The Power of Puppy Love

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

FIVE WEEKS AGO, 11-YEAR-OLD DONNY Tomei was hit by a car as he chased a ball into the street near his home in West Haven, Conn. For 10 days he lay in a coma at Yale New Haven Hospital; attempts by doctors, family and Friends to elicit any response met with failure. Then one morning, his parents, Rosemarie and Albert, began talking about Donny's beloved dog, Rusty, and the boy seemed to react by moving an arm and a leg. Surprised by his response, and hopeful, his parents got permission to bring Rusty, a 6-month-old part-collie adopted from an animal shelter, into the hospital for a visit. The moment the dog was placed on his bed, Donny reached out and hugged him, then laughed as the animal licked his face. When Rusty got a little too rambunctious and scratched Donny's legs, the boy spoke: his first words: "Bad Rusty."

It's too early to say when—or if—Donny will recover completely, but he has started physical therapy, and he can usually recognize family members. The story of the injured boy and his dog has clearly touched people. The family has been swamped with cards, and an anonymous donor gave $1,000 toward Donny's medical costs. Kim Basinger sent a Batman T-shirt, Prank Sinatra a 6-foot stuffed dog, and the Bushes a picture of their favorite dog, Millie.

"It didn't surprise me at all that Rusty helped Donny break through that barrier, says Dr. Philip Arnold of Newington Children's Hospital, where Donny was moved three weeks ago. "There's a special relationship between children and their pets. Animals love and don't ask for anything back." He adds that Donny is making good progress. During another recent visit with Rusty, Donny giggled, snapped his fingers to get the dog's attention and said, "C'mere, Rusty, give me a kiss!"

Rosemarie and Albert, who are both out of work and living on Albert's Social Security disability check, are thrilled. "Isn't this something?' " says Albert, smiling through tears as he watches Donny and his dog from the back of the playroom. "It's a miracle."

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