Friday, October 24, 2014

"After the Fire"

I recently read After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival by Robin Gaby Fisher. At Seton Hall University there was a terrible fire in the early morning hours of January 19, 2000. Three students died in the fire and 58 others were injured, including two freshman roommates, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. They had only known each other for a few months but had become fast friends. When they awoke to the sound of the fire alarm on that freezing cold morning they wondered if it was just another prank since there had been lots of false alarms from students pulling the alarm, but they decided they better get up, get dressed and check things out. When Shawn opened the door he was overwhelmed with thick, black smoke. This was NOT a false alarm.

Shawn got down on his hands and knees and turned to the right out of his and Alvaro's dorm room and headed in the direction of the elevator. This was a mistake since turning left would've taken Shawn and Alvaro (Al) to the stairs, and ultimately to freedom, but Shawn, overcome by smoke and fear, was disoriented. He would be plagued with guilt for this decision for a long time since this mistake had lifelong consequences for himself and Alvaro. Shawn and Alvaro miraculously survived, but both were burned very badly. Shawn sustained burns on his hands and face and Alvaro was burned beyond recognition. In fact, Alvaro's girlfriend Angie was screaming his name at the outside entrance of the dormitory just hoping he would make it out alive. Yet, when she saw a man clumsily staggering down the stairs with oozing, bubbling skin that had been charred in the fire, the remnants of his clothing still flaming, she didn't even recognize that it was Alvaro, the young man she'd come to know so well.

Shawn and Alvaro were both rushed to Saint Barnabas Hospital, which was known for having the best burn unit around. Both young men spent quite a while in the burn unit, especially Alvaro, who spent the first 90 days post fire in a coma while his body healed. He underwent daily "tankings" where his burned skin was debrided and his dressings were changed in a room called "the tank." (Debridement is the removal of damaged tissue from a wound.) Imagine having that raw, tender skin rubbed to get the dead tissue off. It's an excruciating but necessary part of the healing process. Even though Alvaro was in a drug-induced coma and was giving a big dose of morphine before going to the tank, the pain still registered (something I found astonishing). Tears would escape from his eyelids, which had been stitched shut, and would rundown his face. The nurses would sing to Alvaro to try to sooth him or would cry right along with him. Others got sick to their stomach. Then they would get him bandaged up, only to do it all over again 24 hours later. This continued for weeks.

Shawn didn't have to stay in the burn unit nearly as long as Alvaro since he wasn't burned as severely (only on 16% of his body compared to Al's 58%). When Shawn was well enough to leave Saint Barnabas he hadn't been allowed to see Alvaro, despite repeatedly asking, so on the day Shawn left he said, "I have to see Alvaro." He was finally allowed to see Al, who was still comatose. When Alvaro regained consciousness and was lucid, Shawn was one of the first people to visit. Shawn and Alvaro already had a strong friendship before the fire, but the tragedy they went through made their bond even stronger. They were able to help each other get through things in a way no one else could since they had been through the same thing and were experiencing many of the same emotions and feelings.

Here are some pictures documenting Shawn's and Alvaro's recoveries after the fire. These Pulitzer Prize-winning photos were taken by Matt Rainey. Thank you, Matt, for your permission to use your amazing photos in my post. And thank you to The Star-Ledger, too. The first picture shows Shawn and his mother embracing, and the second picture shows Shawn's hands, which were burned severely as he crawled along the ground in the blazing fire.
This is Alvero. Al was on a ventilator to breathe for him while he was comatose. In the next picture Shawn is visiting Al, who was still bandaged from head to toe.
The next picture shows Alvaro and Angie, his girlfriend at the time. Poor Al – he had lost so much weight after being in a coma for so long. He was still very weak at this point and his scarred skin was still healing. In the next picture you can see how scarred Shawn's hands were after being burned – something he was very self-conscious of.
Shawn turned 19 and is pictured with his mother and Alvaro. In the next picture Shawn and Al are at a Mets game. They share a love of baseball, but cheer for different teams. Shawn for the Yankees and Al for the Mets.
The fire was nearly 15 years ago. Where are they now? They are still close friends. Both graduated from college. It took a little longer than the four years they expected it to take when they started college, but they both did it. Shawn and Al are both married with kids. Alvaro was afraid he would never find anyone to love him with his scarred appearance, but he found a wonderful young woman named Paula who was able to see past his scars. Shawn and Al have gone on the speaking circuit and have visited lots of colleges since After the Fire was published in 2008. I would love to hear them speak because I'm sure it would be very inspiring.

Shawn, Alvaro and their wives with the director of the documentary film that was made about the fire, and then Shawn and Al with Robin Gaby Fisher, author of After the Fire:
Shawn and Al at two of their speaking engagements. For as badly as they were burned they both look amazing, especially Alvaro:
You might be wondering what caused the fire. It was an act of arson. A banner in the student's lounge was intentionally lit on fire as a prank, which ignited a couch and rapidly spread. In less than five minutes the dormitory was in a blaze with temperatures reaching 1500°F. The two students who started the fire, Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore, lived across the hall from Shawn and Alvaro. After Sean and Joseph started the fire, they fled the building, even though they knew the dormitory was full of sleeping students. There was a big cover-up with two other students who knew of Sean and Joseph's culpability, and a pact was formed between the four of them to never tell anyone who started the fire.

The arson investigation went on for three years before Sean and Joseph were indicted. Police even bugged Sean Ryan's house and his parents and sister were aware that Sean started the fire, but they lied to the police when questioned about Sean's involvement. Sean and Joseph never showed any remorse, and did nothing to help evacuate the dorm. I can understand making a mistake, but their cocky smugness and cowardice was inexcusable. On November 15, 2006, Sean and Joseph admitted that they had set the fire that led to three deaths and injuries to dozens more and pleaded guilty to third-degree arson. In January 2007 they were sentenced to five years in a youth correctional facility. Both are now on parole. I really hope Sean and Joseph learned something valuable from their time in the correctional facility and will live better lives.

This was an excellent book that really hit home. I could relate to Shawn's and Alvaro's experiences in many ways since I've been through my own life-changing transformation after going through a very traumatic situation. I also have secondhand experience with burns and all that they entail since both of my younger sisters are burn survivors and have had lots of surgeries to repair and maintain their scarred skin. There were so many things about this book that I didn't go into, so if it sounds interesting to you I highly recommend getting the book and reading the entire thing.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Two for the Price of One

My sister Annette had her twins last Thursday, October 16. Lincoln Wirth was born first at 9:50 AM and Annika Grace was born a minute later at 9:51. Annette was able to carry these babies to full-term (which is 38 weeks for twins). I was really surprised. When I found out that she was expecting twins, I really thought the twins would come early, anywhere from week 32-35. Both babies (which were delivered by C-section) were 5 pounds. Lincoln was 18 inches long and Annika was 19 inches.

Lincoln, just a few minutes old and Annika, one day old:
The twins (Annika is the one by her dad's hand), and Annette's selfie with her babes:
Annette took the babies home from the hospital after just two days. There is no nursery at the hospital (only a NICU), so babies sleep in the same room as their mother. This means that the nurses come in all night to check on the mom and the babies, which means there are frequent interruptions. I know from personal experience just how hard it is to get a good night's sleep in the hospital. Now that they are home everyone is getting more sleep, although the babies are waking up multiple times a night to nurse.

Annika's name is pronounced like "Hanukkah" minus the 'h'. She has red hair and when I was Skyping with Annette yesterday I noticed that Annika has a dimple in her right cheek. I adore dimples, so seeing that Annika has one gave me a little thrill. Lincoln is named after my grandpa–Lincoln's great-grandpa–Warren Wirth Zimmerman (my mom's dad). Grandpa is one of the best men ever, so Lincoln is lucky to share his middle name with such an amazing man.

Kimball and Rebecah are both loving the twins. They've been looking forward to the arrival of the babies for many months and were both so excited to meet the twins. The brothers and the sisters:
The twins on the day they came home from the hospital. They look tiny in their car seats! Even though 5 pounds is a respectable weight for a baby (especially a twin) I think they look minuscule. In the next picture Annika is the one yawning:
Joseph feeding Annika a tiny bottle, and another one of Little A:
Rebecah and Lincoln, and Lincoln mid-yawn:
I know it's out of order, but I wanted to include this picture of Annette a few days before the twins' arrival. She was mighty uncomfortable by this time and felt huge, but I thought she looked great, especially for having two babies inside of her. I kept getting after her to make sure she had Joseph do a pregnancy photo shoot at the very end. My instructions were to take at least 20 pictures for "posterity's sake." I got five pictures. It wasn't 20, but I was satisfied. ;) I'm a picture hound, I freely admit it! I just know that you can never go back and recreate history, so that's why I'm so crazy about taking pictures and documenting life.
I'm so grateful for the safe arrival of the twins, but am disappointed that I won't get to meet them until next summer since they live all the way in New York.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Visit from the Folks

My grandparents and Uncle Rick visited earlier this week. We never do much when they visit and spend a lot of time just hanging out here at the house, which is fine with me. My mom and grandparents always do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper; they are all extremely smart and just about always finish it. We also watched lots of the Cardinals playoff games together. The Cardinals lost the pennant to the San Francisco Giants last night. It was disappointing, but they gave it a good try.

We took some pictures, of course:
On Wednesday we went to go visit my younger sister Chandra at her new job. She is now working for AT&T and spent the month of September in a rigorous training program. There is sure a steep learning curve and A LOT to learn about all of the different products AT&T sells. Chandra is doing great so far. AT&T seems like a great company to work for and Chan gets excellent benefits. I'm sure she will be very happy and very successful.

I love my grandparents SO much and always enjoy visiting with them. Every time they leave I always wonder, "will this be Grandpa's last visit?" He's 92, after all, and is definitely starting to slow down. It's hard to see someone you love declining, but I guess that's just to be expected. He's lived a good, long life, though. He's amazing and I will really miss him when he does "go the way of all the earth."

I really enjoyed seeing my Uncle Rick, too. His family lives all the way in Tucson, so I don't get to see him very often. He is so funny, though, and he always makes me laugh. I'm grateful that he was able to fly to Rochester and drive my grandparents to and from Missouri so that Grandma didn't have to do all of the driving. It's always wonderful to be able to spend time with my mom's folks!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Memory and an Aging Mind

There are lots of pros and cons when it comes to aging. One of the definite perks of being a child (in addition to having a higher metabolism) is how their brains soak up knowledge like a sponge. Little kids learn SO much SO quickly; it's really quite amazing. I turned 30 earlier this year, which is by no means old, but I've noticed that I definitely do not learn new things near as quickly or easily as I used to.

Something I find interesting is that I can remember exact dialogue, quotes and plot points from movies I watched over and over as a child, even though I haven't seen the movies in 15-20 years. Yet, I can't remember what happened in the books/movies that I read/watched last month! I marvel at that sad fact all the time, and it's just crazy that I lose the details of things at a much more rapid pace now. I find that it takes a lot more effort to learn new things and retain that knowledge than it did when I was a child. I suppose it's all downhill from here...
The picture below is what I feel like is slowly happening to my memory. In addition to the increased difficulty in learning new things, I'm finding it more difficult to learn simple things, like new people's names (something that used to be no problem). So much for being "steel trap." ;) Steel trap is how some people have described my mind since I've always had (and still do have) a pretty remarkable memory and a gift for being able to recall even the smallest and seemingly insignificant details about people/conversations/situations. My memory is still keen, but it isn't quite as sharp as it once was, sadly.
I suppose the lesson I need to take away from all of this is that if I want to learn/memorize something, do it NOW before I get any older, as well as continue to do things to exercise my brain, something experts say will help prevent Alzheimer's (which is one of my many fears).

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Heart from Heaven

We have a river birch tree in our front yard, and river birches tend to drop their leaves early. Our front yard is covered with leaves under the tree, except for a bizarre patch that is devoid of leaves. It was puzzling, so after several days my mom decided to check it out. She came back in to say that the bare patch was heart-shaped. And it so happened to be my mom's birthday, so she said that it was a birthday card from my dad (who died 15 years ago). He always did love hearts. He even wanted a heart-shaped headstone, but my mom (who is not crazy about hearts) put her foot down since it will one day bear her name, too.
The weird thing is that the bare patch has lasted more than a week, even though we've had some windy, rainy weather. I was sure some leaves would be covering the heart-shaped area yesterday after the storm we had Monday night, but when we looked out the window Tuesday morning it was still there, still heart-shaped and still bare. Coincidence? Maybe, but I don't think so. :)
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