Despite the tragic turn in the 15-year-old life of Stewart Lewis Jr., he is sometimes referred to as "the miracle child" by nurses at Georgetown University Hospital.
Stewart "is lucky to be alive," says neurosurgeon David McCollough, of Georgetown Hospital, "but unlucky to have brain damage." Stewart is a victim of Reye's Syndrome, a vicious and swift killer whose cause and cure are unknown.
Early last month, a 15-year-old Tidewater youth died eight days after contacting the disease. Since the first of the year, according to the state Health Department, seven cases, including the Tidewater case have been reported in Virginia.
Stewart Lewis' battle with the disease began almost a year ago, on Good Friday, when he developed blisters on the inside of his eyes and mouth, an early sympton of Reye's Syndrome. Stewart was recovering from chicken pox at the time, and his family wasn't sure what was wrong.
But Stewart, says his mother Linda, "was afraid he was going to go blind, so we took him to Prince William Hospital."
Stewart was given medication for his eyes and for the nausea and sent home, his parents said.
The next day, however, Stewart's condition continued to deteriorate, and two days later, Easter Sunday, he was "very, very sick," said Stewart Lewis Sr. tearfully.
About noon, Lewis said, his son developed severe headaches and began vomiting. When the nausea persisted the Lewises took Stewart to their family physician, Dr. Arthur Gower.
Gower gave Stewart an injection to soothe the nausea. But by nightfall, the child showed no sign of improvement and he was becoming delirious.
Gower and the family rushed Stewart to Fairfax Hospital. Blood and spinal tests confirmed Gower's worst fears; Stewart, an all-star Little League pitcher, has Reye's Syndrome.
According to the U.S. Department of Heatlh, Education and Welfare, "Reye's disease strikes perfectly healthy children between the ages of infancy and 15." It occurs mainly n the winter and normally follows respiratory illness such as influenza or chicken pox.
Spokesmen at the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta said that 303 cases have been reported since Nov. 30, the date the center considers the start of the four- or five-month winter period when most Reye's Syndrome cases occur. Officials at the center say that, on the average, about 30 percent of the cases result in deaths.
In Stewart's case, his condition continued to deteriorate. At 1 a.m. on Easter Monday, Stewart was moved to Georgetown University Hospital where a treatment team headed by Dr. Angel Colon was waiting.
Stewart was slipping in and out of consciousness.
"When he was awake, I'll never forget the screaming and hollering," said Lewis. "It went on all night. It took five or six of us to hold him down. Eventually, they had to put him in a straitjacket."
Colon performed two blood transfusions in an effort to remove toxic materials from Stewart's blood, according to Dr. McCollough. Finally, holes were bored in Stewart's skull for more tests.
Tuesday brought little improvement. Stewart's brain was swelling rapidly. The ammonia level in his blood was nearly double the danger level and fatty tissue was beginning to form around his liver -- tell-tale signs of Reye's Syndrome.
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, Lewis said, "The doctors called us in. They said they didn't think Stewart would last through the night."
Because of the rapidly increasing pressure in Stewart's skull caused by massive swelling of brain tissue, Dr. McCollough decided to remove the front half of the boy's skull bone.
The last thing that Lewis remembers his son saying before the surgery was, "I love you, Dad. I love you."
By Mother's Day, Stewart had been in a coma for 21 days.
"I prayed for a miracle," said Mrs. Lewis. "I was sitting beside him and his arm moved. I told the nurse, but they did not believe me. Then my brother, Clarence, saw him move and went and got the nurses and everybody saw it. Well, that was when everybody just started crying."
On June 14, after Stewart had been in the hospital nearly three months, his parents were allowed to take him home.
Orginally he was confined to a bed or a wheelchair, his father said, and "he couldn't walk, crawl or chew. He was uncontrollable."
Now he is at the Kennedy Institute, a branch of John Hopkins in Baltimore that works with severely retarded patients. After nearly three months at the institute, Stewart can once again feed and dress himself and can walk and speak. This weekend, Stewart will come home.
Although doctors and his family say Stewart has made good progress, the severe brain damage he suffered means his mental capacity will progress no further than that of a 7-year-old.
His parents will be grateful for even that much progress.
"I'd like that," said Stewart Lewis Sr. "That would be wonderful."
In the meantime, the Lewises are faced with medical bills that already exceed $40,000, and they have not recevied a bill from Georgetown Hospital yet nor the bill from the Kennedy Institute, where it cost about $500 a day for Stewart's care. Blue Cross and Blue Shield are expected to cover most of the cost, "but we don't really know," said Lewis.
Lewis said his minister, church and employer -- A&P Grocery at Penn-Daw in Alexandria -- have been "terrific" in understanding his problems. A&P granted him more than four months medical leave, and at Christmas his co-workers cancelled their gift exchange to contribute to a foundation established by Lewis' church.
Last weekend, the Independent Hill community in Prince William County, where the Lewises live, raised about $1,800 for the Lewises.
In the midst of tragedy, the Lewises say they found a reason for hope.
"If we have learned one thing out of this, it is how many wonderful people there are out there," said Linda Lewis.