April 02, 1984 12:00 PM

Not long ago a telephone rang outside 4½-year-old Jimmy Tontlewicz’s toy-filled room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Noticing the unfamiliar sound, Jimmy asked, “What is that?”

For the physicians caring for the boy, there was cause for celebration in this simple stirring of childish curiosity. Less than two months before, Jimmy had fallen through the ice on Lake Michigan and disappeared in the frigid water. When recovered from the lake by frogman Peter Tomaskiewicz, after 20 minutes underwater, he was clinically dead. Step by painstaking step, rescuers and medical teams fought to reclaim the boy’s life. When Jimmy regained consciousness eight days after the Jan. 15 accident, his pediatrician, Dr. Robert Tanz, announced a new objective. “It is not a fight for life,” he said. “Right now we are fighting for Jimmy’s mind.” Weeks later, when Jimmy inquired about the ringing telephone, Dr. Paulette Harar, the institute’s director of pediatric rehabilitation, recognized a landmark. “He is beginning to process information from the outside world,” she said.

Jimmy’s planned release from the institute this week will end a dramatic human saga, followed through television and the newspapers by millions of people since that first heartrending moment when his apparently lifeless body was carried ashore. On several levels, not all of them medical, the struggle has been more taxing than people have known. Since their separation seven months before the accident, the boy’s parents have been bitter foes.

When Kathy Tontlewicz, 30, was told of her son’s accident, she instantly blamed her husband, Terrence, 36. Earlier that Sunday Kathy had objected to Terrence’s plan to take the tow-headed tyke snowmobiling (“He was not dressed warm enough for that stuff”). Little Jimmy, Kathy maintains, also protested fearfully. Entitled to two weekly visits under the divorce petition Kathy had filed in September 1983, Terrence decided at that point to take Jimmy sledding. Kathy again objected, but to no avail. She claims Jimmy had returned from earlier outings with his father with burned hands, the soles of his sneakers melted, and, on a third occasion, “distraught and terrified.” Jimmy’s burned hands, Terrence responds, resulted when the child touched a can of food heating over a camp fire.

Fear is not something that Terrence acknowledges, either for himself or his son. Dr. Tanz calls Terrence “a risk-taker.” He runs a motorcycle repair shop on the city’s Northwest Side, and is one of the leaders of a bike club called Hell’s Henchmen. His license plate, LUSER, is short for his club nickname, Dr. Luser, a reference to his fix-it abilities as well as to his once numerous traffic violations. Proudly, Terrence calls Jimmy “my monster, my tough guy,” and vows to teach him street smarts. On the back of a photograph taken on the big day when Jimmy finally agreed to take a motorcycle ride with his father, Terrence has scrawled, “That’s my little man.”

A Chicago native, Kathy has long been attracted to bikers. In her teens she traveled the country on the backs of motorcycles. Kathy married and divorced her first husband, also a biker, before she wed Terrence in 1977. She worked as Terrence’s bookkeeper and counterwoman while tending house and, later, Jimmy. But conflicts resulted in three separations. Last Thanksgiving, after spending time with friends, Kathy moved in with her mother and stepfather. She was there when the call came that her son had had a serious accident.

When Jimmy was pulled from the lake, paramedics noticed his skin was red, not blue. Despite the absence of other life signs, they began cardiac massage and other reviving techniques, astutely avoiding raising Jimmy’s 84-degree body temperature prematurely, which could have caused shock and burns. At the Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital, an emergency team stood ready. Using a gentle heat lamp, warmed intravenous fluids and warmed humidified oxygen, the team raised Jimmy’s body temperature over a three-hour period, jolting his heart electrically four times before it established a consistent beat.

Believing that her son was dead, Kathy sped to the Weiss emergency room, only to learn Jimmy had just been transferred to the intensive care ward of the Children’s Memorial Hospital. Before rushing there, she was asked if she wanted to visit Terrence, who was in a bed upstairs after suffering exposure while attempting to rescue the boy. “No,” she said, and stalked out. In mid-February, Kathy filed court papers to deny Terrence visiting rights on the grounds that he had endangered Jimmy’s life by exposing him to dangerous circumstances. Kathy alleged that prior to taking their child to the lakefront, Terrence “was involved in a party where dangerous drugs and alcohol were imbibed.” That charge is denied by Terrence, who bitterly accuses his wife of wanting to ruin him “so I have nothing left.”

While Kathy slept nights at Children’s Hospital, going home only three times in six weeks, Terrence arrived almost nightly to visit his son. Over weeks Jimmy’s brain functions returned one by one, starting with the most basic controls over respiration and progressing to movement and finally to thought and speech—one pattern of recovery following such a shutdown of the nervous system.

Before the accident Jimmy had been, in his mother’s words, “hyperactive. He did the opposite of what you’d say.” By September, certainly, his parents’ stormy marriage had severely disrupted Jimmy’s world. That month Kathy was forced to withdraw him from a $49-a-week nursery school, which he loved, when her funds ran out. He then spent many hours a day in front of the TV. In the early stages of his recuperation, Jimmy would whine, become easily frustrated and hide under his bed if he became upset. To counteract that, Dr. Tanz, who is on the staff of Children’s Hospital, decided to “work with him on a calm, quiet, structured level where he is only supposed to do one thing at a time.”

Avoiding overstimulation hasn’t always been easy. News accounts led to more than $200,000 being raised for Jimmy’s $100,000 medical expenses and future care. His room, decorated with hundreds of toys, cards and pictures sent by well-wishers, contrasted sharply with that of a 4-year-old girl who was revived at Weiss last fall after being submerged in Lake Michigan for more than 20 minutes. The girl’s parents have received no public donations (unlike the Tontlewiczs, they have medical insurance). She has gone home suffering from severe brain damage and is unable to eat or speak. Her prognosis is far darker than Jimmy’s.

Though Jimmy “is not normal” and may not have been even before his accident, Dr. Harar says he “is really doing very nicely.” She feels confident that attending a school for learning-disabled children will help return Jimmy to “the level of his previous potential.”

Terrence seems unchanged. “Why should I be more careful?” he blurts when asked if he has been cavalier with Jimmy. “Well, maybe I should be more careful in some ways, but this is an accident that could not happen to anyone again.” Then he adds, “A lot of kids who fell in like Jimmy didn’t make it. They didn’t have Jimmy’s fighting spirit. It saved him.”

Kathy Tontlewicz believes her son’s ordeal and recovery have changed her life. From the therapists she has learned the need for structure and discipline in Jimmy’s life. She plans to snatch the second chance with both hands. “After all, I almost lost Jimmy,” she says.

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