Chasing Hope

On the day of Jacqui's accident, Rosalia hastily threw clothes in a bag and told her brother to take out the garbage.

"My mind didn't accept that this (accident) was true," she remembers.

Amadeo wasn't sure what to think as he packed. Maybe the accident wasn't so serious. With his younger brother, he raced to the airport.

Galveston, The Burn Unit, Sept. 19, 1999
When the helicopter from Austin touched down at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Jacqui was rushed through the electric doors of the Blocker Burn Unit. Doctors and nurses scrambled around her.

In Austin, at Brackenridge Hospital, Jacqui had been treated briefly and put on a ventilator. She arrived in Galveston immobilized and sedated, hanging between life and death.

The majority of her burns were third degree — the severest kind. The flames burrowed through her skin and, in places, down to her bone. The worst damage was to her face and hands. Her buttocks, one thigh, parts of her back and the area below her knees were spared serious damage.

Jacqui also had broken bones, including a fractured arm, leg and hand.

The burn unit, a nationally recognized intensive-care ward, sits on the second floor of a tall, earth-colored hospital on UTMB's sprawling campus. A set of wide automatic doors sections off the small unit's white and peach corridors, which nurses keep at a balmy 84 degrees for patients, whose damaged skin no longer retains heat.

Once Jacqui entered the eight-bed unit, nurses and doctors began an around-the-clock battle to save her.

Healthy skin, the body's largest organ, keeps fluid in and bacteria out. But Jacqui's skin could do neither.

Nurses rushed to pump Jacqui full of intravenous fluids and antibiotics. They cleaned her wounds and changed dressings constantly. It was gritty work. Jacqui's body fluids kept soaking her bed. Nurses, who kept Jacqui's room near 100 degrees, walked out drenched in sweat.

One threat followed another. She was in shock and in danger of organ failure. Swelling was choking her blood circulation. Her overwhelmed body had begun consuming itself for fuel. Hospital staff pushed a feeding tube through her nose and gave her a high-calorie, high-protein solution.

With a steady diet of sedatives and morphine, they medicated her "to the gills," as one nurse put it.

Jacqui drifted in and out of consciousness. Later, she wouldn't remember anything.

Nurse Rachel Goodheart, a 10-year veteran of the burn unit, had never seen anyone survive such severe head burns. She prayed.

"God in heaven, have mercy."

"I'm Here"
Amadeo and Rosalia reached the burn unit about noon the next day.

You're not going to recognize your daughter, a doctor told Amadeo.

"I'm ready," Amadeo said.

He put on a yellow gown, a surgical mask and gloves and entered Jacqui's room.

Tubes and wires ran in and around her. She was wrapped in gauze like a mummy, with only her face and her toes exposed. Her arms had swollen to the size of her legs, and her head was the size of a soccer ball, blurring her features. Burned hair stuck to her head like bits of charcoal. Her skin looked leathery, charred.

"Her face didn't exist," Amadeo remembered. "There wasn't a single part of her where I could say, 'That's Jacqui.' No. Nothing except her feet."

He listened to Jacqui breathing on the ventilator.

I'm here, he told her. You had an accident. Don't worry. You're going to be OK. . . . I know you're listening.

Amadeo stayed until he couldn't hold on any longer.

"Never in my life had I known what it was to cry like I did on that day," Amadeo said. "From then on, I cried in silence. I cried sleeping; I cried awake. I believe I was crying all the time."

Outside, Rosalia wanted to see Jacqui. Amadeo tried to calm her.

"Rosalia, prepare yourself," Amadeo finally told her. "Our daughter is like a monster."

Goodheart escorted Rosalia, trembling and wide-eyed, into Jacqui's room.

The 45-year-old nurse talks bluntly with burn patients and their families, her voice revealing traces of her Buffalo, N.Y., accent. She tries to never show her emotions, but Jacqui's case got to her. Goodheart has a daughter about the same age. The nurse doubted she could bear what Rosalia was about to see.

In the room, Rosalia hovered over Jacqui's bed, staring at her daughter's face and hair, frozen, barely breathing.

"Chiquita," Rosalia finally said. "I'm here. It's your Mamita, here at your side. Everything's OK. You're going to be OK. You're going to heal. And I know you're listening."

While her mother spoke, Jacqui moved her foot.

Outside in the hall, Rosalia collapsed and wept.

Goodheart moved out of sight and cried, too.