After losing his legs to a train, man wants to be first amputee to moon
BY JIM CARNEY
Knight Ridder Newspapers

AKRON, Ohio - KRT NEWSFEATURES

(KRT) - Leroy Sutton sits on the floor of his East Akron home and daydreams of walking on the moon. His face is lighted with a smile as bright as a summer sunrise.

``I'm going to be the first man on the moon with amputations,'' he says. ``I want to see if it's made of cheese.''

Then, on this mild afternoon in February, he breaks into the stream of contagious laughter that has become his trademark.

Daydreaming and laughter come easily to 11-year-old boys.

But Leroy is no longer an ordinary child. On Dec. 7, 2001, he was struck by a train while walking to school. He came close to dying. He lost both his legs.

What could he possibly have to laugh about? What could he dream of?

``I know I will be able to walk again,'' he says.

---

Go back a year and a day, to that moment when Leroy Sutton's world changes.

He and his 15-year-old brother, Tony, are walking along the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway railroad tracks near their home on Laird Avenue. Leroy is headed for Hotchkiss Elementary School; Tony is on his way to East High. A train rumbles by.

Leroy is too close to the tracks, and his backpack catches on one of the cars. His legs are pulled under the train's wheels.

Instinctively, Tony picks up his brother and runs, trying to get to a phone. Then he gently sets him down and runs some more. At American Metallizing & Sandblasting on Elinor Avenue, Tony yells for someone to call 911.

Within minutes, firefighters and paramedics from Akron's Fire Station No. 2 arrive.

Paramedic Michelle Reedy isn't sure whether Leroy is still alive. His right leg is smashed; his lower left leg is almost severed.

``When I saw him blink his eyes,'' she recalls, ``I thought, `I can do this.' ''

Leroy has a question for firefighter Keith Forfia. ``Do you think this will keep me from running track?'' he asks.

Forfia says usually when someone is struck by a train, he does not survive. But the quick action by Tony made all the difference in the world.

``His brother got us there fast enough for us to do something,'' Forfia says.

---

At Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron, Dr. John Crow's beeper goes off, telling him that a child had been struck by a train.

``I thought, the only way someone survives being run over by a train is, they end up losing their extremities,'' recalls Crow, who is the hospital's medical director for trauma.

Leroy's grandmother, Pat Sutton, who lives in Cleveland, rushes to the hospital.

Leroy's mother, Katrina Sutton, is working in Pittsburgh when the accident occurs and can't get to Akron for a few hours.

In the emergency room, Pat Sutton tells Leroy she will be there for him.

``Big Ma, I love you,'' Leroy says.

Pat Sutton prays over and over: ``God protect us from all hurt, harm and danger, seen and unseen.''

In surgery, Crow and his medical team determine that Leroy has no internal or pelvic injuries, but his legs cannot be saved.

His right mid-thigh was ``crushed beyond belief,'' Crow says, ``and his left lower leg was nearly completely amputated below the knee.''

Doctors remove Leroy's left leg below the knee and his right leg a few inches below the hip.

``The fact he is a child makes his chances of rehabilitation as good as it can be,'' Crow says. ``I think he will be able to walk with both prosthetics and assistance.''

---

By January, Leroy has a bed in the burn unit at Children's Hospital. In that unit, the grafts of skin taken from his left thigh to cover his stumps can get the treatment they need.

``Just thank Jesus because you still have a life,'' Katrina Sutton, a 29-year-old single mother of three, tells her son.

Leroy picks at a plate of pancakes. A feeding tube runs down his nose to keep high levels of protein flowing into his body.

Around the room are get-well cards - some of the estimated 5,000 that have arrived. Most are from total strangers.

``God will heal you and take all the pain,'' wrote a boy named Ernie from Akron's David Hill Elementary. ``I am glad you are alive.''

Another card is from Sandy Robinson, a youth minister from Martin United Methodist Church in Bedford, Texas, who was born in Ravenna, Ohio, and still has family in Portage County. She heard about Leroy from one of his nurses.

``You are on my prayer list at my church and will stay on it,'' Robinson wrote.

Bob Katzenmeyer and his 8-year-old golden retriever Samantha, part of the hospital's doggie brigade, walk in. Leroy gently rubs the dog when she puts her head next to his hand.

``She would climb right up in bed with him'' if allowed, says Katzenmeyer, a Goodyear retiree from Springfield Township, Ohio.

Katrina Sutton says her son is comforted by the dog, but he still hurts.

He feels pain where his legs used to be from the nerve endings that have been severed.

``His brain doesn't understand they're gone,'' Katrina says.

---

When it's time for Leroy to have his stump dressings changed, he's taken to the tub and dressing room.

Paul Bevere, a full-time Kent city firefighter, who works in the burn unit part-time and registered nurses Elaine Thompson and Karen Abay, remove the bandages from Leroy's wounds.

The aluminum, whirlpool tub is filled with 100-degree water, bleach and soap, and Leroy soon is covered head to toe in fluffy, white suds. His eyes barely peek through the soap.

``It feels good,'' Leroy says.

Thompson tells the boy that he is in control of how he deals with the accident.

``I tell him he can have a pity party for himself,'' she says, or he can work ``so that he can walk again.''

After the therapy is done, Bevere carries Leroy back to his room, where he quickly pulls himself into a wheelchair and travels to a nurses' report room. There, a group of nurses is eating Chinese food.

Someone gives Leroy a fortune cookie, which he eats, though he doesn't read the slip of paper inside.

His mother takes the fortune, reads it and hands it back to Leroy for him to read.

``Where there is a will, there is a way,'' he says.

---

As his recovery continues, Leroy learns to get himself in and out of a bathtub seat. He works with therapists to strengthen his upper body.

Occupational therapist Lori Jubara is pleased with his progress.

``The advantage for Leroy is, he is very strong,'' she says.

Occupational therapist Diane Woods shows Leroy how to do push-ups from his wheelchair and asks him to do 10.

``You are going to be independent before you know it,'' she tells him.

Later that day, Leroy works with physical therapist Jody Kreitzburg. He gets onto a padded table where Kreitzburg helps him stretch.

As they work, Leroy's 4-year-old sister, Keyaira, plays at a doll house in the therapy room. She picks up a miniature wheelchair and sits a little doll in it.

The session is painful. For several minutes, Leroy lies quietly on the table. Then he whispers to the therapist:

``Ahhh. Give me more pain medicine.''

But a few days later, Leroy is laughing and playing a Jazzman saxophone player as he tosses a yellow, peanut-shaped ball with physical therapist assistant Joan Oldham.

She explains that the exercise builds up Leroy's trunk strength.

``His center of gravity and balance is totally different than what it was,'' Oldham says.

After throwing around balls and toys, he lies on a mat and stretches his head up to strengthen his back muscles. Then he's taken to a room where he gets on a swing set.

A smile slashes across his face.

``I can still swing,'' he says.

---

After nearly six weeks at Children's Hospital, it's time for Leroy to be discharged. Throughout the day, doctors, nurses and other staff members come into his room to say goodbye.

The day is a beginning as well as an ending. Frank T. Coppolino and Beth Orzell, from Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics of Norton, Ohio, start the process of making prosthetic legs for Leroy. The company and some of its suppliers are donating the legs, which cost an estimated $25,000.

``We're gonna get you on your feet again,'' says Coppolino, director of prosthetic orthotic services for the company.

Cindy Belacic, a licensed practical nurse, snaps a Polaroid picture of Leroy for a large bulletin board filled with photos of patients who have been treated at the burn unit.

``Some of these kids - we got real attached to,'' she says, adding that Leroy is one of them. ``We just love this kid.''

Before Leroy leaves, Belacic hugs him and touches his head. She waves as he is wheeled to a waiting ambulance.

``All right, goober, you do what you have to do,'' she says.

---

Leroy's hospital days aren't over, however. From Children's, he goes to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation's Children's Hospital for Rehabilitation.

There, Dr. Douglas E. Henry, who specializes in rehabilitation medicine, says Leroy's wounds are healing slowly.

He's also having trouble straightening his left leg, which was amputated below the knee.

``Scar tissue has tightened up,'' Henry says. ``It could take months to stretch it out.''

Leroy's journey to walk again will start with the left leg, the doctor says. He will have to learn to walk with his left leg using a walker or crutches before he can move to the right.

``It is very, very nice that he has a below-knee stump,'' Henry says.

One day at the Cleveland hospital, over a lunch of french fries, pizza and potato chips, Leroy talks about the accident.

``I still have pain,'' he says.

Who is your hero? he is asked.

``My brother,'' he replies. ``He helped me get away from the train.''

Leroy says it was Tony who carried him after the accident. It was Tony who ran to have someone call 911.

If Tony hadn't been there, ``I would still be laying there,'' Leroy says.

Right after the accident, Leroy didn't feel any pain.

``I closed my eyes,'' he says. ``I didn't want to see the parts that were hanging.''

He emphasizes that his brother has always been his hero.

He used to put ``cookie crumbs in my cradle,'' he says.

Then he smiles.

---

On Feb. 1, Leroy comes home.

Because there are no ramps in the front or back of the duplex where the family lives, his mother picks him up and carries him inside.

A large sign hangs over a doorway saying that $6,840.87 has been collected in the Leroy Sutton Benevolent Foundation. The family's hospital bills - eventually totaling more than $190,000 - are covered by Medicaid.

In a corner of the dining room, Leroy sits and opens Christmas presents he hasn't seen yet. He's happy to be home.

``God is answering our prayers,'' Katrina Sutton says.

Though there are still questions about the accident, she says, ``you can't question why.''

A few days later, the final prosthesis is finished and Beth Orzell and Kyle Underwood, both certified prosthetists from Hanger, Ohio, come to the physical therapy department at Children's Hospital to work with Leroy.

Underwood, 38, has been in Leroy's place. When he was 12, he was diagnosed with cancer and his right leg was amputated at the hip. He offers encouragement about the road ahead.

Leroy fits his stump with a gel liner and puts a white sock over the stump.

The prosthesis is brown and is made of an acrylic epoxy resin. Leroy puts the fitted section of the prosthesis over the sock and then struggles to connect the leg to that section. When he hears a click, that indicates the leg has snapped into place.

``What do you think?'' Orzell asks.

``It's heavy,'' Leroy answers.

Underwood offers more encouragement: ``You'll get there. ... It is important to count your blessings.''

---

On Feb. 13, Ash Wednesday, Leroy has a visitor.

Sandy Robinson, the youth minister from Texas, comes to see the young man she has been corresponding with.

She bends over and hugs Leroy as he sits on the floor. She shows him pictures of the boys and girls in her youth group who are praying for his recovery.

Leroy takes out his artificial leg and tries to put it on, but he can't get the left leg to snap in place.

``Let's pray,'' Robinson says. ``Maybe it will help.''

They hold hands, and Leroy closes his eyes while Robinson prays that the leg will fit on the stump.

``And we thank you for your blessings,'' she adds.

Then, she says: ``This leg is gonna go on, baby.''

On the next try, Leroy snaps the leg in place. A huge smile rushes across his face.

``What a smile you have, kiddo,'' Robinson says.

His mother holds him up as he stands on the leg.

And then Leroy takes one step.

``You are gonna do things you have never seen, sweetheart,'' Robinson says as she watches mother and son. ``We had God helping us this time.''

---

Many others offer Leroy help and encouragement.

Reggie Colton, who was run over by a train in Florida in 1977, when he was 12 years old, calls on the phone.

One of his legs was cut off below the knee and the other above the knee, but within two years both legs were amputated above the knee because of complications.

Within a few months of his accident, Colton walked with artificial legs. He went on to play wheelchair basketball in the Paralympics, winning a gold medal in 1992 and bronze medal in 1996. He played professional wheelchair basketball for the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks and hopes to continue playing for them.

``It is important to stay positive and not get down on yourself,'' he says.

Colton now uses a wheelchair full-time.

``At some point,'' he says, ``you have to stop questioning and asking God, `Why me,' and you have to accept this is the way it is now and make the most of what you have.''

On Feb. 20, Leroy is honored by students and teachers at Alexander Graham Bell School in Cleveland, where his grandmother, Pat Sutton, works as a security officer.

The school raised money to buy Leroy an authentic African drum.

During a school assembly, Leroy thanks the students, teachers and parents who have been praying for him.

``We are all responsible for every child,'' says Alice Backus, the school's music educator.

---

To get Leroy to a physical therapy appointment, his mother must carry him down icy steps and out to her car.

``I am doing 15 things at one time,'' she says.

The strain of dealing with Leroy's injuries and getting him to his many medical appointments clearly is frustrating.

``You take it one day at a time,'' she says.

At physical therapy, Leroy works on his upper body strength by doing push-ups on the parallel bars.

``That is what you call muscles,'' he says as he pumps his arms.

His arms and upper body have gone through a major transformation since the accident.

``He is incredible,'' physical therapist Jody Kreitzburg says of Leroy's strength.

Leroy puts on one of his legs and holds himself up on the parallel bars with Kreitzburg's assistance. His smile changes to a grimace as he tries to straighten out.

After taking four steps, holding onto Kreitzburg, the therapist tells him: ``You are doing all this with your arms.''

Put your weight on your foot, she says.

But Leroy is getting tired. He goes to another machine, still wearing his prosthesis, and does a series of exercises pushing 60 pounds of weight with his artificial leg.

``Now this is hard,'' he says.

---

It's 6:45 a.m. April 1, and Leroy is sitting in the dark on the floor of his home watching cartoons and eating an oatmeal cookie.

His brother, Tony, is in the kitchen finishing the dishes and his sister, Keyaira, is having her hair combed by her mother.

Leroy is excited. He's going back to school.

``I want to work,'' he says.

But he no longer is a student at Hotchkiss Elementary. His new school is Case Elementary in Northwest Akron. It is more accessible to wheelchairs.

He gets there at 8:15 a.m., and homeroom teacher Tracey Cason is waiting for him at the door.

``Hello, Leroy,'' she says.

Principal Karen Gegick compliments him on his hat - a multicolored, braided one that sprouts dreadlocks.

Fifth-grade teacher Doreen Slinger has a question: ``Are you ready?''

Leroy grins and is assigned a desk and a locker.

Before spring break, Leroy, his mother and his sister visited Case and answered questions from students and teachers.

``They are real familiar with him,'' says Cason of Leroy. ``He wants to be treated with respect - just like you and me.''

---

Later in April, Leroy needs additional surgery to help straighten his left leg, making it more flexible. More skin is grafted.

His grandmother, Pat Sutton, says Leroy's attitude has always been positive and upbeat.

``There is nothing to be depressed about,'' she says.

Leroy overhears her talking about his state of mind.

``The past is the past,'' he says. ``The future is now.''

Late that month, a fund-raiser is held by the Kent State University interfraternity council at a Kent bar. A thousand dollars is raised to benefit Leroy and his family.

``I think people wanted to help because they felt connected to him,'' says Kent State student Kelsey Cannatti. ``He is a part of our community.''

Students at the university want to help, she says, ``because they want to see him have the best life he can.''

She recalls meeting Leroy for the first time.

``He wheeled himself around and laughed and played like any other 11-year-old,'' she says. ``... He was faced with so much, and instead of feeling sorry and resentful, he's moving and making the best of his life.''

---

At Case Elementary, Leroy makes new friends. He goes to a party at Rocky's Skating Center in Tallmadge, and while the other fifth-graders are on roller skates, he zips along on his wheelchair with his sister hanging on the back.

``He has a good attitude,'' says classmate Dario Ingol. ``And he's fun.''

Dario and the other students have no doubts that Leroy will walk again someday.

When the class dances to the Cha-Cha Slide, Leroy climbs out of his chair and wiggles on the floor.

``I think he's cute,'' Jessica Higginbotham says.

Another classmate, Victoria Humphreys, says Leroy is able to do the ``unexpected.'' He is able to move so well, it almost ``seems like he has legs.''

A few days before the end of the school year, Case holds its Moving Up Day, in which all 66 fifth-graders are recognized and given certificates in a symbolic conclusion of grade school.

``While at Case,'' says fifth-grade teacher Doreen Slinger, ``you learned what it takes to be successful.''

Leroy sits in the front row wearing a white shirt and dark pants. With his classmates, he sings a song called Possibilities:

``So many possibilities, so many ways to go.

``What will I be,

``Where will I go,

``What will my path be.

``I see possibilities, possibilities.''

As the ceremony ends, Case principal Karen Gegick offers some advice.

``Wheresoever you go,'' she says, ``go with all of your heart.''

---

As summer begins, Leroy sees what the future may hold for him.

The Ken Venturi National Amputee and Junior Amputee Golf Tournament at Fox Den Golf Course in Stow is sponsored by Hanger Orthopedics, and Leroy gets to meet Dana Bowman and Dima Sitnik.

In a 1994 parachuting accident while he was a member of the U.S. Army's Golden Knights jumping team, Bowman lost one leg above the knee and one below the knee, just like Leroy.

``What's up, Leroy?'' Bowman asks after parachuting onto the golf course.

Bowman, who has made 500 jumps since his accident, says he wants to inspire people like Leroy so that they can ``reach for the stars.''

Dima Sitnik, 20, a native of Minsk in the former Soviet Union, lost both legs when he was hopping a train.

He spent a year in a Russian hospital, and then a church brought him to the United States for more treatment. He was adopted by Randy Richardson, who works for Hanger as a photographer.

``It takes a lot of hard work,'' Sitnik tells Leroy. ``At first, you have blisters. But it heals up.''

``I'm not jumping out of a plane,'' Leroy says.

Sitnik asks Leroy if he misses his legs, but without giving him a second to respond, he adds: ``Forget about them. Get beyond it. Just move on.''

Bowman watches Leroy as he sits listening in his wheelchair.

``We have to get him going,'' he says.

---

Leroy sits in a physical therapy room at Children's Hospital. It's Sept. 25.

He easily puts the prosthesis on his left leg and struggles to get the artificial leg on his right. Finally, the right leg snaps onto the socket on his stump.

Putting weight on both legs, he grabs onto a walker as therapist Jody Kreitzburg holds a belt that is wrapped around his waist.

Using the artificial legs, Leroy slowly walks.

Moving the left leg is much easier for him than moving the right. To do so, he must shift the weight on his right hip and throw the right leg where he wants it to go.

His mouth is shut tight as he slowly makes his way across the room. With each step, his hands clench the rails of the walker.

Finally Leroy stops. He lifts his hands from the walker and raises them into the air in a Rocky pose.

---

For the new school year, Leroy enrolls at Litchfield Middle School, but he doesn't stay there long. In early November, his family moves to Hudson and he becomes a student at Hudson Middle School.

Though he wears his artificial legs, he doesn't walk on them. He still uses his wheelchair.

Jody Kreitzburg, his physical therapist at Children's, believes that Leroy has the ability to walk again.

But she's frustrated because he has only come for physical therapy six times in nearly six months.

``He needs to practice walking,'' Kreitzburg says. ``If he doesn't practice walking, it is probably not going to happen.''

Katrina Sutton seems overwhelmed by all the demands being put on her. She started working at GOJO Industries earlier in the year, and setting up appointments for Leroy and getting him there is difficult.

She says she is doing the best she can, but needs assistance from somewhere.

``I need help,'' she says.

---

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Leroy Sutton is one of Children's Hospital's eight ``Miracle Kids'' on hand for the 21st annual Holiday Tree Festival at Quaker Station in downtown Akron. He gets to cut the ribbon opening the hospital fund-raiser.

Leroy is in a talkative mood.

He says he likes his new school, likes living in Hudson, not too far from the border of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

``One night we saw seven deer and some rabbits and a coyote,'' he says.

His upper body is getting really strong. Three times a week, he lifts weights in an exercise room, and he can press 200 pounds. He's also been playing some basketball in his wheelchair at school.

On this day, with more than 200 beautiful Christmas trees sparkling and a holiday feel in the air, he speaks in words that don't often come from someone now 12 years old.

Leroy says he has never looked back. Without hesitation, he says his life is better now than before the accident.

``I have my strength, and my pride and my dignity,'' he says.

He is thankful for how the accident has transformed his life.

``It has given me the stuff I need,'' he says.

The dream is still there, too, but it's bigger now.

``I want to go to the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Pluto and Saturn,'' he says.

Then Leroy Sutton breaks into a sparkling laugh and wheels into a sea of Christmas trees.

---

Contributions to help Leroy Sutton can be made to the Leroy Sutton Benevolent Fund at any FirstMerit Bank branch. More than $7,000 has been raised since his accident.

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