Two weeks after a stray bullet pierced his brain, 4-year-old Quantae Maurice Johnson walked out of Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday with a huge smile and a prognosis that his doctors called "miraculous."
The little boy from East Baltimore, who clutched a balloon bouquet and wore a blue hat emblazoned with his nickname, "Pookie," has survived his injury without any serious mental or physical problems, his doctors said. He should walk, talk, think and play like any healthy boy his age.
But the same doctors who marveled about his recovery used the occasion to voice their horror about the "epidemic" of random gunfire that has sent 20 children to two city emergency rooms so far this year.
"The world for children has become too dangerous," said Dr. David G. Nichols, director of Hopkins' pediatric intensive care unit, where Quantae spent much of his time while in the hospital. "The adults of the community have to say enough is enough. The guns have to be removed from the street."
The figures reflect children who have been admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center, the two hospitals that treat most of the critically injured children in Baltimore. Throughout 1990, 21 children were sent to the hospitals with gunshot wounds.
Dr. J. Alex Haller Jr., director of pediatric surgery, said some of the young victims, like Quantae, were hit by gunfire intended for someone else. Others were victims of accidental firings that occurred when a child mistook a household gun for a toy, or when adults mishandled guns they purchased to protect their family from the violence of the streets.
"We can take care of them once they get to the hospital," Dr. Haller said. "But it would be far better not to have them shot."
Although he cautioned that doctors are "not smart enough" to find the perfect legislative medicine, he presented a proposal that Hopkins doctors who are involved in the treatment of injured children hope could stem some of the violence. Their plan calls for a state law requiring the safe storage of handguns, and criminal background checks for people who want to buy handguns, along with mandatory waiting periods and gun safety courses.
For "Pookie," life has taken a dramatic upturn since Sept. 7 when gunfire erupted outside his grandmother's house on North Castle Street, and a bullet flew through an open window and came to a rest in the rear of Quantae's brain. A week into his hospital stay, the large-caliber slug was removed from his brain.
"Quantae is a miracle," Dr. Johnson said. "These things usually don't happen."
A pediatric neurologist, Dr. John M. Freeman, said later in the day that the boy has a slight degree of paralysis on one side of his face.
When asked how he felt, Quantae smiled and whispered something about wanting to play when he got home. His mother, Carmelita Allen, said she was happy and amazed at her son's recovery, but she felt helpless to say what ought to be done to make neighborhoods less dangerous for children.
"I can't prevent it," she said. "There's nothing much I can do."