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Fresh Air Magazine

Eyes Of An Eagle

Dewayne Combs has kept the staff laughing and on their toes for 30 years

Elizabeth vividly remembers the first time he spoke to her. It was 1988, and he was not quite four years old. As she was tending to his roommate, she heard what sounded like distant chatter.

She paused and listened. A small voice had been repeating everything she said. "Is that you, Bubby?" she asked. Before then, she did not know he could even speak. He giggled, delighted by the attention. The kid knew he was onto something.

Born with Werdnig Hoffman, a rare genetic neuromuscular disorder characterized by loss of motor neurons and progressive muscle atrophy, Dewayne Combs, now 34, has been at Rockcastle Regional since he was 18 months old. He has little use of his body from his neck down. He needs a mechanical ventilator to breathe, but his brain is like a machine.

Elizabeth Tracy, RN, MDS coordinator, has been at the facility almost as long as Combs, known to all as Bubby. They both recall fondly a winter day when he was barely a toddler.

Toddlers ought to know about snow, Elizabeth thought. She bundled Bubby up and headed out the door. They looked to the sky and she laughed as he let the cold white flakes melt on the warmth of his tongue. It was one of her favorite days with Bubby, and that's saying something.

"You can't have a bad day around him," said Julie Mullins, RN. "He's sharp and sharp-witted."

When he isn't entertaining with a steady stream of one-liners, he's dazzling his caregivers and fellow patients with a savant-like memory and intuition. His quotes and tendencies are well known. Sometimes he'll declare himself "sanitized for my safety." When he's done with a conversation, he might abruptly dismiss you with "Love you, bye."

"Who is that handsome guy?" he asked a respiratory therapist a few weeks ago.

"Who are you talking about?" asked the therapist. "Dewayne Combs," Dewayne Combs responded.

Though he is wheelchair-bound and not in complete control of his own schedule, if he's late to an activity, he'll offer a fake apology. "I'm so sorry," he'll deadpan. "I take full responsibility."

He soaks up his environment, forever remembering details others never notice, keeping the staff alert. "If you're walking down the hall behind him, he can tell from the sound of your footsteps who you are," said Ann Abney, activities coordinator. "He has the ears of a bat and the eyes of an eagle."

He is said to remember (and sometimes repeat) whole conversations verbatim, and he never forgets a face. Described by his friends as sensitive and intuitive, he sometimes exhibits what seems like a sixth sense.

"Hey, Elizabeth, your admit (new admission) is here," he will announce. Two minutes later, the new patient is brought through the door. "I do not know how he would know that," Elizabeth says. "God gave him some special gifts."

Respiratory Care Center

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