Chasing Hope

An article chronicling the injuries and recovery of Jacqueline Saburido, a spirited young woman burned and disfigured when a drunk driver veered into her car. Originally published in the Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX) in 2002.

Children always look. They always turn around to look.

Some kids shout. Some ask their mothers what happened. Some follow. Some hide.

Once in a supermarket, a boy came near.

Monster, he said.

It's even worse when children cry.

"I feel like a normal person inside," Jacqueline Saburido says.

Some days, she stays at home, lying in bed, visiting the past. Her last hours in Austin. The islands where she swam with friends and family. Dancing flamenco. Racing her car through the chaotic streets of Caracas, Venezuela. Watching the stars from her father's boat.

For a while, she rests in the memories of her old life — the life that disappeared in the flames.

It would be so easy now, at 23 years old, to just fade away.

Questions haunt her.

Will I ever be independent?

Will I ever be normal?

Why me?

Each day, she can stay in bed, or she can keep going. "You choose," she says.

And every day, her father, Amadeo, is there, soothing, pushing, encouraging.

"He's an angel with me," she says.

Together, they face the questions and the stares.

She understands why people look. They're curious. She's curious, too.

She wants to see herself.

In the bathroom, at the mirror, she leans close, and she looks.

Jacqui's Face
At a distance Jacqui looks old. Up close, ageless.

She has a baggy neckchin and thin crumpled lips. Her cheeks are splotchy and rough in places, smooth in others.

Where her right ear should be, she has a slender crescent of cartilage around a pea-size black hole. On the left side, she has only a hole.

Her nostrils are ragged, torn. A flap of skin hides her left eye. For more than two years, the eyeball floated naked in the socket, mostly blind but perpetually staring behind a clear plastic goggle. Her right eye sees behind a veil of scar.

Her burned skin can't sweat or protect her from heat and cold. It feels hot and tight, like having a sunburn.

Scars run down her body, halting at her knees and before her size 7 1/2 feet, which the fire never touched. She has learned to use her feet like hands — her toes stroke a blanket's softness and test shower water.

Her fingers are amputated between the knuckle and the first joint. On her right hand, they are fused together like a mitten.

Nerve damage has left parts of her body numb. She can make out some texture with the bottom of her right palm. Her left hand feels only pinpricks — "like a thousand needles," she says. Her hands hurt every day, but Jacqui doesn't take painkillers.

She likes to touch, clasping strangers' hands with her palms. With friends, she steps forward.

"Hug me tightly," she whispers. "I won't break."

In Venezuela, where Jacqui grew up, friends remember a slender beauty, 5 feet 4 inches tall, with smooth brown hair and brown eyes, an only child who refused to take no for an answer.

When Jacqui speaks, old friends know it's really her. Her voice still bites.

She whines like a spoiled child, bosses like a foreman and teases like a schoolgirl.

There's joy in her voice.

When she listens to merengue and Spanish ballads, she still sings off-key. Love for songs, Jacqui believes, comes from inside.

"Life without music wouldn't be life," she says, "and the best way to live it is singing."