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A child’s trauma, a family’s horror
Some heroes are drawn to get up from the floor despite beatdown after beatdown, as though luck is required of them to make it through life, to get to the other side, no matter what. Michael Lovell and his burn victim son, Judah, eight, have gotten up again, and they’re back in the family’s home at La Canoa, Santa Cruz, following four surgeries in the US to repair horrendous scarring to the boy’s neck, chest and parts of his face. In 2009, Judah was a bystander and the lone casualty of a bamboo bursting incident that involved neighbourhood friends and brothers Aaron, 13, and Jamal, 12.
In the aftermath, Judah underwent a change both mentally and physically after two surgeries at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope. Judah’s trauma is the family’s horror. It has left his mother, Oma Jankey, like Lovell, bitter about plastic surgery procedures at the hospital. Furthermore, for the past year, the horror had taken a father and son away from their loved ones to search for corrective medical care in Miami and Boston. “The pressure took a heavy toll,” said Lovell, while packing for the trip home a week ago. “On a scale of one to ten? Definitely ten.”
Amid such unease, life is about a second chance. About atrocity and beauty. Vulnerability and pride. And music and noise. The sound of the bamboo bursting in La Canoa during the run-up to the Christmas holidays can be surrealistic and exhilarating. Yet it can be grotesque and misshapen as it reverberates through the valleys and ripples across the folds in the hills. Then comes an awkward noise. An eerie flash. Screams. His brothers hearing their heart beat. There’s a little boy lit up like a Christmas tree. The funk of burning flesh brings urgency. It’s as if somebody had hit six-year-old Judah with a blowtorch, hollowing out pieces of the upper body.
A La Canoa native, Kathryn Stollmeyer Wight, who runs a mentorship programme at her Diego Martin home, is well-versed in the language of the bamboo. Its resonance comes from a ritual her family, too, performed during the Christmas holidays. “I was always terrified, so I stayed way back,” says Stollmeyer Wight, the daughter of the late West Indies cricketer Jeffrey Stollmeyer. The family’s six bamboo cannons on the lawn bellowed out like elephants. Not only does Stollmeyer Wight remember kinfolk whooping it up with each bark, she still can’t shake the woodsy smell of the village. She also recalls the mist lingering in the valley—and Jankey’s parents working on her dad’s estate.
Indra Jankey, celebrating her birthday with friends, had saved her grandson from a worse fate by rushing toward the screams outside her home and tearing off his ignited Lakers jersey. “So the connection was there,” Stollmeyer Wight says. “I had to do something.”
A network of passion
A Facebook page, Judah’s Journey, galvanised charitable people everywhere around the plight of Judah’s poverty-stricken family. Several women served as “aunties,” administering tasks and projects and services. “It became a network of passion,” Stollmeyer Wight says. Though the surrogate family helped to cut through red tape, and, with the assistance of the Ministry of Health and good Samaritans, pave the way for Lovell and his son’s seven-month stint in Florida, there was little it could do about certain intangibles—like roughing it in Miami without transport, low funds, post-operative complications.
But nothing could be as undignified as being indebted to Jackson Memorial Hospital for a large sum, halting further plastic surgery. “I only got US$33,000 from the $66,000 allocated to Judah for travel and surgery costs, so the hospital is owed $10,300,” Lovell said. “[Facebook visitors] were helping me out financially, while the aunties and others were taking care of my family (including toddler Sapphire).” Lovell said his letter to the Ministry of Health brought no response. “He needs to apply to the Ministry with documentation and evidence for extras,” said Health Minister Fuad Khan. “He’s received some money before by reapplying to the Ministry.”
Lovell has brought home his own documentary of experiences. How to tell his story? Clambering for answers and balancing internal and external forces, Lovell begins a journal on his computer. An organic delivery of every sensation, every robust thought; every dialogue he’s held with medical staff; the storm and stress of life on the run with a strange new reality in search of a deeper faith and a miracle cure for disfigurement; the gut reaction to Judah’s hospital treatment in Trinidad; the frozen trust, the singular loneliness in the stiff wintry chill, the delicious friendships he’s forged, the new society he found on social networks; the myriad secrets he’s got under his skin—his life seemingly governed by those in control of his next move, now besieged by the letters he taps out in his head.
Lovell writes unflinchingly, with the Herculean passion and agenda of a maestro. Who knows what the landscaper has been creating in his own heart? Dissonace holds the key. On these sandpaper nights while his son is asleep, thoughts zig-zag between life at home and the pain of existence in a hotel room. A family’s strength, slapped by fate, pivots on both resolve and uncertainty. Jankey and Sapphire spring a surprise on Judah on his birthday in May. They bring relief for a month. When they leave, Lovell’s next move is in countdown. He’s waiting for God or Shriners Hospitals for Children in Boston. (He’d applied for Judah’s admittance there long before they’d left Trinidad.)
In the interim, do his notes remind him of the rocky precipice that leads to his hilltop home or the surrounding beauty that can make a man cry for its inventiveness? In a corner in the mind, he contemplates the realism and artificiality of the skyscraper of thoughts he’s amassed since the monologue of the bamboo began. The dignity he needs to reclaim. How he ticks off the days in seconds, clocks time in infinite chunks and depends on faith to restore lost moments that one could never imagine. The Anansi story of it all. The conviction to express all of that. He pauses during a talk with a visitor in the hotel room about the hard times, dropping his head and shaking it, staring at his lap and lifting his head back in place and staring beyond human comprehension at his fate, his son’s fate, his family’s fate. Unable to express it differently.
“Boy, you don’t know,” is how he sketches the human condition all the way to the horizon of the conscience, the will, the innate ability to carry a cross to wherever the soul stands waiting. One tough but vulnerable character. And if he had to spit a line, it very well could be: “By God, eventually wherever we’re going, there won’t be any more pain like this and we’ll be the biggest tree up there and it ain’t going to be a dead tree either.” Shriners Hospitals for Children arrives as their next stop on this implausible journey. Shriners pioneered some of the most significant advancements in burn care such as skin grafting and the development of engineered skin. They provide care to children at no charge to the family. So Judah can have surgeries there until he’s 21.
The news comes to Lovell like being inside a symphony orchestra after the retuning, everybody at the centre of sound performing their part with fluency. All the dynamics are in play now. Dr Matthias B Donelan, chief of plastic surgery, says on the phone that Judah will require ten to 20 operations within the next ten years or longer. “His is a serious burn injury,” Dr Donelan said in August after he’d performed the first of two surgeries. “There have been a number of operations which have not worked out as well as expected. The chin was attached to his chest and he had severe hypertrophic scarring. Now, he can look up.
“Kids have complicated psychological reactions to severe burns, and we’ll try to get him better with each operation. But he’ll never be perfect.” Beloved by nurses and kids in physical therapy, Judah recuperated under Sandra Barrett, a registered nurse and care coordinator. “Kids don’t get stares here or called names as they do in public, Barrett said. “There’s a common bond regardless of what language they speak.”
Judah says he’s become stronger. “A normal kinda strong.” He’s looking forward to resuming school, hoping to bridge the gap between himself and classmates with a Shriners video about burn awareness in which he’s featured. Barrett also helps parents cope with the stress of rearing a burn victim child. “I’m a changed man,” Lovell says. “The experience at Shriners has brought me closer to God. I can deal with life issues better now. I’ve learned a lot by meeting people from all over the world and talking with doctors. A whole enlightening programme. A wake-up call. I want to give back. To start a project to open a burn trauma unit in Trinidad.”
Khan says he’s already been having discussions with oil companies and health authorities about a stand-alone specialty facility like Shriners. “It would be a complete burn [treatment] centre situated close to Pt Lisas.” Lovell’s lofty goals also include Judah’s Hope Foundation—for burn and trauma victims and families. He’s been inspired by Erin Margaret Joyce, of Wisconsin, who was touched by his courage through Facebook. “Like many others in the network, she helped us out financially and otherwise. She brought up the idea of a foundation.”
Likewise, to Stollmeyer Wight, the journey has only now begun. The network’s motto: “Play it Forward for Judah” promotes the unselfish principle of altruism. “He can’t get rid of me,” she says. “I told him I’ll be at his graduation. And I’ll be there at his wedding.” That’s how Stollmeyer Wight talks, like holding hands with the universe. Ordinary people don’t think like that. Unless they’re caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Unless their life revolves around a father and a son who must go through hell to get to the other side.
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