Chasing Hope

Only at the end of her five months in the hospital did Jacqui begin to make out shadows.

"I thank God," she said. "If I had seen myself as I was, I couldn't have continued."

Her first real glimpse in the mirror was blurry. Then, in March 2000, a month after her release from the burn unit, she visited Roberts, who gave her drops that dilated her right pupil. For a few hours, she could make out details.

Back at the apartment in Galveston, Jacqui grabbed two framed photographs. She sat on the edge of her bed and studied them. One showed her with long hair in Caracas; in the other, she is smiling beside the fountain on UT's South Mall.

She set the pictures together on the night table, then walked to the bathroom mirror.

She leaned close, inspecting herself inch by inch. She touched her face.

"Lo que yo era," her uncle Antonio Saburido remembers her saying, "y lo que soy ahora."

Who I was, and who I am now.

She began weeping. Antonio, who was taking care of Jacqui while Amadeo was away, remembers sitting with her on her bed, hugging her. She cried for hours.

Then, suddenly, Jacqui jerked her arm, like she was throwing something away.

"Ya," she said. That's enough.

She turned on her small stereo, picked out a pop mambo song and grabbed her uncle. In the living room, they started dancing in their socks to song after song. Antonio, a beefy 49-year-old, struggled to keep up.

Finally, panting, Antonio had to sit down.

"Uncle, more," Jacqui pleaded, hiding her own exhaustion. "Uncle. Ay, uncle."

She kept dancing by herself.

Felix and SondraWhen he first saw her dance, Felix Rodriguez thought Jacqui was crazy. They were at physical therapy, after their release from the burn unit. Her therapists had been singing, and Jacqui got up to cha-cha.

Felix, whose hospital stay had coincided with Jacqui's months in the burn unit, never thought someone in their condition could do that — or would try. By dancing, Jacqui seemed to be saying: Look, I can move. Don't feel too bad for me.

Felix, then 40, was having the opposite experience. Forty-five percent of his body was covered in third-degree burns after a car wreck. He lost one eye, his ears, his nose and parts of his fingers. He felt like letting go.

Jacqui rattled him. While he was still getting pushed around in a wheelchair, she pedaled an exercise bike, her legs drenched in sweat.

"Just watching her is what got me to go forward," he said.

Jacqui's old nurses began asking her to return to visit patients. Jacqui agreed. She talked candidly about her treatments. The visits made her feel useful; at least she wasn't wasting time.

Sondra Silva still remembers the afternoon Jacqui walked into her hospital room.

Silva, a real estate agent in her mid-30s, came to Galveston for skin grafts after developing a flesh-eating infection on her leg. She was in agony, her business had fallen apart and she didn't know when she would walk again. She had stopped eating.

Jacqui came and explained her recovery. She showed Sondra her skin.

"I was so humbled I started to cry," Sondra said.

She started eating again. She can still recite bits of her new friend's advice: Every day, plan to cry five minutes, then move on.

"She blessed me," Sondra said.

The Long Year

The months passed.

At the Galveston apartment, Jacqui slept late, waking to days of physical therapy, psychologist and doctor appointments, more surgeries. In the burn unit, surgeons had created an eyelid for her right eye, but never succeeded in covering her left eye.

She lived through other people's hands — hands to bathe her, feed her, clean her, apply hot wax to her neck, stretch and massage the scars all over her body.

"It was like caring for a porcelain doll," her uncle remembers.

La routina never ended. Progress was maddeningly slow.

Little by little, Jacqui began to see more out of her right eye and began to walk more. By July, 10 months after the crash, she finally felt fully conscious again.

She still struggled to accept what had happened to her. In the apartment, distractions were few and sadness constant.

I don't do anything, Jacqui told friends at home. I can't stand it.