Chasing Hope

The sutures holding Jacqui's eyes closed kept popping open as the skin on her face scarred and contracted.

In early October, Jacqui's right cornea — the clear window on the front of the eye — dried out and tore.

Roberts and the ophthalmology staff performed emergency surgery.

Then, in early November, Jacqui's left cornea deteriorated. Doctors rushed to do a transplant. To cover the eye, they used a procedure that involved sewing the conjunctiva — the clear covering over the white of the eye — over her cornea. They did the same for her right eye.

The operations bought time.

"We threw everything we had at her," Roberts said.

Roberts had grown attached to Jacqui. He juggled his shifts around her operations. The young doctor, who had no children, cared for Jacqui like a daughter, Goodheart remembers.

He had studied Spanish in high school and tried translating for Amadeo and Rosalia as they struggled to understand Jacqui's condition. Both seemed grateful.

One day, Rosalia gave him a hug and latched on for a minute.

"She wouldn't let go and started to cry," he said, "and so did I."

Slowly, Jacqui drifted back into the world — blind, in agony despite the drugs and unable to move.

Sometimes Jacqui imagined horses were riding over her, ripping off her skin. In other dreams, she was trapped in a burning house. Sometimes, lying in bed, she tried to blow out invisible flames.

In her medical records, hospital staff recorded her words: Where are the other girls? ... Look at that car driving crazily. ... Sir, help me get my seat belt off.

Jacqui doesn't remember much of her burn unit stay, but she vividly recalls her hallucinations. She imagined the hospital staff was trying to kill her parents. In her mind, she saw Amadeo being stabbed to death, then revived, then stabbed again.

Whenever he left her room, she wanted the door locked.

Jacqui's Questions

What do I look like? How is my skin? My hair? My hands?

Jacqui asked everyone — her parents, doctors, nurses, visitors. She asked all day.

Amadeo and Rosalia dreaded traumatizing her further. They put off telling her the truth and asked visitors to deflect her questions.

"You look better than the last time," people said.

Jacqui kept asking. 

The Tub Room

The tub room is one of the burn patient's daily stops on the pilgrimage to recovery. Many remember it as a kind of torture chamber.

The room draws its name from a large stainless steel tub. After nurses cut off bandages, patients are lowered into a bath of warm water spiked with weak Clorox, or they're placed on a stainless steel bed and hosed down as nurses scrub their wounds with soap. The bath can last three hours.

Patients get a fresh dose of morphine before bathing and listen to loud, distracting music while in the tub. Still, their families sometimes hear their screams down the hall.

Jacqui begged to skip her baths.

Leave me alone, get me out of here, Jacqui remembers yelling.

Her only consolation was the music. Nurses remember Jacqui singing along in English to "Pretty Woman" — she knew all the words.

All she wanted to do was lie in bed. Just as nurses were cutting down on the morphine, therapists were pushing her to get up and walk.

After months of lying still, her body couldn't support itself. Her muscles were wasted and her balance was off. Sitting up made her sick. Everything hurt.

Therapists belted Jacqui to a board and, little by little, raised her. Without support, she toppled like a doll. Still blind, she slowly took small steps, lumbering like a mummy. After walking five feet, she felt exhausted.

Therapists labored to bend her joints and stretch her skin, which contracted as her confused body tried to shrink its wounds. Her left elbow locked in place. When her contracting skin pulled her chin toward her chest, doctors operated to free her neck.

Jacqui cried when she woke up, and she cried at night, too.

"She would make statements like, 'I don't want to do this,' meaning 'Just let me die,' " Roberts said. "The nice things about those times is they didn't last very long."

Jacqui screamed and cried, Goodheart remembers, but she kept pushing through.

"She was the most positive little girl I ever met," Goodheart said.