Chasing Hope

Jacqui and Amadeo Saburido are on a quest. They're trying to salvage Jacqui's hands and eyes, restore her independence and, maybe, make her whole again after the accident.

On Sept. 19, 1999, Jacqui got a ride home from a party in Austin. On a dark road, a drunken driver veered over the yellow line.

Two passengers died on impact. Two were rescued from the spreading fire by frantic paramedics.

Jacqui, pinned in the front seat, burned.

She woke up in a hospital in Galveston, blind and hallucinating. Her parents, estranged from each other, waited by her bedside, watching parts of their daughter die.

But Jacqui lived. She emerged from the hospital unrecognizable and totally dependent.

She suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, according to her hospital discharge report. After 2 1/2 years, she's had more than 40 surgical procedures.

Her goals are basic but desperate. She wants her left eyelid rebuilt and her vision restored. She wants to regain use of her hands.

She also wants hair, a nose and lips. But no doctor has the magic answer, and no surgeon has much to work with. Jacqui's body is a mass of scars.

"I know I'm not going to be the same," Jacqui says, "but I want to recover what I can."

Amadeo shuttles his daughter from city to city, chasing referrals and fourth opinions. As long as Jacqui has options — and the will — her search continues.

"We're in a life of wandering," says Amadeo, who is 49.

They're roommates, together all day, all year. Terco — stubborn — they nag each other. They're both used to getting their way.

Together, far from home, they shop in malls, eat fast food and slog through la routina — their daily routine that for two years was dominated by massages, therapies and doctor appointments. Together, they continue to wage a tug of war against depression.

What's the point? Jacqui asks her father. Why should I keep fighting if I'm never going to be well?

There's hope, Amadeo tells her in his low, steady Spanish. You've come so far.

"We're in this together," he says. "We're here to fight together."

Jacqui always seeks more reassurance from her father. "You don't love me," she says, teasing yet testing him.

Before she left Caracas, it was Jacqui who cared for her father, washing his clothes by hand and packing his suitcase for trips. When she was 17, she left her mother to live with him. They had a penthouse, new cars, a plane and a boat to visit white-sand islands with turquoise water. One day, she planned to take over Amadeo's air-conditioning factory.

Now, she struggles to use the bathroom alone, to dress and feed herself. And she tries to be happy.

"My dream, the dream of my life, the most important thing since I was little, was to find someone who truly loves me, and who I love, and have a family with four or five children," Jacqui says.

Now, she wonders, who will want me?

She lights candles and prays. In her bedroom, she keeps a small shrine of saints and Virgin Mary statues. In the living room, she keeps framed snapshots of the way she used to look.

Wherever she goes, her photographs and her saints come along.

As does her father.

With Amadeo by her side, Jacqui has visited other hospital patients to boost their spirits, confronted the drunken driver and traveled home to her old life in Venezuela to face her friends and family.

Everyone — even Jacqui's father — wonders how she's survived.

Maybe it's because she's a born fighter. Maybe it's because of her perfectionism, her tireless drive to get things just right. Or maybe it's because she's not alone.

Jacqui believes in miracles. Her father believes in science.

Still, before a surgery, they stand together at the altar of Jacqui's saints, and together they pray.

"Hope," Amadeo says, "is the last thing to go."

Galveston, July 2001
Jacqui climbs the narrow stairway, feeling out edges and landings with her feet, counting each step until she hits 14. She walks to the door labeled in small type: "Jaus." — To learn the language of his new home, Amadeo has tagged objects with the Spanish spelling of English words.

Almost two years after the accident, Amadeo speaks scant English. Jacqui speaks it better, though still imperfectly.

They live here, in a second-floor apartment in a warren of seagull-gray buildings four blocks from the burn unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch and four blocks from the beach. From the parking lot, they can smell the Gulf's salty air. Inside, their tidy apartment has the feel of a summer rental.

Jacqui spends most of her free time indoors, waiting for her next surgery, watching Latin American soap operas and e-mailing friends and relatives back home.

"I'm as bored as an oyster," she says.