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Wednesday, January 20, 2021
1989 | 11 | 26 | Health | News Coverage
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The Washington Post Magazine
November 26, 1989
Page 18
Whatever You Want To Do, You Can Do
By Jill Krementz

It happened three years ago. I was in summer school working on a chemistry experiment with a small group of kids. We were making sparklers, and they exploded in our faces. If I hadn’t heard voices in the hall and turned my face when it happened, I might have been blinded. I remember it was so hot, and everybody was running from the classroom. I was wearing glasses, and they were covered with powder. I thought I had been blinded, but I couldn’t tell what had happened. A film had formed over my mouth that stuck to my lips and moved with them when I talked. It was all so weird. I had the sense of feeling no pain, and yet feeling a lot-at the same time. They had to cut away the shirt I was wearing because my hands, arms, neck and face were burned.

I heard a helicopter landing, and they rushed me to it. It’s hard not to be scared when you’re being “medevacked” to a hospital with another child next to you screaming and a paramedic telling you not to move. As soon as the helicopter landed, they rushed me to the emergency room. Dad was in Ohio on a business trip, but my mom got there after about a half hour. Having her with me really helped.

The pain was terrible. I was beyond crying. It’s funny, all I wanted to do was sleep. But they wouldn’t let me. They kept asking me how to spell my name, and I was shouting, “S-T-E-W-A-R-T. Got it?” They did that to make sure that I wasn’t going into shock. I kept asking when I could sleep. I was either hot or cold. They put heat lamps on me and I was too hot, and they took them off and I was freezing. It was horrible.

Next, they moved me to the ICU-the intensive care unit designed especially for burn patients. There was a high risk of infection, so they started the process of skin grafts as soon as possible. It was clear that my hands had been so badly burned that skin grafts would be necessary. The surgery on my hands took place three days after the accident. My hands had to be elevated all the time after the surgery, so I had to learn to sleep on my back. Later I had two additional operations for skin grafting on my forehead, neck and arms.

The day-to-day pain was terrible. It was so bad I couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t realize how serious my situation was; that is, how close I was to being disabled in a major way. I couldn’t have dealt with the pain without the support of my parents. If they hadn’t been there behind me, I would have given up at the first turn, the first struggle. My parents forced me to keep going. My mom stayed with me during the days, and my dad spent the nights. They didn’t let him sleep in the room at first, so for a week and a half my dad slept out in the lobby on the most uncomfortable plastic chair you can imagine-just to be near me.

I was in the hospital for 38 days. In five weeks, I had to go through three operations for the needed skin grafts. In addition, I had to wear splints on my hands and arms to keep my skin from contracting as it healed. I had a ton of bandages, which had to be changed three times a day. Some of them would stick, which was really painful.

Getting mail meant a lot to me while I was in the hospital. I got a letter from the Redskins that really cheered me up. It said: “We know of your strength and fortitude and we hope you’ll keep your spirits up . . . Ask any pro player and he’ll say that the worst thing is to get down. You must fight for yourself, give 110 percent, and things turn out for the best. Give it your best shot and feel good about that. We’re all rooting for you.” They sent me a football too.

Meanwhile, I kept imagining the accident happening over and over again. It was so horrible, it was bottled up in me. I was always fearful that something would happen while I was sleeping, that the hospital would blow up or something like that.

The social workers in the hospital were nice, but I didn’t like the psychiatrists at all. One day I woke up, and there was this man standing over me. He introduced himself and told me that he was a psychiatrist. He wasn’t exactly my favorite person because he would pop in at times when I wanted to be left alone, and he refused to leave unless I talked to him. It was intimidating because I felt I had no control over things. Finally I told my mom that I wanted to describe what had happened, and I wanted her to take notes of what I said. Telling my mom everything that happened made me feel better than telling the psychiatrist. I also wrote poems about my accident so that I’ll have something to look back on in future years.

Since burns take a very long time to heal, I had to go through a lot for the rest of the year. After I got out of the hospital, it took weeks for me to get my strength back, even to get dressed by myself. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t allowed to go out to recess because getting too much sun might affect the coloring of my skin grafts and because people were afraid I’d get hurt.

My parents had to play the role of the bad guy with me a lot during this time, which was very hard on them. They saw a psychiatrist who told them not to smother me with attention or spoil me. If I didn’t want to take a bath, which I usually didn’t want to do, my dad would just pick me up and put me in the tub anyway. I’d be begging him to stop and I’d cry, but he wouldn’t give in. Sometimes my parents would cry, but they both knew that there was only one chance to get my skin to heal with the best results, and they were determined that everything possible would be done.

Having all this happening at home was very hard on my 6-year-old brother. My parents tried to give him a lot of attention, but that was hard because of all my medical care and physical therapy. It wasn’t until after I began to recover that we were treated pretty equally.

My face and arms had to be covered with a special pressure garmen that looked like a tight stocking. It was designed to maximize healing, minimize scarring and reduce the sunlight reaching my skin, because any sunburn would be very painful and would affect the permanent coloration of my skin grafts. The face mask fit tightly like a ski mask. I had to wear it all day except for eating and bathing. It hurt when I took it off and put it back on because my hair would get stuck in the Velcro fastener down the back. Sometimes my forehead would bleed on the edge of my skin graft, and the skin and the mask would stick together, making it really hurt to take the mask off.

When I found out that I was supposed to wear that mask for an entire year, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like forever. At first I refused to wear it, and my father had to force me to put it on. We had some pretty big fights about this. He got a couple of punches in the stomach. My parents kept telling me that in a few years, I would appreciate having worn the mask. Looking back now, I see they were right-the time went quicker than I thought it would, and I know it made the scars heal better.

Still, it was a hard time for me. A lot of people made flip remarks about the mask. Adults that I’d never met felt that they could jeer at a little twerp. They’d say, “Oh, Halloween’s come late this year” or, “Are you from the latest monster movie?” Little kids were scared of me. They would run away when I came into a room. It got so bad that I was afraidto go to the bank with my mother. I thought that people would be suspicious of somebody even my size wearing a mask.

I think the accident has made me a bit more independent than somebody my age would normally be. Even though my parents backed me up, it’s a fight I had to make on my own. Their support helped me, but it didn’t win the emotional battle for me. I had to do that for myself.

The biggest thing I’ve had to deal with is my fear of fire. At first, I couldn’t even stay at birthday parties when the cake came. Then I realized it wasn’t doing me any good to run away, and I forced myself to sit there while they blew out the candles. Recently, I went to dinner at Benihana’s. I had to prepare myself for it because the flaming oil used for cooking on the grill made me afraid that if there was a fire, my family and I wouldn’t be able to escape. When we were done, I saw that I could control my fears to some extent. I even had to work at watching movies with fires in them. When I was in the hospital, there was a movie on TV that ended with a bombing and fiery plane crash. It gave me nightmares for a week, but in the end it helped me fight my fears.

In some ways this experience has shattered my innocence. I lost any hope of believing in religion. I ask myself, “If there’s a God, why would He do this to a 9-year-old?” If there’s a mighty and powerful Creator who controls the world, He wouldn’t let things like this happen. Sometimes I get angry that this happened to me, and sometimes I get sad. Other times I don’t mind it at all.

My life is a fight-against my fears and for my future. It’s not easy right now, but the worst will all be over in a year or two. I’m pretty sure that I’ll never walk into a singles bar and have somebody say, “Ooh, you’re so handsome.” But in the course of the next few years, I’ll probably have a few more operations to smooth out some of the scars.

For all I know, the scars will be an eternity. But I feel that if I know somebody really well and they know me, my scars shouldn’t be a barrier.