GONE IN AN INSTANT Family struggles to cope after accident shatters world


Philip Bice clings to his father's hand and says, "When can I go home?"

The boy speaks in a whisper. His eyebrows arch, and his big green eyes plead. He wants to get out of this hospital.

His father, Steve, following Philip through another day of therapy, says gently that he'll see. He'll talk to the doctor about Philip going home.

But the father knows that home is an empty place now.

He knows what other victims of sudden, unpredictable tragedies have learned so painfully: that life's comforts and security can be shattered in an instant, that lives so ordered and fine can be transformed forever.

A dump truck ran a red light in Columbia on April 29 and slammed into the car driven by Philip's mother, Suzanne Bice. She was taking Philip to the dentist.

The truck, which was carrying a load of stone, demolished the driver's side, killing Mrs. Bice, 43. Philip, 11, clung to life in a coma for nearly a month.

Now he is doing remarkably well, considering the severity of his brain injury. He walks with canes. He talks, although his raspy, strained voice is difficult to understand.

As Philip adapts to this new life, Steve Bice has awakened from the numbness of tragedy and found himself in his own strange, uncharted world.

He lost his wife, the outgoing organizer of their Columbia household. He became solely responsible for his 19-year-old son, Aaron, who was not in the wreck, and for Philip, who may need special care the rest of his life. He gave up the job he loved -- for the time being, at least -- for a less demanding one.

"Everybody goes through life believing they've got considerable control over their life," Mr. Bice says. "And if they manage it correctly, it will pretty much come out like they want it to.

"My wife fully understood that isn't the case. She really understood the finality of it, the transitoriness of life. That explained how she approached life. She really celebrated every day. . . .

"It can all be gone in the twinkling of an eye."

Mr. Bice's new world has revolved around hospital visits, discussions with therapists and a frenzied array of unwanted, unending tasks: choosing a cemetery for his wife, understanding the complexities of brain injuries, dealing with legal issues and medical bills.

He is 49 and an architect by training. He headed the department that plans construction projects at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt -- until two weeks ago, when he voluntarily stepped down to become a senior planner. He had worked 10, 12, 14 hours a day.

"It would have been nice to have gotten all that sorted out a couple of years ago so I could have spent more time at home," Mr. Bice says. "Now I feel shortchanged."

His wife realized this. When she was in college, her father died suddenly.

"In a lot of ways she tried to tell me over the years," Mr. Bice says. "There are no absolutes and certainties in life. I guess I've always understood that intellectually, but not emotionally."


Mr. Bice is stoical and analytical. Before the wreck he was withdrawn and uncomfortable in social situations.

His wife talked and made friends easily.

Now Mr. Bice has been forced to become more outgoing, to speak up for the family and to open up to visitors.

"I think this is changing his personality," says his next-door neighbor, Sola Jones. "It's a complete turnabout for him."

Carole Spranklin, Suzanne Bice's best friend, says he has responded wonderfully.

"He's been there for Philip every step of the way," she says.

It's been a horrible 11 weeks -- the hole drilled through Philip's skull to monitor the swollen brain, Philip's uncontrollable thrashing in bed, the infections, the pneumonia, Mr. Bice's anger over the wreck, the uncertainty about the future and the relentless, numbing fatigue.

But Mr. Bice has persevered because of tremendous support, he says.

That's the main reason he agreed to this story, to thank friends and neighbors -- the Spranklins, Charamellas, Garthoffs, Pisseras and Joneses, especially Sola Jones, who spends most days at the hospital with Philip.

Mr. Bice's co-workers have donated their personal leave time so he can meet his responsibilities at home.

"I'm overwhelmed," he says. "I've gotten cards from people who don't even know me. I've come home at night, and there's a warm supper on the table or in the oven, and I don't even know who half these people are."

Most are friends of his wife and Philip -- faculty members and the PTA at Dasher Green Elementary School, where Philip was a fifth-grader; faculty members at Glenwood Middle School, where Mrs. Bice was a media aide; employees from the Howard County library, where Mrs. Bice worked as a substitute librarian; and Philip's soccer coach and the parents of the players on his team, the Owen Brown Panthers.

Teachers at Dasher Green sent Philip videotapes of events at school, including the final assembly, where Mr. Bice accepted the principal's award for citizenship on behalf of his son.

A mother's mother

The wreck happened on a Thursday afternoon. Friends didn't hear about it until that night. Yet by dinner Friday, Mrs. Spranklin says, more than 50 people had called her asking how they could help.

"You have to understand," she says, "Suzi was the kind of person, if the soccer coach needed someone to make calls, Suzi made them. If the jerseys had to be washed for the next game, Suzi would do that. She was the PTA room mother for fifth grade. She had a special way of helping out."

And she was, Mrs. Spranklin says, a mother's mother.

"We all do the best we can," says Mrs. Spranklin, mother of three, including Philip's best friend, Brent. "But when we thought we were good moms, we'd look at Suzi, and she was a wonderful mom."

She took Philip to museums and nature centers. She read to him at night, and he read to her.

Then he fell asleep listening to classical music.

"She was very protective of Philip," says Mrs. Jones, the &L; next-door neighbor. "We would laugh and say Suzi's probably going to go to college with Philip."

Philip was born a year and a half after Suzi and Steve were married in 1980. Aaron is Mr. Bice's son from a previous marriage.

Of Philip, Mrs. Spranklin says, "You've never met a better kid. He's the kind of kid you want your kids to play with."

A gentle squeeze

People volunteered to sit at Philip's bedside. Relatives flew in from across the country.

"When he was in ICU there wasn't a moment when somebody was not there with him," Mr. Bice says.

After the wreck Philip was flown unconscious to the pediatric intensive care unit at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. He lay there 14 days in a coma. He had sustained a 5-inch gash to his left temple, and his brain had suffered tremendous jolts.

Dr. James R. Christensen, director of rehabilitation at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where Philip is now, says the boy was a 4 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which measures responses of coma patients. The scale ranges from 3 to 15, with 3 being the least responsive.

"The next stage is just death," Mr. Bice says of his son's 4 rating.

Although Philip remained unconscious, visitors never stopped talking to him. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Spranklin joked that he might suddenly wake up and say, "Don't you people ever stop talking?"

He didn't suddenly wake up.

Philip spent the next two weeks on the pediatric trauma ward. Only in the final days there did Philip begin emerging gradually from the coma, Mr. Bice says.

One day Aaron, his stepbrother, leaned close to Philip's ear and said, "If you can hear me, squeeze my hand."

The miracle came gently. Philip squeezed.

A couple of days later, four weeks after the crash, Philip was transferred across the street to the institute, which specializes in treating children with brain disorders and injuries, to begin rehabilitation.

He made rapid progress. He began moving his arms and legs, saying a few words, advancing through therapies and comprehending the world around him.

A mere 3 1/2 weeks after squeezing Aaron's hand, he went home for a visit. He goes home every weekend now and fishes from his wheelchair, plays with his cats, watches Orioles games on TV, devours chopped up Chicken McNuggets and is entertained by a slew of friends who just can't get enough of him.

He is scheduled for release Aug. 4. He'll continue therapy as an outpatient.

The accident

Philip will be out in time for the trial of the man accused of killing his mother. The trial of Gary Bernstein, 37, of Carroll County is scheduled

Aug. 17.

He faces 17 charges, including manslaughter. According to the Motor Vehicle Administration, Mr. Bernstein had numerous driving violations, his license had been revoked, and he had obtained a fraudulent license using another name.

The Bice family has sued Mr. Bernstein and his wife, the truck's owner, for $50 million. The suit claims the truck's brakes were faulty.

Mr. Bernstein declined to speak to a reporter for this story, but made this statement through his lawyer, Thomas C. Morrow: "As a husband and father myself, not an hour passes that I do not think about and share the grief of the Bice family.

"If it was possible to relive the events of April 29, I would gladly exchange my life for the lives of those affected by this tragedy."

The truck was heading east on state Route 175 and ran the red light at Thunder Hill Road, according to the police report. It collided with three cars before crashing through a guardrail.

Mrs. Bice's 1988 silver Subaru, which had just entered the intersection, was broadsided and sustained the most damage. No one in the other vehicles was hurt seriously.

Philip, sitting in the back seat with his seat belt on, suffered a broken collarbone and was knocked unconscious. Mrs. Bice always made him sit in back, where she believed it was safer. Mr. Bice says it is hard to say whether that made a difference in this wreck.

'Willing to do anything'

Dr. Christensen says Philip, although continuing to improve each day, will probably always walk with a slight limp. He will probably regain his normal intelligence, but may not always perform at that level.

He may have problems with attention, short-term memory and judgment. He will, the doctor says, be able to attend a regular school with extra assistance.

"It's difficult to project now how much supervision he'll need the rest of his life," Dr. Christensen says. "Life is certainly going to be different for him, unfortunately. But considering the severity of his injury, he's doing extremely well."

Mrs. Spranklin refuses to accept that. She says Philip will once again be the boy he was before the injury.

"I'm a teacher. Sola's a teacher. My sister's a teacher," Mrs. Spranklin says. "There're two teachers right here on this street. We'll read to him. We'll work with him. We'll do whatever we have to do to help him make all those gains he needs to make.

"The kids at school are the same way. Everybody's willing to do anything for Philip."

But Mr. Bice accepts the doctor's prognosis. He understands that the euphoria over Philip's initial progress will taper off, that further advances will probably come grudgingly, and that frustrations and difficulties will mount.

"For a while you just sort of have an image of someone being injured, and when they get better life will pick up where it was," he says. "I'm still hopeful for as full and complete a recovery as possible, but it's clear there've been some profound changes. He's not the same kid he was."

But he's getting closer. The other day he refused to eat his peas.

"That's the old Philip," Mr. Bice says, laughing.

A cemetery visit

Philip seems to be doing pretty well emotionally, under the circumstances. He doesn't remember the wreck, and his memory of events before the wreck is sketchy.

His father says he seemed to understand there had been an accident and to sense that something had happened to his mother. The night his father told him his mother was dead, Philip cried very hard.

The first full weekend at home, Philip crawled into bed with his father, and they talked about death and dying. Philip wanted to know whether he was going to die. He asked whether his father was going to die.

Then Sunday, July 4, Philip wanted to visit his mother's grave.

So on the way home from the hospital, after stopping at McDonald's for lunch, Mr. Bice drove to Mountain View Cemetery in northern Howard County, just north of Interstate 70 near state Route 32.

It's the one he chose after driving around with Aaron two days after the wreck searching for the right cemetery. It is old, small and pleasant. He thought it suited his wife.

At the time he wrestled with the prospect of buying two plots. He didn't know whether Philip would live. He decided on only one.

On the way to the cemetery, Philip said he wanted to buy flowers. Mr. Bice stopped at asupermarket, and Philip walked in, using his canes, and picked out a bouquet.

At the cemetery, he placed the flowers on the grave.

Then he and his father found a patch of shade and talked.

Philip cried and said how much he missed his mother and how mad he was at the other driver.

He and his father discussed planting trees near the grave, dogwoods that would always be in bloom on the anniversary of her death.

After about an hour and a half they drove home.

L Philip wanted to read the newspaper stories about the wreck.

He asked questions about the funeral.

He asked to see pictures of his mother's car, and had his father explain where he was sitting and where his mother was sitting.

All his friends would come visit the next day.

But that night, he and his dad found the perfect spot to watch the fireworks, and they watched together, just the two of them.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad