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Dorian: portrait of transcendence

A tragedy can cause even the most devout to question God. Dorian Sauls doesn't. The teenager feels blessed to be alive, and amazes everyone around him.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- They rise as one, the several hundred faithful, their voices filling the pitched roof sanctuary with spontaneous descants, the song so familiar they need no hymnals.

"Just a few more weary days, and then I'll fly away . . ."

A few of the congregants at 20th Street Church of Christ keep their seats: an elderly woman in a wheelchair, a young father cradling a sleeping baby, and Dorian.

Dorian's life changed one hot summer morning when he climbed on the handlebars of a bicycle that collided with a car. The moment of impact, which the police report puts at 11:47 a.m., June 22, 1998, is the line of demarcation between the young man whom friends and family call the old Dorian, and the one seated in church, the new Dorian.

The new Dorian stands with difficulty because of an injured hip, which surgery can correct. He is 16 and has a sweet, ready smile, like a child, which is what he has become in many ways. Surgery cannot correct that; the brain damage permanently reduced his measurable intelligence to that of a 7-year-old.

In brief conversation, he could be any teenager, full of jive talk and charm, referring to himself in the third person, as in, "That Dorian is one cool cat." He has a courtly manner, especially with women, calling them ma'am and taking their hands in his. "Please forgive me," he says shortly after being introduced, "but who are you?"

He plays video games on his Play Station but cannot grasp the sequence of steps in preparing a bowl of cereal, even if he has a list to follow. He says he loves French class and playing the saxophone, though he does neither; those were favorite pastimes of the old Dorian, the promising only son.

The old Dorian was shy and bright, a Christian who bore witness, a founding leader in Youth on the Move -- teenagers who volunteer in the community and serve as role models for their peers. He did not ride on bicycles. The new Dorian does not look back with sorrow on the loss of his former self.

"There's nothing to be sad about," he says. "I'm happy to be here."

Experts gave him little chance of recovery beyond a vegetative state and are amazed at how far he has come. Now they offer his family little hope he can progress much further.

Dorian gives them that hope. In the daily striving to regain, relearn and remember, in the resolve to "be something," as he puts it, in the joy of life itself, Dorian has banished grief and regret.

"God is showing what he can do with me," Dorian says.

His faith in God and himself spans the divide between the time when everything seemed possible, and now, when he believes it still can be.

"O Absolom, my son, my son!"

-- 2 Samuel 18:33

* * *

The telephone rings and a stranger says, "Your son has been in a serious accident."

Sybil Sauls responded, "Sir, you must be mistaken. My son never rides a bike."

But Dorian Edward Sauls did, just that once, during a break between summer classes at Gibbs High School. He hopped on a friend's handlebars and together they ran a red light.

Dorian's head, unprotected by a helmet, first hit the windshield, then the pavement. His brain swelled, pressing against bone and choking off its own blood supply. Dorian fell into a coma. His friend, also thrown from the bike, suffered lesser injuries and went home from the hospital. Dorian, unresponsive, stayed on.

Dr. Louis Solomon, the pediatric neurosurgeon who first treated Dorian, put his chance of a "decent" recovery at 20 percent.

"It starts with "See you later, Mom' and "Have a good day at school,' " says Mrs. Sauls. "Three weeks later, I'm taking him in a coma to a rehab hospital."

Ed Sauls rode in the ambulance that transported his son to the new hospital for patients who need supervision but are no longer critically ill. Mrs. Sauls followed in their car.

"I remember it was raining," she says. "I thought, "What is happening to my life?' I could have just cried with that rain."

Every day at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Largo, Dorian's family played music, sang and read to him. Night after night, Mrs. Sauls sat by her son's bedside. Reality set in.

"The first weeks had been about saving him," she says. "But I realized the doctors could only do so much, that we could only do so much. I realized it wasn't in my hands. I started praying differently, for acceptance, for whatever happened."

After more than two months, Dorian started showing reflexive movement, opening his eyes, responding to touch.

Mrs. Sauls doesn't remember the exact date in early September, but she does remember the day that nurses strapped Dorian in a wheelchair so she could take him outside for some fresh air.

"I said, "Dorian, look up. Look up at the sky and see the beautiful day God gave you.' He raised his head, slowly, not like a reflex. He understood."

"I just decided to wake up," Dorian says.

He had forgotten almost everything, from instincts as basic as chewing and swallowing to learned skills, including reading and writing.

They brought him home in November, to the house where he had lived since he was an infant, but he did not remember it. He begged to go back to the hospital.

He told the nursing assistant sent to check on him that he did not know who the woman watching him was. The assistant stayed at the house until Dorian's sister Meghan came home from middle school and confirmed that Sybil Sauls was, indeed, their mother.

Dorian's confusion lessened with the passing weeks. He returned to school, a different one, Pinellas Park High, which has programs for students with special needs.

Almost everything was a discovery, though the new Dorian, like the old, still holds fast to a cherished family dream -- to be a lawyer. Asked why he wants that, Dorian replies, "Ma'am, it isn't want to be. It is will be."

He printed his career plan in his journal:

2 years -- Completing high school

5 years -- Vinging (finishing) college

becoming lawyer

15 years -- completing job

retiring

* * *

* * *

"This would be my prayer, dear Lord, each day to do the best I can. Blessed Jesus, hold my hand."

-- From the family Hymnal

In Elaine Roth's classroom at Pinellas Park High, Dorian joins about a dozen students, 14 to 22 years old, who function at first-grade to fourth-grade levels.

Some were born with cerebral palsy and spina bifida; others acquired disabilities later in life -- a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic who was shot in the neck two years ago and several "head trauma kids," including Dorian.

"Dorian is the hungriest kid I ever met academically," says Ms. Roth, who has taught special education for 26 years. "He was like a sponge. He wanted to soak it all back up.

"Dorian's problems are with memory and advanced reasoning. Everything for him is chaotic. Dorian is at about a second-grade level."

A diagram of the human brain flashes onto a screen, part of a current-events lesson.

"Scientists are doing experiments to improve the memory of mice," Ms. Roth tells the class, showing them a photograph of a mouse. "How many of you would like it if scientists could improve people's memories?"

Most of the students sit impassively. Dorian is quick to raise his hand.

He takes a quiz on the information Ms. Roth has just reviewed. He works carefully and slowly, completing the first page, and looks over at his teacher.

"You have to turn the page," she says.

He stares at her blankly.

"It's two pages."

He takes a moment to process the instruction, then turns to page two.

"What is your name?" he asks her.

* * *

* * *

"There will come a day in the sweet by and by when the ransomed shall stand at the judgment on high. O what will you say, will your reward be fair? Will He answer "Well done' when your name is called there?"

* * *

-- From the family Hymnal

Three days a week, Dorian has therapy sessions at Edward White Hospital Rehabilitation Institute.

It's hard work, and Dorian thrives on it.

"Ma'am, I'm not tired. Dorian's the huff-puff man," he tells his therapist as he keeps working past the prescribed number of leg presses.

"He has such inner drive," says Drexey Smith, his primary physical therapist. "Sometimes we have to make him stop."

"I want it to hurt," he tells her. "I want to walk. And when I do, I'm gonna bust you up in basketball."

Today, Dorian is going to make a cake, though this session is not about cooking. It is partly a lesson in sequencing -- which Dorian cannot do if the task involves more than two or three steps -- and partly exercise to strengthen his legs. Everything from reading a recipe to cracking an egg has an ulterior motive.

The tasks are designed to occupy both hands so he won't use them for support when he stands.

"Take a stick of butter," he reads, then looks for the ingredient on the table. "This is not butter," he says. "This is margarine. I don't know what you people are thinking."

He rests an elbow on the table, slumping. Smith props him back up.

"Forgive me, but I like to lean on your leg," Dorian tells her. "It's my friend."

They share a laugh.

"They told us with Dorian's kind of injury, he'd swear and strike people or get depressed," his mother says, looking up from her Bible. "Instead, his sweetness is more enhanced. If he's in pain, he does not complain."

Dorian measures, mixes, licks the spoon.

"You don't need to tell me how to do that," he says. "I remember that."

Everything is a mess. Dorian has flour on his cheek and cocoa powder on his shirt. Batter drips from the table. A dozen spoons and forks have been used. A basic 10-minute cake has taken an hour and three therapists to make. But for the first time since the accident, he stood alone.

"Dorian could not even roll over when he came to us," Smith says. "Every goal we set, he surpasses. I'm not a big believer in miracles. But he is one."

"See, Mom," Dorian says. "I'm standing."

* * *

"There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright."

-- Job 1:1

* * *

God and family are everything to Edward Sauls. He found both when he married Sybil Walker almost two decades ago. She grew up surrounded by a large family. He was raised in foster homes and has been on his own since he was 17.

"I always wanted children," Mr. Sauls says. "Your family is your legacy."

They have three: Tameka, whose husband is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base and who has two young children; Meghan, who attends John Hopkins Middle School; and Dorian, who would have been a junior at Boca Ciega High School until the accident.

They live in a comfortable, three-bedroom home near the Maximo neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Both are 39. Mr. Sauls owns an auto detailing business; Mrs. Sauls is a pharmacy technician at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines.

They have attended 20th Street Church of Christ since they wed. Ed Sauls was ordained a deacon on April 23, a day he had been working toward for years, because he wanted to use his faith to encourage others to find God. His framed ordination certificate hangs on their family room wall. It reads: "I have been set apart to be an example."

"We say we're getting through it," he says. "But this is my only son. I had a strong, vibrant son. I'm human. It hasn't been easy."

The old Dorian had many friends, but his best friend was his sister Meghan. Most Friday nights they would rent a movie, order a pizza and spread out blankets on the family room floor.

"The videos and popcorn, their talks . . . those moments are gone," Mr. Sauls says. "She's been courageous through it all; she had to grow up overnight. We'll never know what it's been to her."

"We were close," says Meghan, who is 12 and helps bathe and dress her older brother now. "I miss the old Dorian. But I'd rather have the new Dorian than no brother at all."

"I don't know if I've come to accept it," Mr. Sauls says. "It's not our place to question God. I've continued to believe God has some plan. Hopefully I'll be able to understand it."

* * *

* * *

"At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light and the borders of my heart rolled away, it was there by faith I received my sight and now am happy all the day."

* * *

-- From the family Hymnal

* * *

Dorian's face is suffused with joy. His mother is showing off his school workbook.

"They say he can't see the whole picture," she says. "But he can. See how well he stayed within the lines in his coloring. He can connect the dots from letter to letter. Each day, I find out he can do things I didn't know he could do."

"I love shocking my family," Dorian says, laughing.

Dorian, his mother and father have been up since 5 a.m.

They do stretching exercises with him and feed him breakfast and anti-seizure and muscle-relaxant medications. Mrs. Sauls helps dress him and they're at the bus stop by 5:50 a.m.

Mrs. Sauls usually has time for prayer and Bible meditations before work, which begins at 7 a.m.

Mr. Sauls see Meghan off, then goes to the garage. He meets Dorian's bus at 2:50 p.m. and stays with his son until his wife gets home at 3:30, then he goes back to work.

The new Dorian, unlike the old, likes to help with housework, especially polishing glass table tops and washing dishes.

"And he'll eat anything I fix, even vegetables," Mrs. Sauls says. "He never would before."

* * *

* * *

"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

* * *

-- 1 Corinthians 13:7

For more than a year, Mr. and Mrs. Sauls have been told not to "expect." Not to expect Dorian to live, not to expect him to wake up, to be functional, to walk, to learn.

Sybil Sauls tired of hearing it. "I finally told doctors one day, "I thank you for your advice, but now the final decision is God's.' "

In their Bibles, dog-eared and well marked, they turn more frequently now to Job, with its lessons of obedience and long suffering.

Dorian needs no such comfort, meeting each day and every stranger with his lambent smile, transcendent in his belief that "with God, all things are possible."

"God puts things in front of us to see how we'll learn and grow," Mr. Sauls says. "He's teaching me I have to be more patient, to appreciate the way Dorian is now. So loving and outgoing. We can go anywhere and he can talk to anyone."

"That's good for a lawyer," Dorian says.

"Or maybe, son, God is calling you to be a preacher."

Dorian chuckles and shakes his head.

"I love being the something else I can be."

* * *

* * *

"Hilltops of glory I now can see! Oh, brother, won't you come go with me? Safe on the mountain I soon stand, hilltops of gloryland."

-- From the family Hymnal

* * *

With the help of a walker and his mother, Dorian makes his way down the center aisle of 20th Street Church of Christ. Around him, groups of teenagers form and re-form, chattering before church starts.

As he moves slowly forward, people of all ages greet him with hugs and backslaps and handshakes; he returns each with delight.

Cacia Sanford, 21, who has known Dorian all his life, comes up to say hello.

"The old Dorian was always upbeat and positive. He's more so now. He smiles more."

"Is that good?" Dorian asks her.

"Yes, Dorian, that's good."

Throughout the two-hour service, Dorian sits attentively. He sings softly and prays with his hand over his heart. Though he forgot almost everything else, he never forgot his favorite Scripture passages and hymns, repeated for so many years.

After the service, others rise and circulate. Dorian sits, apart.

"I don't mind being alone," he says.

Taking an outstretched hand, he whispers, "Jesus can walk on water."

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