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E'Traveon gets his progress report

On Tuesday, students at Fairmount Park Elementary collected report cards and awards during last day of school festivities. Some probably made plans to hang out over the summer.

Seven-year-old E'Traveon Johnson should have been in the mix.

Instead, he lay at home in a hospital bed swallowing small amounts of water, hoping he'll be ready for solid foods again. Nearby, SpongeBob SquarePants and Spider-Man watched his progress.

Tra, as his family calls him, is paralyzed, confined to a makeshift bedroom in the home he shares with his mother, great-grandmother and an aunt. In this home of all women, E'Traveon is the center.

"He's my life," says his mother, Chantelle Ross, 26. "Basically, my life is his."

She credits God and a close-knit family for bringing her son back from death's door. Last year, E'Traveon was hit by a car after he fled Fairmount Park. No one knows why he left. "I've thought about asking him that, but I'm too afraid of what he might say, or how it'll affect him,'' said Ross.

Since the accident, E'Traveon's progress is measured in small ways. A smile. The shaking of his head. Feeling on the bottoms of his feet. Mouthing of words.

His mom swears he's telling jokes.

At the moment, his family fears a looming eviction from the only home E'Traveon has known could put a wrench in the progress he has made.

"We just want to keep the momentum going," said Ross. She has learned to cherish the small victories, and hold on to them.

On April 12, 2005, Ross got the phone call from Fairmount Park's principal just as she was setting hamburger out to thaw. E'Traveon had asked for spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner. Only an hour had passed since she and E'Traveon's great-grandmother, Rosella Ross, had walked him to the school bus stop.

Like most kids, E'Traveon had days when school was unappealing. So sometimes the kindergartener would go to the office and pretend to have an upset stomach just to be sent home.

"He played all the time like that," Ross recalled with a smile. She would always tell the school: "You tell Mr. Johnson to go back to his classroom." He would.

But this call was no joke. The principal said E'Traveon had been hurt in an accident.

Videocameras on school grounds showed the boy running into the cafeteria after getting to school, then walking down an outside corridor toward his classroom. About 22 seconds later, cameras captured E'Traveon running back through the school and leaving through a set of glass doors. Minutes later, he was hit by a car while crossing Fifth Avenue S at 41st Street, steps away from the school.

"It was like he was running for his life," Ross said, thinking back to the video of her son. "And no one could tell me why."

Doctors told Ross that E'Traveon had a hematoma that required them to cut a portion of his skull out to allow the brain breathing room. He also had a hole in his liver, a partially ruptured spleen, femur fractures in both legs and a broken neck. A spinal cord injury threatened his ability to feel anything below his neck.

"They didn't expect him to make it through the night," Ross said.

But he did. E'Traveon was placed in coma for two weeks to slow down brain swelling. He remained unconscious for two months after doctors tried to bring him out of the coma. Finally, one night, a nurse checking on him noticed something others had not: His eyes followed her around the room.

E'Traveon was released from the hospital three months after the accident, but still needed a ventilator to breathe. To accommodate the machines and hospital bed, the family enclosed the back porch of their three-bedroom home at 2963 Second Ave. S. The home does not have central air, so an air conditioner was installed in E'Traveon's new room to help him stay cool.

Mother and son began to communicate.

One blink for yes.

Two for no.

Speech pathologist Shauna McKee began working with E'Traveon in August. "He was a lot more aware than I expected," she said. "He was doing eye blinks for yes and no. I was pleasantly surprised."

But E'Traveon still couldn't smile.

Today he can shake his head to say no, and raise his eyebrows to answer yes.

"He uses his nonverbal communication very well to not only tell you what he understands, but to express it to you," McKee said.

And E'Traveon can smile.

Despite the progress, E'Traveon's doctors caution that his recovery may be limited.

"If he hasn't recovered much since then, his chances to do so have diminished," said Dr. Tony Kriseman, E'Traveon's pulmonologist.

He still cannot breathe on his own. Patients who depend on ventilators are more susceptible to respiratory-related ailments such as pneumonia, Kriseman said. But he has seen such patients live for more than 20 years.

Ross is hopeful for her baby and has promised to be there for him - no matter what he needs.

A typical day for mother and son begins about 6 a.m. Ross feeds E'Traveon and moves him around to keep his circulation going and avoid bed sores. He watches morning cartoons and then gets ready for his speech therapist or schoolteacher. School finished this week, so he has a break until summer school.

"He's very, very aware of what's going on around him," said Valerie Vogt, a teacher for Hospital Homebound, a program that helps students with conditions that keep them home. "He's made some progress. He's starting to vocalize, and he's mouthing words now. He's an absolutely precious, adorable child and seems to always be in a good mood."

Ross moves E'Traveon every two to three hours and feeds him every six. Since he can't go to the movies, she tries to buy his favorites DVD's as soon as they hit the stores. His latest request? Ice Age 2. Between 6 and 8 p.m. E'Traveon is glued to the Disney channel , watching the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and That's So Raven.

"That's his little girlfriend, Raven," Ross says teasing her son, tickling his tummy. He makes a face as if he were about to giggle, but no noise comes out.

Like many kids his age, he is asleep by 9 p.m.

Ross quit her job as a certified nursing assistant and phlebotomist to provide the round-the-clock care E'Traveon requires. She's remains by his side, unless a relief nurse, or great-grandmother Rosella Ross takes a shift caring for him.

"He's my favorite," Rosella Ross said. "I love all my grandkids. But this one could always give you a smile - and still does."

Chantelle Ross accuses the Pinellas school district of negligence in allowing her son to leave school grounds. E'Traveon apparently got past a substitute teacher to get out of his classroom, then left through an open gate.

School officials didn't know he was gone until he was hit by the car, Ross said. "It took someone from the outside to go in after seeing Tra was in a school uniform," she said.

James Robinson, attorney for Pinellas County Schools, says the case is in mediation. If a settlement is reached, sovereign immunity laws limit awards to $200,000. More than that would require legislative approval, and since 2001, only one such claim has been approved.

Robinson said insurance money could help the district pay anything over $200,000, as in the case of Brooke Ingoldsby's family. They received $1.2-million after the 8-year-old was hit by a car last February after her bus driver let her off on the wrong side of the street. She died.

Shortly after E'Traveon's accident, a Homeland Security official showed up at the Ross home asking about their landlord, Karl Kaechele.

Kaechele, 62, a retired truck driver, had been arrested and charged with traveling with intent to engage in sexual conduct. Immigration agents who detained him at the Detroit airport on April 26, 2005, allegedly found photos in his luggage of nude Asian girls along with notebooks detailing sexual encounters with girls, some younger than 15. He had been on a 90-day trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Kaechele remains in federal prison in Michigan. In March, E'Traveon's family received an eviction notice and was told this month that the home was sold. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser Web site still lists Kaechele as the homeowner.

Source of Life, a nonprofit group in St. Petersburg, tried to buy the home, but also was told it was sold. They are now trying find a new home for the family.

"We just saw an opportunity, and we're here to help. Why not help a family with the resources we have?" said Keisha Pickett, a spokeswoman for Source of Life, which tries to help local families facing hardships.

Chantelle Ross is grateful, but it still will be hard to uproot 17 years of memories from the house on Second Avenue.

"We really don't want to go," she said. "But what can you say? We're backed up against the wall. But it makes me feel that somebody cares. They reached out when nobody else would."

Despite the pressures, Ross looks ahead to the future with promise for her only child. E'Traveon was born nearly three months premature, so he has been defying the odds his whole life, she says.

She hopes he will do so again.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Marlon A. Walker can be reached at mwalker@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8737.

TO HELP

If you would like to make a donation to the E'Traveon Johnson Assistance Fund, go to any Wachovia Bank branch.

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