When the time came for Kristen Williams to offer a testimonial, she couldn't get the words out. She is, after all, only 5 years old. Hoisted in the arms of her grandmother, she found it was a bit too much to look out from the stage at all those grown-ups crowded on the plaza.
Jeanette Williams gently nudged her granddaughter. Is there something you want to say? Kristen just buried her face in Grandma's shoulder. The grown-ups couldn't help but react with smiles, chuckles and warm applause--a kind of a big collective awww.
So Jeanette spoke for Kristen. "She was supposed to say, 'Thank you.' "
This was on Thursday, the day the Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital observed its 25th anniversary by renaming the acclaimed 30-bed facility for its founder and medical director, Dr. A. Richard Grossman. Such occasions can be stiff, stuffy affairs. This one wasn't. To chat with some of the patients and staff was to learn that the Grossman Burn Center, as it is now known, is less a medical unit than a community, a kind of small town populated by people who experience hellish suffering and those who are devoted to easing their pain. And often, the patients themselves become healers, returning to the Burn Center to boost the spirits of newcomers.
Kristen Williams is one of the younger citizens. Perhaps someday she will be able to tell her story to a small child who has suffered as she has. It will probably happen, but it would be nice to think that it would never be necessary.
You may remember reading about her. It happened July 2, 1992. Kristen, just 2 1/2, was being toilet-trained. At a Mid-City day-care center, she soiled her pants, angering a man named Lemuel Rodgers. He plunged Kristen waist-deep in a tub of scalding, 130-degree water and held her there for a minute. Then Rodgers and his wife, Kathryn, the center operator, did not treat her burns for more than two hours. When her grandfather, Jimmie Williams, picked her up, he was told that the redness of her skin was from an allergic reaction to a bubble bath.
Lemuel Rodgers would be sentenced to seven years in prison, and Kathryn to two years.
Kristen, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over half her body, was initially given a 50-50 chance of survival. She spent 72 days in the Burn Center. To address her psychological problems during that period, the Burn Center arranged for her grandparents, Kristen's legal guardians, to stay at an apartment across the street. Jeanette Williams says this kindness helped them cope as well.
In an early story about Kristen's ordeal, she was described as a formerly carefree child who glared at hospital workers, family and others. The day she left the Burn Center, she sat on her grandmother's lap singing about "the itsy, bitsy spider. . . ."
She spent part of Thursday sitting on Dr. Grossman's lap, smiling and laughing. Her dress was light blue, pink and white, with light blue tights that covered her scars. Only on her hands could one see them.
Kristen has undergone more than 22 operations, and she will endure many more, because the skin grafts don't grow as she grows. She lost three toes because of the burn and sometimes complains of pain in her feet. Her grandmother, who devotes more than three hours daily to applying lotions, bathing, massaging and exercising with Kristen, suspects her next operation will be on her feet. Other growing children just need new shoes.
Jeanette Williams says her granddaughter is often "happy-go-lucky." But she also knows Kristen is entering a new stage of her ordeal--of their ordeal, really.
"She's just 5 years old. Now she's starting to look at herself, and she'll say, 'I want the scars to go away.' And we can't tell her that they will go away."
Jeanette Williams has to hide her emotions at such moments. "Right now I think that's harder for me than it is for her. . . . I have to keep a straight face. This is not something that will go away. This is something that will be forever. And there will be questions, along the way."
Next week, Kristen begins her summer swim program. Last year, it wasn't a problem.
* Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.