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Boy Survives After Being Spiked Through Heart : Medicine: Surgeon calls his survival 'one in a billion.' The child asked to play Nintendo after awakening from surgery.

May 19, 1991|ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — Justin Stiner, who used to have the ascending inclinations of Spiderman, doesn't climb anything nowadays.

No trees. No walls. And especially no rooftops. It's terra firma for this 9-year-old.

That's understandable for someone who has fallen off a roof and spiked himself through the heart and jugular vein on a 4-foot steel rod, millimeters away from sudden death. Survival was amazing. His story:

- Strapped to a board with the threaded rod inside him, he was flown by helicopter 75 miles from one hospital to another, not bleeding a drop during the 3 1/2 hours he was impaled.

- On awakening from open-heart surgery in which the pole was unscrewed from his heart, he asked to play Nintendo.

- He went home only four days later.

"One in a billion," one of his surgeons, Dr. Phillip Richemont, said after the operation on Nov. 12.

The third-grader took no pain medication after his third day in post-surgery. He missed only seven days of school.

"They kept telling me, 'It doesn't work like this usually,' " said his mother, Amanda Stiner. "The doctor told me, 'You can take him home. There's nothing we can do for him here that you can't do for him at home.' "

But Justin's brush with death has changed him, she said.

From the blissful anonymity of a normal, active, adventuresome kid, he has been cast in the unaccustomed, often-uncomfortable glare of national attention. People around the world have written him, sent him everything from teddy bears to a fire chief's cap to good wishes.

Justin's story has been grist for the tabloids.

He has been flown to the world Nintendo championships, appeared on a syndicated television show and on a talk show in Seattle, and will be riding in a wagon train through New England this summer, courtesy of a pro football player's largess.

There was a scare or two. Richemont recalls talking with Amanda Stiner a week after Justin's release and learning that he was "back to Evel Knievel"--sliding down the stair rail.

That activity was quickly stopped, and Justin faced restrictions at school until January. Books and Game Boy action substituted for outdoor recesses. There was no physical education.

The experience, and the scarring on his chest and neck, have made Justin self-conscious and, his mom said, "a little cocky too, like, 'I can go through anything now.' "

The ordeal certainly put his family on what she calls "a roller coaster of emotions." They were already trying to deal with his single mother's joblessness, his grandfather's serious illness and his aunt's and uncle's military duty in Saudi Arabia.

"He's real sensitive now," his mother said. "Before, he was real quiet. He was really rambunctious, but he was pretty quiet. Now, you can't shut him up anymore. He talks all the time."

Well, not around reporters. Or doctors.

"It's always like pulling teeth to get him to talk," said Richemont, who is completing a residency in trauma surgery at the University of Arizona.

Justin has his favorites, including the Los Angeles Raiders, M. C. Hammer, a teddy bear that sings Christmas songs, lunch as the best part of school. And not liking liver.

Ask the 4-foot-10, 86-pound youngster if he's tired of being grilled by reporters and you get a grunt in the affirmative.

Ask him if he thinks a lot about his accident and he half-shrugs, half-mutters, "Yes." Ask him if it bothers him, and you get no reply.

"He won't talk about it to anybody," said his mother. "He just says, 'I fell.'

"I don't think he realizes what really happened. And I've tried to explain it to him." She said she thinks he views it as "OK, I fell, it's over with."

Amanda Stiner said Justin was, and wasn't, a daredevil before his accident.

"Whatever he wanted to do he pretty much did it. He loved to climb. He was always climbing. Ever since he's been a baby, learning to walk, he's climbed. And now you can't even joke with him about climbing."

But back on Veterans' Day, it was different.

Justin, then 8, was playing at the home of George and Gertrude Howard, grandparents of a friend. He decided to climb onto the roof.

In the yard, threaded steel poles stuck out of the ground, staking the Howards' gardenias.

Justin slipped, later telling doctors that "it was like falling in slow motion." One of the half-inch-thick rods broke his fall, but pierced his body.

With his feet pointed toward the ground, the rod plunged into his abdomen above his navel and below his breastbone. The rod tore its way through the bottom of his heart's right ventricle, exiting through the top of that chamber, skimming within millimeters over the aorta and pulmonary arteries.

Had it pierced either, he would have bled to death in minutes.

It slammed through the thymus gland and ripped the right interior jugular vein diagonally, severing it. It skimmed off the carotid artery but did not leave his neck.

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