MAYWOOD (AP) – Anita Smerz was surrounded by doctors, nurses, family and friends.
And she never felt so alone.
Her 6-year-old son, Jakob, lay in a hospital bed with third-degree burns covering 20 percent of his body after his shirt caught fire while he was playing with a lighter. Time and painful surgeries eventually would turn his charred skin into permanent scars on his chest, abdomen and left arm.
Smerz couldn’t drown the worries that swam in her head. When would Jakob’s excruciating pain subside? How would she take care of him at home? What emotional toll would this ordeal take on the boy?
“I didn’t know I could feel so alone with so many people around,” she said. “Everyone thought they understood what I was going through, but they didn’t.”
Everyone, that is, except Birger Christensen of Elgin.
Christensen introduced himself to Smerz soon after Jakob underwent a skin graft. He walked into the boy’s tiny room at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood and showed Smerz a white stocking.
“This is what my daughter wore after she was burned,” he told her.
Their connection – a byproduct of a groundbreaking program at Loyola – was instant. In Christensen, Smerz found someone who understood her fears and could answer her questions.
“I started to feel like I could get through this,” Smerz said. “It was a godsend.”
The hospital’s burn center paired Smerz and Christensen as part of its Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery program. The initiative, known as SOAR, introduces patients and their families to survivors who have suffered similar injuries.
The survivors serve as reference guides for the patients, answering questions on everything from learning to walk again to applying sunscreen. They give front-line advice on dealing with doctors, distraught family members and rude stares from the public.
“It’s something no one is ever prepared for,” said burn survivor Tony Gonzalez, a Lisle resident who has volunteered with the program for the past two years. “And you can’t do it alone.”
Loyola, which has the Midwest’s premier burn center, is one of six hospitals nationwide to offer the program. Organizers had high hopes when they began a pilot project two years ago, but they never imagined the extent to which the patients would come to rely on the program’s 12 volunteers.
“I knew it would be helpful,” burn unit social worker Barry Bennett said. “But in many ways it has surpassed my expectations.”
Gonzalez, who suffered burns over 93 percent of his body, typically visits the hospital’s most severe cases. His scars serve as a testament as he tells of the 1997 cabin fire that almost killed him, and the slow, painful process of rebuilding his life.
“When I walk into a room, they can see the way I look,” he said. “They look at me and they know I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be lying in fear.”
I think I offer hope and assistance.”
The 40-year-old former carpenter who lost six fingers in the fire also often visits patients who have missing digits. He makes sure to pick up a cup shortly after entering the room for the first time. It’s a quiet gesture, intended to show the patients that they, too, will be able to adapt.
“It’s a learning experience,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not like a broken leg or even surviving cancer. This stays with you forever. It’s something nobody ever expects to happen.”