including the two surviving toddlers who fell into a swimming pool in North Tustin last Thursday while under the care of a baby-sitter--face years of care and physical therapy in which improvement may be measured only by degrees.

And the families will never be the same.

"It changes their lives," said Sharon Grady, a Fountain Valley physical therapist who works with near-drowning victims. "You're taking families that had a child that was running around playing one day and the next day they're faced with somebody telling them their child has irreversible brain damage. So it puts them into a whole new world. Many of them don't even know what 'brain damage' means."

In 1988 five children under the age of 5 died in Orange County due to drowning, according to the Orange County Trauma Society. So far this year, there have been three deaths, including one of the three toddlers who fell into the North Tustin baby-sitter's pool.

Grady said the degree of brain damage in near-drowning victims varies. "Actually, you're looking at a range from those who are severely handicapped physically and mentally to those who recover completely. And you have every range in between."

Once a brain-damaged child is able to leave the hospital, parents are faced with the choice of taking care of the child themselves at home or putting the child in an institution, such as the state-run Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa or a private care facility for the developmentally disabled.

Although not all families are financially or physically able to take care of a severely brain-damaged child, Grady said, the majority of the nearly 40 near-drowning survivors she has worked with live at home and are being taken care of by their parents.

"I feel if they have any chance for recovery, being in that stimulating environment and in familiar surroundings is going to help their overall recovery. And love. There's nothing like a mother's love."

For Wendy and Steven Heiner of Huntington Beach, the only acceptable option was to take care of their son, Jeffrey, themselves after his accident.

While visiting her mother in May, 1987, Wendy Heiner went inside the house to tend to her infant son, Ricky, who was upstairs crying. She thought 2-year-old Jeffrey was right behind her. He wasn't. She found him floating face down in the back-yard swimming pool.

Jeffrey spent 5 weeks in the hospital before coming home.

"My husband and my feelings were if Jeffrey were to get better he'd get better at home," said Heiner. "That's saying nothing against a hospital, but they're only capable of taking care of so much at one time. At home, the child's in a happier environment.

"Physically and mentally it's very difficult. It was very hard on my husband to watch this adorable child go through such suffering."

In the first few months after Jeffrey came home, his mother had to provide round-the-clock care, adhering to a strict schedule of feeding and medication. Although she had help from relatives, she said, "I was just so tired and exhausted."

She said that taking care of Jeffrey today is like taking care of a toddler. "He has to be fed, and his diapers have to be changed. He likes to be entertained because he can't do a lot on his own. He doesn't want to just sit there."

Jeffrey, who must use a special wheelchair that supports him at the chest and hip, recently started attending a preschool for handicapped children. And 3 days a week, his mother takes him to a 90-minute physical therapy session.

"It's a real workout--a lot of physical stretching of every part of the body," said his mother, who also works with Jeffrey for 10 or 15 minutes at a time throughout the day. "You stretch the body or do a sequence of rolling on a bolster or a rubber ball. We do (the stretching exercises) constantly. You're sitting with Jeffrey on your lap, and it's something like an unlearned response: You automatically do it, stretching his hands and arms."

Over the past 2 years, she said, Jeffrey has made progress.

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