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One Tragedy Too Many Brings Signal to Street : Accident: Gustavo Palacios nearly lost his life when he was hit by a car in a congested intersection. Now he's coming home, and a traffic light has been installed at the site.

March 19, 1992|MICHAEL UTLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ROSEMEAD — The new traffic signal at Walnut Grove Avenue and Wells Street is just one source of thankfulness these days for Vidal and Marilu Palacios. Another is the continuing recovery of their son, Gustavo, who was run down by a car in the intersection on Dec. 5.

The signal, at an increasingly congested intersection, had long been desired by residents of this neighborhood just north of the San Bernardino Freeway (10). After the accident involving 14-year-old Gustavo, a community outcry led to a decision to install the signal.

Since the accident, Gustavo has been confined to three different hospitals, struggling for five weeks to pull out of a coma and after that to regain his physical and mental abilities.

But as the new signal went up last week, so did Gustavo's chances for recovery.

On Friday, 106 days after the accident, doctors at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey are planning to send the youth home.

"To us, this has all been a miracle," said his mother, Marilu, a teacher with the Covina Valley Unified School District. "Three months ago when the doctors told us he might die, we never even dreamed things might turn around so quickly."

Gustavo is in good spirits. He is on a daily therapy program that includes speech lessons as well as physical exercise. He often rushes through the first few activities so he can get to his favorite--riding a training bike around the hospital grounds.

With all the positive news of late, however, doctors still cannot say whether Gustavo will be able to recover enough to return to a regular high school. In his current condition, he would require special schooling.

Gustavo was on his way home from wrestling practice when he was hit in a crosswalk by a 1979 Chevrolet van going 45 to 50 m.p.h. He was thrown 76 feet, according to the sheriff's report.

He was initially treated at County/USC Medical Center for injuries that included a broken right collarbone and left hipbone, a brain injury, vision impairment, and neuromuscular impairment caused by the contraction of his body into a fetal position due to the trauma of the accident. He underwent brain surgery and was kept in casts for three months to straighten out his arms and legs. Sheriff's deputies have waited to see how Gustavo's recovery would go before citing the driver, 27-year-old Michael Lynn Morrison of San Gabriel. They have said they plan to cite Morrison for failure to yield to a pedestrian.

After the accident, a neighborhood furor erupted at the next meeting of the Rosemead City Council, where it is unusual to have more than a dozen or so in the audience. About 150 friends, neighbors and classmates--many in tears--jammed the council chambers demanding that the city do something about the intersection, where a 54-year-old man had been killed by a hit-and-run driver only a month before.

After calling for a special meeting to consider the matter the following week, the council voted 3 to 0 in favor of installing the $90,000 traffic signal.

"I'm really glad they put that up there," Gustavo said from his hospital room. "Now, maybe nobody else will get hit there."

Gustavo knows about the accident because his parents told him. But he has no independent memory of the hours leading up to it or the several weeks that followed.

He talks about it easily, without depression or bitterness.

"When my mom and dad told me I got hit by a car, it was kinda weird," he said during a recent interview at the hospital. "I just thought I'd fallen down the stairs."

And he hasn't given up on any of the goals he had set before the accident. He still wants to attend UCLA to study music, which he has come to love through playing clarinet in the Rosemead High School and Muscatel Junior High School bands.

"We bought him a UCLA cap when he started coming out of the coma," his father said.

Gustavo also fully remembers all the family members who have been by his side every day since the accident: his parents; his three brothers, Vidal, Diego, and Mauricio; and his grandmother, Connie Martinez--all of whom will be coordinating their work schedules around taking care of Gustavo once he has returned home.

"It's because of our strong family bond that the doctors are letting him come home so early," said his mother. "They know we'll be there 24 hours a day to take care of him until he recovers from this."

He doesn't see himself as a victim, he said. In fact, sometimes he feels more like a celebrity, with all the attention he's been getting. At Rosemead High School, Jan. 17 was Gustavo Palacios Day and the school raised more than $1,000 in donations from its students and booster clubs.

Gustavo was also the subject of a story on the school's "Rosemead Report" closed-circuit cable television program, as well as several articles in the Panther's Tale student newspaper.

"He's been walking around the hospital lately asking people: 'Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?' " said his mother. ' "I was on TV the other day,' he says."

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