Ten-year-old P.J. Allen has always loved everything about school. Neighbors used to see him hanging around the elementary playground up the street from his house. Teachers remember how excited he was the day they allowed him to pose for a class picture. Two years ago, says his grandmother, he even topped his Christmas list with a request for “a recess.”
Normally, that kind of eagerness would have made any family proud. But for P.J.’s kin it nearly broke their hearts. The last time he was enrolled in anything resembling a classroom was on the morning of April 19, 1995, when his grandmother dropped him off at the America’s Kids daycare center near their home in Oklahoma City. An hour later a powerful explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children at the second-floor daycare center. Nineteen-month-old P.J. was miraculously thrown clear of the building, but he had suffered burns over 55 percent of his body, a ruptured eardrum and a broken arm that was fractured in three places. Searing fumes from the burning building had also caused irreversible damage to his lungs.
But on the morning of Jan. 20, two weeks after the removal of a tracheotomy tube that had fed oxygen to his scarred lungs for close to nine years, a high-spirited P.J. breezed through the doors of Stonegate Elementary School, wheeling a book bag behind him. He looked just like any other fifth grader—except that this was the first time P.J. had ever officially attended school. “I feel great. My teacher gives me the same work as everyone else, and I’m making new friends,” says P.J. As his grandmother Deloris Watson, 52, puts it, “Obstacles stand in his way and P.J. barrels right through them. This child knows no limitations.”
That much was obvious even in the hours after the explosion. Early that morning Watson, who has been P.J.’s prime caregiver ever since her young daughter’s marriage dissolved soon after P.J. was born, took him to daycare on her way to work as a phone technician. At 9:02 a.m., while responding to a service call, she heard “a big blast,” learned what had happened at the Murrah Building and rushed to try to find the boy. Even in the pandemonium at the scene, “it never occurred to me that he didn’t survive,” she says. “I thought, ‘He’s screaming his head off trying to find me.’ ”
Watson’s husband, Willie, a furniture salesman, located her, and the two eventually made their way to Oklahoma City’s Children’s Hospital. In the chaos Watson was taken into the intensive care unit, where she saw a gauze-wrapped bundle on a table. Visible through a gap in the bandages was a belly button that she recognized immediately. “I know every inch of that child,” she told a nurse. “That’s P.J.”
For the first 24 hours doctors weren’t sure that P.J. would survive. “It was a grueling time,” says Watson’s mother-in-law, Lois Felder-Jones. “We held the family together by praying.” Watson, who noticed from his medical monitor that P.J. seemed to respond to the sound of her voice, read him nursery rhymes as he slipped in and out of consciousness. “He was fighting to be with me,” she says, “and I was fighting to be with him.”
P.J. made it through those first critical hours, and for the next few weeks fought his way through a grueling recovery period. He suffered recurring life-threatening infections, his burns required careful treatment, and doctors closely monitored his damaged lungs. Remarkably, just two months later, outfitted with a trach tube, P.J.—one of the blast’s youngest survivors—was sent home from the hospital.
Then came the hard part. Though she remained a constant in his life, P.J.’s biological mother, Demetria Quashijah, was working full-time, so the responsibility for P.J.’s round-the-clock care fell to Watson. For two years she and relatives took turns sleeping on the floor next to P.J.’s oxygen tank, waking to pound his back to loosen mucus in his lungs, rushing him to the emergency room sometimes twice a month, whenever he woke in the night unable to breathe. Says Felder-Jones: “It was a sad and hectic time, but Deloris’s life became his.”
That task took its toll. In the wake of the bombing, Watson’s eight-year marriage to Willie collapsed under the strain. Although most of P.J.’s medical bills have been paid, she has had to struggle to make ends meet. As her grandson grew older and his injuries kept him from attending regular classes, Watson says, she recently had to battle the local school board to persuade them to provide him with a teacher at home. In the course of her struggles, she says, “I learned that living can be a lot harder than dying.”
All the while, doctors continued to worry that the trach opening in P.J.’s throat made him vulnerable to life-threatening infections. Though he was allowed to take brief outings and occasionally played with other children, his physicians recommended he not be exposed to large groups of people. Meanwhile his delicate new skin required that he spend much of his time indoors, in a custom-built playroom outfitted with special glass to filter out ultraviolet rays. “I could tell P.J. was miserable,” says Watson. “He wanted to go to school and be like other kids.”
The breakthrough came last year. Through the Internet, Watson learned about a technique devised by a surgeon, Dr. Robin Cotton at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, that would enlarge P.J.’s scarred windpipe and larynx, allowing his trach tube to be removed. And so, on Jan. 6, just weeks after Cotton performed the three-part procedure, P.J. sat in a Cincinnati hospital room and, under the watchful eye of a nurse practitioner, slipped the trach tube out of his windpipe himself. “Now,” he said triumphantly, “I won’t have anyone stare at me anymore.”
Actually, within days of joining his class of 29 other boys and girls, P.J. did face occasional teasing about the slight whistling sound he makes when he breathes because of the small hole in his throat left from the trach tube. “But that’s okay,” he says. “I just ignore them.” P.J., who enjoys playing basketball and golf, says he is looking forward to the day when the hole is completely healed, so that his grandfather Willie can take him swimming for the first time. And until then there’s something else to look forward to, and it comes nearly every day. “School is great,” says P.J. “But recess is the best.”
Susan Schindehette. Giovanna Breu in Oklahoma City and Simon Perry in London