Anyone that has ever asked me about my fears in life know that I have two things that just scare me to death:
1. Snakes. Hate em. Despise them. Unnaturally afraid of them. Even the little cute garden snakes.
2. Burning up in a fire. Not sure where this came from, but it has always been hard for me to deal with this idea. I once had to take a deposition from an elderly woman that had fallen back into a bucket of hot tar that a roofer was using at her home. She was not where she was supposed to be and got seriously burned. I represented the roofer in the lawsuit she filed for damages. The details of burn therapy that I learned from her and her plastic surgeon that I also deposed were enough to make my skin crawl.
So where am I going with this? Last Friday I was asked to help drive a van to Houston and Galveston for a group of our students. It was a combined activity for the Legal Club and the Medical Club. Our first stop was the Johnson Space Center. Man, that was fun for a science/space geek like myself. Saw Mission Control, a mock-up of the International Space Station, toured Rocket Park. Just plain neat.
The second part of the trip involved a short drive to Galveston and the Shriners’ Hospital for Children, specifically the burn unit. You can already see what my concern might be – it is a burn unit. What made it worse was that it was kids. The day we were there a 17 month old baby was in ICU because of burns. The others ranged from 2 years to 17 years old.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we drove up to the beautiful building. As we arrived there was a van loading several patients, many of them still bandaged or wearing those compression garments. And they were smiling. Not a forced grin like we see sometimes when they are trying to be brave, but a heart warming , open-hearted smile that would brighten up any day.
That’s when I realized that this was not going to be the trip that I expected. I expected to see a lot of miserable, suffering, unhappy kids – in pain and wondering what they had done to deserve their fate. I am sure they all had their moments, but on this afternoon they were smiling.
The medical staff at the hospital are amazing. They answered all the questions our students had, talked about the whole healing process at the hospital and encouraged every one of them to study and maximize their potential. It quickly became apparent that the positive attitude that the kids showed started with these wonderful staff members. The one piece of advice they gave us was that when we went into the burn ward – “Look them in the eye and smile.”
So after the little introductory session, 36 students and faculty took a trip back to “safe room”, the area where no medical intervention was allowed (except for emergencies). It was a place for them just to have fun watching movies, playing video games (they kicked my butt), shooting pool or doing arts and crafts. The parents sat with them and enjoyed the activities as well. Many of them learned to knit and crochet to pass the time.
That’s when the hard work began. I met Gustavo*, a 3-year-old that was badly burned in a home fire and was wearing a compression mask on his face. I looked at his eyes, stuck out my hand and smiled. He took my hand, smiled, and crawled into my heart. Angelita*, another 3-year-old, had been badly burned when she and her siblings were playing with matches in their home in Mexico. The horrible scarring on her face and arms could not hide the beautiful eyes that looked back at me – while I smiled.
A large majority of the patients were from Mexico, where treatment like they receive at Shriners is nothing more than a pipe dream. They were much more comfortable when I spoke back to them in Spanish. Gustavo told me when I spoke to him in Spanish “I thought you were a Gringo!” We played games, shared gifts with them and they took pictures with us. One of our students is Mrs. Central Texas and she dressed in her gown with her crown and they just loved it. She signed autographs for them and took a lot of pictures as well.
About 45 minutes into the gathering I felt a compelling urge to leave. I flat-out was about to lose it. One of the volunteers pulled me aside and assured me that it was ok. It was not that I was too macho to cry, I cry all the time. The thing was that I did not want to make them feel like my tears were because I felt sorry for them, because I didn’t.
Nonetheless I went to the downstairs lounge and let the tears flow. I called my wife and told her my heart was breaking. I am not sure why I told her that. Maybe it was that I was so grateful that I could look in the mirror each morning without suffering that these kids must have gone through. Maybe it was my relief that my children and grandchildren are safe and healthy. Or maybe, just maybe, it was that I too often complain about things that are trivial when compared to what these kids and their parents had gone through.
When I left I had resolved that I was not going to go back up, but I did, and I am ever so grateful that I did. If I had not, I would have missed the hugs that they wanted to share with us. I would have missed seeing the parents smile at the small gifts that we brought the children that made their eyes light up. I would have missed seeing the little boy in the wheelchair smile the biggest smile when he got to take his picture with the beauty queen.
The purpose of the trip was to get our students some exposure to the realities of their field of study, and to make them aware of someone other than themselves. The trip accomplished that with no doubt. What I did not expect was the impact it had on my life and my outlook. I am ever so blessed to have the life that I have. If I complain about my lot in life now, someone needs to kick me hard in the rear end.