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In the News and Out: Hit by school van, Katlynn still healing

Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

With just four days of school before winter break, Janine Frazier's fourth-grade homeroom at Westwood Elementary School was buzzing with activity.

Most youngsters who had finished reviewing their spelling work were cutting white paper squares into snowflakes to decorate the classroom walls. A few boys had moved on to sketching tough-looking comic book characters.

Classmate Emily Stanley, left, shows Katlynn Comer the paper snowflake she made in Janine Frazier's fourth-grade class at Westwood Elementary School. The 9-year-old survived multiple internal after she was hit by a van in February. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)


In the news and out, 2002

People make the news. But after their 15 minutes of fame, they often disappear from view. Starting today and running through New Year's Day, the Post-Gazette is revisiting 2002 newsmakers to see how they have fared since their moment in the spotlight.

Day One: Hit by school van, Katlynn still healing

Day Two: Badly burned young man stays upbeat

Day Three: Injured ironworker still finds accident site too hard to handle

Day Four: A trio of tots makes holiday a triple joy for proud parents


At one cluster of desks, Katlynn Comer sat calmly, alternately thumbing through papers in a folder and reading a few pages in a book.

Eventually, the 9-year-old in her blue-and-green-striped sweater and black pants would join a classmate in one corner of the room, where they would giggle and chat as they designed their snowflakes.

Later, she would place a red Santa cap with a puffy white ball at the point and a green bill over her short blond hair to participate in a concert in the school auditorium. She and other pupils at the West End school would regale family and friends with holiday classics such as "The Eight Days of Hanukkah," "O Tannenbaum" and "Mama Bake the Johnnycake Christmas Comin'."

But whether she focused on class work or joined classmates in song, Katlynn seemed almost light years away from the girl who 10 months ago was fighting to live after being struck by a school van just steps from her home.

Only an occasional limp and a slight seriousness noticeable in one so young gave any indication that she had survived a major trauma. It would take a conversation with her mother and doctors to fill in the blanks about her progress and struggles.

Katlynn didn't talk much about the difficulties. She was just glad to be able to pick up where she left off.

"It feels really good being back in school with friends and just to be learning," she said.

It was a chilly afternoon Feb. 25 when Katlynn got off her school bus and walked up Lorenz Avenue to Steuben Street in Elliott. As she crossed Steuben to get to her home, she was hit by a school van driven by Jonathan Brown of Braddock. Her list of injuries included a broken right leg, skull and pelvis fractures, bruises to the brain and lungs, and liver and spleen damage.

"She was as close to heaven as you could get, and she turned around and came back," said Dr. Stephen Mendelson, an orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital. "They wouldn't let us operate on her to stabilize her broken bones for a week, and usually they let us stabilize immediately or by the next day. She was so tenuous, they were afraid to even move her."

Brown lost his job because police discovered that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.03, under the state's 0.10 threshold for drunken driving but still too high for his company, which had a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol consumption during work hours.

The state Legislature recently passed a bill by state Sen. Jay Costa Jr., D-Wilkins, called Katlynn's Law that lowers the allowable blood-alcohol limit for drivers of school buses and vans to 0.02.

Because of residents' complaints after the accident, City Council also agreed to install a traffic light at Steuben and Lorenz. The light was expected to be installed by Labor Day, but Fred Reginella, the city's director of engineering and construction, said it took consultants longer than expected to conduct an engineering study. He's now hoping construction will begin next month.

Katlynn, meanwhile, has been trying to rebuild her fragile life.

After the accident, she was in a coma for about three weeks and suffered two heart attacks, her mother, Julie Bray, said. Katlynn also underwent four surgeries, including one in which her leg was reinforced with two flexible titanium rods.

By March 20, Katlynn had recovered enough to be transferred to Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill to begin rehabilitation.

Within a month she could talk and sit in a wheelchair, but it would be May before she would be able to take halting steps on her own. By the time she was allowed to go home June 30, she could use crutches to walk around the house but still required a wheelchair if she wanted to travel longer distances.

She continued physical therapy three days a week, taking a break only for a two-week trip to Disney World in September, compliments of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Then in October, the titanium rods were removed.

Bray said the rods were taken out because they were starting to protrude and irritate her knee.

Also, the steroids Katlynn had been taking had caused her weight to jump from 56 to 84 pounds.

After recovering from knee surgery and ending physical therapy, Katlynn returned to school near the end of October, stepping in the classroom for the first time since the accident.

"She's adjusted. She's an excellent student," said Linda Bryant, the school principal. "It's like she hasn't missed a beat."

Bray had a more sobering assessment of her daughter's progress.

Katlynn has had to relearn some things she mastered last year, her mother said. She must take tests verbally or write answers in printed letters because she can't do cursive writing.

Because she still loses her balance at times, she doesn't take gym classes or play during recess and is only supposed to go up stairs once a day.

Katlynn also has to have a "book bag buddy" to carry her books, and completing homework has become more difficult.

"I've seen improvement," Bray said. "But you find improvement in one thing and five more things go wrong somewhere else."

Dr. David Adelson, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's, said Katlynn's memory and writing problems weren't unusual, given the nature of her injuries.

Because she's young, her brain will probably develop new memory connections to compensate for those damaged in the accident, he said. Usually it takes about two years to determine how much function will be regained after someone's brain has suffered severe trauma.

Mendelson added that even Katlynn's limp may be attributable to her head injury, much like someone who has had a stroke, rather than any physical problems.

"Her orthopedic injuries have healed up pretty well," he said. "Overall, I think her recovery has been tremendous because she was literally on death's door."

Still, last spring's restless, animated pixie who was so eager to resume walking seemed more subdued last week.

Katlynn still has a great sense of humor, her mother said, but this has been a rough year for the family because of her daughter's accident and because Bray has been battling cancer.

Also, Katlynn has had to deal with some children at school teasing her about her limp, memory lapses and additional weight.

While she didn't talk about these experiences, Katlynn mentioned that one of her favorite books this year was titled "Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade." The story is about a girl who befriends a new student whom other classmates tease because she's overweight.

Katlynn said she liked the book because it was funny, but she acknowledged that she could relate to the story.

"I didn't think it was fair that I couldn't walk and do some of things the other kids were doing," she said. But as she prepared to join her classmates for the holiday concert, she added that she didn't feel that way anymore. "I think everything is fair right now."

Tomorrow: Burn victim Eric Hilliard


Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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