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A handful of hope

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000


TAMPA -- Jovan Campbell, 7, has spent much of his short life with his left hand tucked behind him.

It embarrassed him.

His fingers dangled uselessly. He couldn't curl them to grip anything. The only one he could move at all was the middle finger.

At the age of 6 months, Jovan had grabbed a faulty electrical outlet attached to an extension cord. The 110 volts shot up the major nerves on the underside of his left arm to the elbow, leaving him with no movement in any fingers except the middle one.

His thumb froze into place next to his ring finger. The muscles in his left arm atrophied from disuse.

Today, Jovan is to return to his home in Jamaica with a cast on his arm that covers more than 100 stitches. During the week he spent in Tampa, Dr. Cecil Aird operated on the hand, transferring tendons from one part of the hand to the damaged fingers.

Already, his thumb has moved to a normal position.

He faces years of physical therapy and perhaps more surgery, but his father, Basil Campbell, doesn't expect that to be a problem.

"I know he'll work hard, because he wants his hand," said Campbell.

Jovan, his parents and their other two sons, ages 3 and 13, traveled to Tampa from Kingston, Jamaica, where the family owns a restaurant and bar. The physical therapist who works with Jovan in Jamaica had recommended Aird to them.

Aird, board-certified in microsurgery, was willing to take the case, but money was a significant obstacle. The Campbells have no insurance.

Aird discounted his own fee. At his request, University Community Hospital Foundation paid for the cost of the three-hour operation at the hospital, and the anesthesiologist waived his fee. Hampton Inn donated a suite for the family to stay in, Aird said.

For the operation, he explained Friday as he unwrapped bandages on Jovan's arm, he donned a pair of glasses with mini-telescopes attached to them. "Because the bones were too little," interjected Jovan. Magnification is essential for microsurgery, especially on a child.

During the operation, Aird took pieces of tendon from Jovan's wrist and from the back of his hand and moved them to the palm. "We borrowed from Peter to pay Paul," said Aird.

Eventually, those transferred tendons will allow Jovan to close his fist in a grip.

But to accomplish that, his parents must tie the boy's right hand behind his back and force him to use the formerly useless left hand, said Aird. Even the boy's brain will have to be trained to use the left hand.

"I'm optimistic that in the long run, he'll have a useful hand," said Aird.

Jovan, who is in second grade, likes soccer and playing with his parents' home computer. He has learned to do everything with one hand, said his mother, Cornet Campbell.

Hands, said Aird, provide us with independence and survival. "We often take them for granted," he said.

Aird's physical therapist will work with Jovan's Jamaican therapist by telephone, e-mail and video tapes. Before the Campbells left his office Friday, Aird also fitted Jovan with a special splint he'll wear after the cast comes off in six weeks.

The splint is made from a moldable plastic not available in Jamaica.

Aird was born and reared in Jamaica and still speaks with a lilting accent. He opened his practice in Tampa in 1989.

An electrical shock such as Jovan got wouldn't do much damage to an adult, said Aird. But children can be severely injured.

He especially wanted to warn parents during the Christmas season, when extension cords help decorate houses with holiday lights, to keep electrical cords out of reach of their children.

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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