MASON CITY, IA—In an inspiring story that has warmed hearts throughout this tight-knit northern Iowa community, a luminescent cathode-ray tube provided much-needed emotional nurturing and support for a traumatized child this week, comforting him in his time of need.
Emotionally devastated by an auto accident that claimed the lives of his parents, 4-year-old Stevie Burke was feared "permanently psychologically damaged" by doctors. Yet tragedy became triumph when the orphaned child turned to television and, in the process, began the long road to healing.
"It's miraculous. When little Stevie was first admitted, he would alternate between a near-catatonic stupor and long bouts of uncontrollable crying. He was overwhelmed by the sheer mental shock," said Floor Nurse Susan Michelson of St. Barnabas Children's Hospital. "By the end of his stay, however, he'd improved 110 percent, watching television all day long with a contented, blank expression on his little face, gently rocking back and forth."
"As a matter of fact," she added, "practically the only time he ever cried at all was when we'd try to turn it off."
Young Stevie's ordeal began two weeks ago, when his parents, Duane and Francine Burke, lost control of their vehicle while driving their son to daycare. According to police investigators who later reconstructed the accident, the Burkes swerved wildly when a fuel truck failed to negotiate a tight curve, jackknifing into their lane and hitting the Burkes' Honda Civic. The Burkes' car, it is believed, drove off the highway after sliding under the truck's chassis, rupturing the tanker as sparks from the collision ignited the spilling fuel. Engulfed in flames, the twisted wreckage of both vehicles plunged down a steep embankment, rolling several times and coming to a stop moments before exploding.
Emergency-response teams arriving on the scene initially assumed there were no survivors. Several hours later, Stevie, in a severe state of shock, was found hiding behind a nearby log. Authorities theorize that he either was thrown from the car or somehow crawled away from the accident before the rising flames caused the secondary series of explosions.
"The worst part is, forensic evidence indicated that both parents were still conscious for several minutes before they died, meaning that Stevie could probably hear their screams of agony during the final moments. That's a hell of a lot for a small boy to bear," said Charles Laine, the paramedic who discovered the terrified child. "But, thanks to TV, he's really adjusting great."
Those close to the recently orphaned boy say his favorite shows appear to be CHiPs, The Dukes Of Hazzard and Knight Rider, although he chooses ER and Chicago Hope with great regularity, as well.
"The boy was completely nonverbal. We feared the worst," said St. Barnabas pediatric psychologist Dr. Jameson Davies. "Yet he has responded greatly to the television screen. The first real breakthrough occurred when he pointed at the set in his hospital room. They were showing Terminator 2: Judgment Day on the afternoon movie, I think, and he said, just out of the blue, 'Big truck go boom.' It was the first words he'd spoken in days. I knew right then that this kid was going to be okay."
Confident that Stevie was showing marked signs of improvement, doctors released him into the custody of his closest living relative, great-aunt Maureen Knabholz, with whom he has continued to find solace in television's therapeutic effects.
"Steven is only four, so normally I'd say, 'Only two hours a day, and no HBO.' But after all he's been through, I figured I'd forget the rules and just let him watch what he wants," Knabholz said. "Yesterday, I even let him stay up late to watch The Road Warrior on Cinemax. When he sees something he likes, his little eyes get so big and wide... I just don't have the heart to say no. Considering that I have to work at the supermarket all day and don't have much time to spend time with him, that TV has really been a godsend for the boy."
"It is so wonderful to see something like this come along and really make a difference in a child's life," Knabholz added. "On my limited income, I can only afford to keep him here until a suitable foster home can be found, but I'm really going to miss him once he's gone. He's something special."
Citizens throughout the Mason City area agree that Burke is a remarkable boy, and they're making every effort to show it. Touched by Burke's recovery, local businesses have donated more than $3,300 in goods and services to Stevie's cause. Blauvelt Electronics donated a state-of-the-art wide-screen projection television in an effort to help meet Stevie's TV-watching needs, and Global Tetrahedron Cable has offered a year of free cable, including premium channels and pay-per-view.
"It's a sad story, but luckily for Stevie, it has a happy ending," said Geoff Jarman, vice-president of Mason City NBC affiliate KMSC. "We all need someone to lean on. Television has opened its heart to this young child, and it's really made an impact. He'll never be the same."