At Field Two in Olney Manor Park, the Pioneer League season ended on a starry September night with memories mainly of Michael Redding. In a softball league where the bases and balls emit sound and everyone is blind, he may have been the most inspirational player, a pale and ashen 16-year-old suffering kidney failure and enduring multiple handicaps who sparkled in the season of light.
"If there's one reason this league exists it's Michael Redding," says Frank Hickerson, founder of the league. "He gives me goose bumps sometimes, to see him slug a hit or leg out a grounder or watch him smile." This story, the last in a series on the Pioneer League, is about Redding and his will to survive in a lonely world where light does not exist and sound is difficult to hear.
It's also about his family who have endured crisis after crisis in a medical saga that has ranged between the tragic and the sublime.
The low point in 16 years of feeding Michael, bathing him and finding the best available health care for him, came last May when officials of Georgetown University Hospital, where Michael undergoes kidney dialysis, summoned police from the District's Child Abuse and Neglect department to bring the child in for treatment.
They complained that the family was ignoring the hospital's medical advice.
The Reddings say that crisis was the worst of all, for it has prompted them to look elsewhere for medical care. "We don't beat our children and we don't neglect them," Delores Redding says. "The hardest part of our lives is not so much the blindness or the kidney failure, but having to contend with some people in medicine . . . . "
To the parents of the Pioneer players, medicine and physicians are necessary constants. Every player from Brian Smith, who lost his eyes after a fight with cancer, to James Littlejohn, who became blind after an unsuccessful operation to strengthen his retinas, has had intense and dramatic dealings with doctors and medical institutions. But the Reddings' case, which has been open for 16 years now and will likely remain open for some time, has been particularly unusual.
The case began in 1967, when Michael was a year old. He was taken to a doctor that year for treatment of a throat infection and was given tetracycline, an antibiotic. Edward Redding, a soft-spoken, gray-haired Department of Energy analyst, dates the start of Michael's health troubles to then because subsequent to the antibiotic treatment dark red spots began appearing on Michael's skin. The Reddings consulted doctors at Children's Hospital and the National Institutes of Health, but the skin condition continued to spread and by the time Michael was 5 years old several of the splotches were discovered in his eyes.
No one knows for certain why Michael Redding's body began degenerating, why his kidneys started to fail, or why he started going blind. Physicians who studied the case told the Reddings there was absolutely no causal relationship between tetracycline and Michael's disease, which was diagnosed as retinitis pigmentosa. They told the Reddings the disease was hereditary, though the Reddings could find no family history of eye disorders.
Retinitis pigmentosa, according to the National Society to Prevent Blindness, is the most prevalent hereditary cause of blindness in the country, responsible for 1,450 new cases each year. Altogether there are 23,250 people in the United States who are blind because of it. The disease degenerates the retina and contracts the eye's field of vision.
When Michael was 3 years old his sight was perfect. Last year he could see only a pinpoint of light at the center of his eyes. Today he is totally blind.
As his field of vision contracted, other complications followed. When he was 6 years old Michael was taken to a doctor because his parents were disturbed by his slow rate of growth. The problem was diagnosed as renal failure, the inability of Michael's kidneys to discharge urinic acids from his system. The continued presence of the acids stunted his growth. Doctors told the Reddings that when his kidneys stopped working entirely, he would have to undergo dialysis. His teeth, meanwhile, had to be outfitted with steel caps in order for him to chew, because the calcium and enamel in his teeth were decaying.
As Michael's condition degenerated, and his senses of hearing and sight and his ability to communicate vanished, it became a full-time task for the Reddings to care for him in their home at 3123 51st Place NW.
Then, in September 1980, the boy's struggle to survive took another turn when he was put on a dialysis machine for the first time at the pediatric dialysis unit of Georgetown University Hospital. For 4 1/2 hours a day, three days a week, Michael was connected by tubes and needles in his thigh to the machine, which worked as his kidneys once did, removing fluids and impurities from his blood system.
"At first, we thought it might last just six months or so because I was sure I would be able to simply donate my kidney to him," Delores Redding said. "It's such a painful experience for Michael and we didn't want it to last any longer than it had to."
Instead, the hospital's medical tests on the Redding family, which eventually found Linda, Michael's 23-year-old sister, to be the most promising potential donor, took longer than the Reddings had hoped. Meanwhile, they learned about the medical vernacular and procedures of dialysis, terms such as dry weight and fluid level, extract potassium impurities and the ingredients of the dialysis solution.
Delores Redding said she kept meticulous records at home of how much fluid he received and discharged. The family attended Michael at his bedside, and read the charts the nurses and physicians kept on his case. "We were curious. We asked questions. We wanted to know what was happening," his mother said.
But according to the Reddings, the head physician declined to discuss certain technical aspects of Michael's therapy in detail with them. At one point in January, the Reddings said, they were concerned that the unit was removing too much fluid from Michael's system.
"He came home one day so dehydrated and pale," Edward Redding said, "his eyes couldn't tear." At a meeting the next day with the doctor, Redding said he showed the physician Michael's charts to prove that fluid had been removed in excess. The next dialysis session, he said, "they brought his fluid level up and it was like a flower opening. He blossomed."
From that point on, however, the Reddings say they were denied access to Michael's charts.
On the night of May 26 the Reddings' relationship with the hospital reached the breaking point. Two D.C. police officers showed up on their doorstep to investigate a report that Michael had missed a dialysis session that day, was badly in need of a blood transfusion, and that his parents were ignoring the hospital's advice.
The Reddings said the officers, Mary Williams and Sandra Battle of the D.C. police department's child abuse and neglect unit, told them that they were responding to a report that Michael would die unless he were transported to the hospital immediately.
"We had been given permission to skip dialysis four times previously. It was nothing out of the ordinary. That day, Mike was hurting and just too exhausted from the routine," Michael's father recalled. "He pleaded not to have to go in. We called the head nurse at the unit and received permission to skip that day."
Police declined to discuss the incident, citing confidentiality of juvenile cases. Hospital officials also declined to comment, despite being given a waiver signed by the Reddings granting them permission to openly discuss the case with a reporter. The family, however, gave the following account of what transpired.
The Reddings say they were told by the officers that unless they transported Michael to the hospital that night, the police would be forced to, and the parents would have to fight in court to regain custody. The Reddings consulted their attorney, the officers telephoned hospital officials, and two hours later it was determined that the situation was not as much an emergency as originally indicated and that the Reddings could take Michael in for treatment the next day, which they did.
The crisis ended there but the scars, five months later, remain. Two days after the incident Edward Redding, who suffered a partial stroke two years ago, wrote to Matthew F. McNulty Jr., chancellor of the medical center, and demanded an official explanation. "Michael," he wrote, "suffers sufficiently from his own illness without having to endure the abuse of others."
A month later, after a hospital review in which the Reddings say they were not consulted, McNulty, in a three-sentence reply to the family, wrote that "the care provided by Georgetown and the conduct of the medical staff were appropriate."
Yesterday, Georgetown University Hospital released an official public statement about the incident. It said that the hospital is very concerned about delivering the best medical care possible and that the hospital takes into account the emotional needs of the patient.
"The laws of the District of Columbia designed to protect the welfare of children require that a hospital and physician report any circumstances in which they believe a child is not receiving the care and treatment necessary," the statement read. "Since omission of dialysis treatment can be life threatening, Georgetown University Hospital, in the case of Michael Redding, acted in his best interest and in accordance with the law when they reported his absence from dialysis and other necessary therapeutic treatments to the Child Protective Services on May 26."
While declining to talk about the incident, the physician in charge of the dialysis unit said to a reporter, "Dialysis is a very complex and technical subject. Not everyone is equipped to understand it fully. We are the best pediatric dialysis unit in the country. You have to ask yourself, what do they the Reddings expect to gain by bringing this out into the open? How could it have any good effect on Michael's well-being?"
According to Delores Redding, the effect is emotional. "We've been tied to medicine and doctors like an umbilical cord for 16 years, and we will be for the foreseeable future," she said. "Yes, they are brilliant people. But they have to realize they aren't dealing with just a body. They're dealing with a human being and a family that cares very deeply about him."
Since 1976 Georgetown University Hospital, using live donors, has performed 21 pediatric kidney transplants with a success rate of 100 percent. That is the primary reason the Reddings say they stayed at Georgetown as long as they did. On Monday, however, saying they were unable to continue there because of their strained relationship with the hospital, they officially transferred Michael to the Prince Williams Dialysis Center in Woodbridge, Va.
"I just think it'll be better for all concerned," Edward Redding said at the time, "if Michael is put under someone else's care." Meanwhile, the Reddings remain optimistic about the prospect of a kidney transplant. Next spring, they hope, when the Pioneer League's season of light returns, Michael will be able to run stronger and on his own after Linda's kidney becomes his.
"It's the only time of year that really matters to him," his mother explains. "If you only knew how much he looks forward to playing . . . . "
Last year, in a college term paper, Linda Redding wrote the following about her brother. "When he sits and thinks--what does he think? He's scared, too--that's easy to see. Does he wonder what will happen next? Does he know more than others about what matters and what doesn't?
"Michael," she wrote, "is a special person. He would like to be happy most of the time but circumstances make that hard . . . . He gives us many things. He gives us joy and warmth and a special feeling when there is something little we can do to make him happy . . . . He gives his friends and family a realization of how extremely lucky we all really are. He makes other things immaterial and unimportant."
"Only occasionally," she wrote, "does he say such things as 'Why did God create me? He was stupid to create me.' "
In fact, Michael Redding is more often a witty soul, given to joke telling among his friends in the Pioneer League when he isn't performing some astonishing deed afield.
Upon reaching base in the All-Star game on the season's final night, and starting a last-inning rally that saw his team take the lead, Michael toppled into his father's arms, momentarily out of breath. Regaining his strength, he shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his blue cotton sweatshirt and tilted his pale face upward to the sky.
"Dad," Michael asked in a hollow voice, as the crowd and his teammates cheered him. "Did I make a home run?"
Edward Redding grabbed his son's hand and grinned, then bent down to speak directly into his ear. "Yeah, Mike, and it was a beaut!" he replied, as Michael entered the dugout and joined his mates sporting the finest smile of the night.