TAMPA — More than 400 Mitchell High School seniors were stuffed into a holding room before their graduation ceremony. The energy level was amped, but Kenny Korchak savored a quiet victory.
He was the boy who survived.
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"You're going to have the baby and he'll probably die," the doctor told Katie Korchak.
This can't be happening, she thought. She was 25, married and healthy. She cut out caffeine and chocolate and did everything the pregnancy books told her to do. This is not real. She was only 27 weeks along, not even enough time to pick out a name for her first child.
Everything was fine until that day, Dec. 15, 1988, when she started bleeding and then was rushed to Riverside Hospital (now Morton Plant North Bay Hospital). And then the room was full of doctors and nurses and the song playing on the intercom was Carole King, "And it's too late, baby, now it's too late, though we really did try to make it, something inside has died and I can't hide …"
"PUSH," the doctor said.
Crying, Katie Korchak did and her baby was whisked out of the room before she could see him. He was stabilized and taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Korchak was told there was a 3 percent chance of her son surviving and, if he did, he would be severely disabled. Blind. Paralyzed. Not able to feed or change himself.
A doctor told the Korchaks if they were religious at all, they should have their son baptized, so they did. They named him Kenneth, after his father. Baby Kenny weighed little more than 1 pound. His kidneys weren't working. He couldn't breathe on his own. His heart was weak.
"How could God do this to you?" a friend asked Katie Korchak. But she said, "I can't get mad at God when he's the only one keeping my baby alive."
She wasn't allowed to hold Kenny till he was 2 months and 3 days old. Kenny stayed at the hospital for 105 days and weighed 5 pounds when he was released.
Each day after that, he grew stronger. He had surgeries and therapy. He overcame a stutter and learned how to walk with his slight cerebral palsy.
When he started school, Kenny's teachers became his friends, and he sent them cards for birthdays, holidays, promotions. His teachers rooted him on. They brought cupcakes for his birthday and stayed late to tutor him.
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During Kenny's freshman year at Mitchell, he was tested and the results said he was at grade level and above on some subjects. He was given the chance to go for a regular diploma, which meant he could go to college. It also meant hard work: repeating his freshman year, taking summer courses, having tutors, passing the FCAT.
But Kenny went for it.
And Thursday night at the USF SunDome, Kenny, 19, graduated. His mom regards him as a miracle. Her son, who wasn't supposed to make it, is now a tall, kind young man who brings chocolates and presents to patients at the nursing home where he works as a certified nursing assistant. He will go to Pasco-Hernando Community College and wants to do something to help people.
After working so hard for this night, Kenny felt uneasy. Mitchell is his home. It's what he knows and where he feels safe. He plans to keep visiting his old teachers and thinks about becoming a school resource officer so he can return to campus.
Even as he was lining up to walk into the ceremony, he was thinking of more mentors to be called for this story. He mentioned a guidance counselor as he fixed his gold and black tassel and smoothed his gown. "Want her number?" he asked and then gave it, from memory, as he walked toward his future.
Erin Sullivan can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.