Thursday, December 5, 2002

D.J. and Pat


A picture of what might be

map

Pat McCollum insists she is no saint. But I am not convinced. Her house in College Hill is orderly, even though she has seven kids, most of whom did not belong to her originally. Plus, she not only has trimmed her Christmas tree, but there are gifts underneath. Wrapped.

It was not always this way, she says. A little more than 40 years ago, she was an unwed mother who left high school at age 15. She went to night school and summer school whenever she could between working and caring for her baby daughter. She was awarded her high school diploma a year early.

The first African-American Playboy Bunny in Cincinnati, she kept working and studying. Now she has a master's degree in social work, teaches at the University of Cincinnati and is one of Hamilton County's frontline foster mothers. "She can always be counted on to take tough cases," says spokesperson Laurie Petrie.

About four years ago, they had a case that is about as tough as it gets: a 9-year-old boy who'd been burned over 85 percent of his body when another child dropped a match onto his bed. D.J. was horribly disfigured. No feet, only one hand and one ear. Antibiotics to fight infection left him deaf. A cardiac arrest left him with brain damage.

mug
D.J.
When the caseworker with the county described the boy to Pat, asking her to take him, she said succinctly, "Hell, no." Then, Pat says, she agreed to do it just temporarily, "if they couldn't get anybody else." They couldn't.

D.J. is hardly an ordinary challenge. It takes about 30 people every month to help this boy. Therapists, teachers, doctors. And one mother.

Pat wound up adopting D.J. "He was sitting on my lap one day," she says. "And I was singing." He put his mangled right hand on one side of her face and cradled the other side with his good hand, then pulled her head down to his remaining ear. Trying to hear.

"Right then, he had me," Pat says. "I love his beautiful little self."

Matthew Richmond, 12, died in 1997 after he was put in a tub of scalding water by his mother's boyfriend. Strangers left balloons and teddy bears at the boy's grave, as has become the custom when children die. Tributes from strangers, no doubt sincere. But considerably more antiseptic and easier than the tribute Pat pays to a grievously hurt child who survived.

D.J. wears a diaper, which he removes every chance he has. Lots of messes. And inarticulate frustration. Pounding the floor, grunting. Pat calls her son "a gift." D.J. loves water, and when Pat saw the look on his face the first time he floated in a pool, "I was in heaven."

She may insist that she is no saint, but there is something divine about this. Put your thumb over the left side of D.J.'s picture here to see what he might have been - a perfectly beautiful little boy.

Or you can look at the whole picture and see what Pat sees. An imperfectly beautiful little boy.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.




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