Somerville boy makes medical history

On April 7, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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Early Somerville living built character by Paul Maisano

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

It was dead silent that July morning as I walked by Glen Park. A weird mist covered the entire field. It was almost scary. In the distance, the fog hid the bottom part of the huge old wooden light posts. Those giant splintery pillars seemed to grow out of the white blanket. My eyes locked on to the top portions set up against the early morning sky. The clusters of silver metal cans that housed massive glass light bulbs once again promising to light the night softball games all summer…were dark.

This was our Fenway Park here in East Somerville, MA.

And we had the best right-handed pitcher in the city. Some people said, “In a few years this kid is destined to play for the Red Sox.” If you stood behind the steel screen at home plate you could watch his pitches dance. Hardly anyone could hit this kid’s stuff. Every Little League coach knew of him, every batter feared the hiss of his fastballs.

This year it was all going to change, and it would never be the same.

I had just finished delivering the Saturday papers for the second week in a row. Somehow I was CONvinced to fill in for my friend while he was away at a camp in New Hampshire. He was one of the lucky ones chosen that year by the Lions Club to receive a three week free scholarship out in wilderness. Avoiding the city summer heat was a gift.

The paper route job was crazy. I had to get up every day for the next three weeks at 4:30 a.m., walk in the darkness to the news office on Broadway, fold 95 papers, then stuff them in a white canvas bag and get them delivered by the 7:00 a.m. deadline.

This was my second Saturday doing this favor. But today I would be grateful for many things. One thing was that the Boston Globe papers were light, and the Record American tabloid was so thin it was not worth the ink. With only two weeks to go, this madness was nearly over. Soon I could sleep in like a normal nine year old kid.

However, as I passed Dell Street something strange happened. I had a flash back of a front-page edition of an earlier Record American we delivered while training for the route.

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It was a picture of another neighborhood kid named Everett Knowles. We knew him as “Red.’ It showed him in a near full body cast. It told his story. A front-page story that would change lives, especially Red’s.

This neighborhood kid made headline news all over the world. And so would a thirty-year-old doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital who graduated from Harvard Medical School at the age of 23.

In order to fully understand this story, you need to be familiar the neighborhood. City kids sometimes do crazy things. I don’t know if it is a result of boredom, stupidity, or just plain insanity. Like many places in New England, we had a Boston & Maine railroad route at the edge of our neighborhood. It was a spot to hang out, and most times a place to get in trouble. The younger kids would pass time by placing small pieces of metal on the tracks to see how flat the freight train wheels would make them. Old spoons were the best. As the train passed over the objects, they flatten like a pancake. Sometimes we would reach in while the train moved allowing only one set of wheels to crush them. That was the crazy part. NO FEAR!

The older kids were a little more daring, or insane. These guys wandered into the B&M railroad supply hut pilfering these small red things with lead straps. They called them ‘dynamite caps’. These guys would put two, or three, of these things in a row on the commuter rail track knowing that the rapid succession of small explosions would signal the so called “bud liner train” to an emergency stop. All the conductors would have to get out and walk around the train looking for a problem. The train conductors did not know that the problem was watching them from a distance. Hiding in the steel of the Cross Street overpass bridge, just out of clear sight, undetected. These kids were nuts. I’m sure the railroad police thought they were a pain in the “tuckus.”

However, they played a much more dangerous game. They hopped onto the moving freight cars at the railroad storage yard as the railroad shuffled the empty freight cars around to make room for the full ones. The game was to jump onto these cars while they rolled into the lower yards. Some kids rode these freight cars to the western part of the city. You could even hop onto a freight train car jump off near Porter Square in Cambridge, or if you were running away from home, just keep going.

Now, for the Everett Knowles part. In late May, of 1962, around mid-afternoon, this freckled faced, twelve year old, was coming home from school. He decided to jump a freight car heading home to the end of Glen Street. He lived only a short walk from there, near Glen Park. While hanging on to the steel ladder rail of the moving freight train car, suddenly something went drastically wrong. As the trained rolled under the Gilman Street bridge structure, he didn’t hug the ladder tight enough. The result was his right arm and shoulder hitting the stone like structure tearing it almost clean off, knocking him to the ground.

The good news was he somehow avoided getting run over by the trains’ wheels as it continued to pass by him. The bad news was he would never pitch for the Red Sox.

In severe shock, Everett staggered a hundred feet to a nearby paper company yard. A worker noticed that Red was holding his arm in the bloody jacket sleeve with his left hand. His right hand appeared to be facing the wrong way. The Somerville Police were called, and they immediately transported him to the Massachusetts General Hospital Boston, a couple miles away.

At first glance, the MGH emergency room doctors thought it was impossible to the save the pitcher’s right arm. But on this day there was a special doctor on duty, Dr. Ronald Malt, a thirty year old chief resident surgeon, who thought differently.

In just minutes, Dr. Malt made a decision to try something that was talked about, but never performed. Instantly, Dr. Malt ordered the arm be placed on ice, and assembled a medical dream team at the famous hospital. The group of medical professionals labored for nearly 15 straight hours performing the first full limb reattachment known to medicine.

With all the potential complications, within a few days, Red’s hand began to regain color. Eventually he was able to move his fingers, and feel pain. Although a number of subsequent operations would be required to reattach nerves, and tendons alike, it was an obvious success.

The world’s first full limb reattachment took place in Boston, MA, on a 100 pound freckle-faced Somerville kid.

Towards the end of the summer I visited Red at his small Dell St. home. My visit was required to be less than an hour. His upper body cast was a masterpiece of plaster art. The hidden work inside of the MGH team of doctors was a miracle. Red was in great spirits. He proudly boasted of all the get well cards he received. There was even a gift from some astronaut, and a couple major league baseball stars.

A couple years later I saw Red at Glen Park. He was tossing baseballs up with this same left arm sent them deep into the outfield with a single motion. His right arm was half the size of the left, but functional. He obviously favored the good arm too much. Even with the therapy, it was going to be a tough road.

A few years later we bumped into each again. He was working at small body shop behind the Mt. Vernon restaurant. Red was repairing cars, now using both hands. I noticed his determination to use his right hand to start bolts, then finalizing the torque effort with a wrench utilizing the power from his left arm.

I haven’t seen Everett “Red” Knowles in years. I heard that he worked at many jobs, driving a delivery truck, hauling sides of beef, and racing cars. Rumor has him living someplace in Eastern Massachusetts on the North Shore. But I know one thing is clear. Wherever Red is he never, never, gives up.

Dr. Malt never gave up either. After performing the surgery on Everett Knowles that day Dr. Malt was propelled into the medical history books. His career not only soared as that of a world-renowned clinical surgeon, but one as an author, researcher, professor, and scientist. Unfortunately, this caring, innovative, brilliant man died in October of 2002. He passed from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 70. The world lost a great man.

As for me, I never went back to play in the freight yard. I did foolishly once again help out my friend just after Christmas. A blizzard hit on a Saturday night. It took me six hours to drag the sled loaded with papers through the fifteen inches of snow. Both papers were huge. But I never gave up. I delivered all 91 papers. Did I say 91 papers?

I do have a half-century-old secret to share. I buried four Boston Globes at the bottom of Hillside Ave. in the deep snow. It was another good day in Somerville, Massachusetts.       This story is true as authored by Paul Maisano.

 

8 Responses to “Somerville boy makes medical history”

  1. A. Moore says:

    Don’t remember he exact details but I do remember this. Only because you brought it up. I did have a classmate of mine get killed by a train in Somerville. I was too chicken to even put the pennies on the track. But I did walk along the tracks many times to go to the library.

  2. j. connelly says:

    For a number of years I worked on the Auxiliary Fire Ambulance and a number of times the unit responded to incidents on the railroad tracks.
    What seemed as harmless pranks actually endangered the lives of both the pranksters and train passengers.

    One time a switch was changed by kids on the rail line running by St. Clements near the grammar school. A passenger train crashed as a result with deaths and injuries. I remember the old style Jenny Gas station across from the school. A small bldg where the car lift was actually outside the station. The 2 locomotive units came down the hill by the station and other cars were derailed behind the furniture factory across from the high school. (some reports of train passengers being hurled from the train and through windows of the factory were told).

    Fr.Vallee gave a sermon in the church after a number of incidents occurred about kids playing on the tracks. The Ladys Soldality were sitting in the front rows nodding approval of what he was saying.

    Then he did what a lot of others would not. He pointed to the Ladys and said; “Yes Ladys and some of those kids are yours, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and yelled to them to get off the tracks”. Needless to say there were a bunch of these Ladys in the Monsignor’s office calling for Fr. Vallee to be transferred to another parish or excommunicated, (future of political correctness starting), etc. Fr. Vallee remained.

  3. gloria says:

    i know Evereet i grew up with him i remember that day it happen i guess we all do stupid things sometimes i hope where ever he lives now he reads your articles i really enjoy reading your stories brings me back to my childhood growing up in east somerville thank you

  4. Steve Keenan says:

    Everett was a very good pitcher for a Somerville Little League team in the Eastern League at Glen Park when this happened. I was on a tean in the Northern League at Foss Park. Everett could really pitch. I’m glad to hear that he is doing okay.

  5. David Walsh says:

    I grew up on fountain ave. I’m about 15 years younger than red, but I played little league in glen park and I frequented the railroad tracks below cross st. This is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it. It brought back some fond memories for me.

  6. Donald Norton says:

    That was one of those days that you don’t forget for many reasons, but for myself and dozens of other East Somerville kids we hopped that train more times then we could count. It was a mad dash up Marshall Street out of Northeastern Jr. High to Gilman Square and their she would be the 210 train to the yards down by Prison Point Bridge. That day I remembered mostly because of the accident that happened with Red, he was one of the last kids to jump on the train, each car 2, 3 at max would hop on and the kids behind would do the same until the train came up to Tufts Street and we jumped off. Living further east then most about a 6-8 of us would have a longer walk down to Charles Street on the Charlestown line to our hangout. The word got to us that an accident happened and one of the kids from Northeastern was taken to Mass General. Then we found out that it was Everett “Red” Knowles that got his arm taken off and he was taken to MGH. It was a big thing back then on the news all over the news and everyone one of us was nervous that the school would find out all the names of those kids on the train with him, that along was enough to scare the crap out of anyone. JJ Norton was the principal and Lumpy Cohen was the VP and together they were ruthless and tough. We all thought for sure Red would tell on us and every day he was in the news we went to school thinking that our names would come up maybe that day and each of us would be called to Norton’s office. The worst would be suspension or it could mean a lock up in the famous “Book Room” where they threw books at us while we were in the middle.
    Red never said a word, he was a local hero not just for the arm operation which it seemed like everyday he was in the news but he was a hero for not giving us up.
    The following January in 63 I was in a bike accident with my best friend Billy Cullen, coming out of City Hall, me on his handle bar and coming down so fast onto School Street over the bridge and smack into a car head on. I woke up to a priest and several people comforting me while the ambulance arrived and took me to Central Hospital (we all know the reputation of that place ) i was there for 8 weeks couldn’t’ walk for a year. in the summer of 63 Red would come down the street to our end of East Somerville and we would talk about our injuries, his being much worse then mine for sure, he would sit with me and we would talk about the hospital and how we both were doing. After that Red in the next few years would “borrow” (nicer term to use) various cars and come by and pick us up and we would go for joy rides all around East Somerville and over by the old Ford Plant and First National (now Assembly Square)…Its true he loved to race cars and go fast, we all did in those days. We all thought it was weird that he would take standard shift cars with the shift on the steering wheel, just made his bad arm work more. Lost track of him over the next few years and I got married in 67 and he being from Glen Park and me from “Three Bells” hardly would see him, again. Make no doubt about it, he suffered and the operation was nothing less then a miracle, he was very brave. I remember him as a nice kid, good kid that got in an unfortunate accident. Hopefully today he’s doing well and life has treated him good.

  7. Marc Killam says:

    As a kid growing up on Fountain Ave, I can remember the photograph’s and newspaper articles about Everett Knowles being the first “successful” limb reattachment, in store front window’s across the entire city. I got to know Everett from hanging around the Cross St. Drug Store, as well as living one street away from him at the time.

    After a while of getting to know Everett, me being about five years younger than him. Everett began taking me for rides on the handlebars’ of his bicycle. These rides were exhilarating to say the least. Everett would fly down the streets, and with having only one useable arm to control that bike of his, we’d zip in and out of traffic, with more ease and agility, than most who had two good arms to use. I would also be one those East Somerville kid’s that would hop a train bound for the yards, thinking about Everett each time.

    Over the years I’d lose contact with Everett, and suddenly bump into him in some of the strangest places. From Downtown Boston, to a White Hen in Everett, MA. What I remember most, besides the bike rides, was how terribly long, Everett had that reattached arm in a cast, and the ease with which he handled his situation, in public anyways. I’m now due for my fourth major joint replacement, my right hip, having already had my left hip, along with both of my shoulder joint’s replaced. And with each replacement I find myself thinking about Everett Knowles, and about how he would handle each one.

    Thanks for all of those bike ride’s Everett, knowing you as friend was an inspiration, and with these joint replacement’s mine, you are still an inspiration to this very day some 50 years later.

  8. Steve Leeman says:

    Love the memories from this time. Grew up on Cross at Gilman, and lived at Glen park. Used to hop the freights behind Boomers on Gilman st. Used to play chicken with the Budliner commuter trains. Born in fifty one so I know this time very well, and remember the day Everett got hurt. Steve Keenan used to sit in front of me at school.know the Cross st. Drug very well. Remember the time the warehouse at the train yards burned. I would love to hear more memories from this period of time.

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