A Home to Heal
After surviving an accidental fire in Fuyang, China eight years ago, WuShuang Yang has found a new life from strangers in a Southern Indiana town.
IT WAS JUST another cold January night in Fuyang, a small city in the hills of eastern China, when 11-year-old WuShuang Yang climbed into bed. Snow flurries whipped across the city, and ice slicked the streets and sidewalks. She snuggled into bed, cuddled up in her blankets and fell asleep.
Hours later, she woke to the smell of something burning.
One of her blankets had slipped off the bed and landed on the electric heater on the floor. The blanket caught fire, and a veil of smoke coated the air in WuShuang’s bedroom.
Panicked, she screamed for her parents sleeping in the next room. They rushed in, doused the blaze with water from the bathroom sink and opened a window to air out the smoke. WuShuang looked at the blanket, now black and crusted.
Too traumatized to sleep in her own room, she crawled into her parents’ bed and squeezed between her mother and father. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep. But in the next room, the fire was awakening.
WUSHUANG, NOW 19, survived that home fire eight years ago, but it burned over 80 percent of her body. Today, she’s much like any other college student. She adores Starbucks — her go-to drink is a caramel macchiato. She’s terrified of gaining the freshman fifteen and gripes about the quality of the dorm food. She’s enrolled in 18 credit hours of classes, so she sleeps until noon on the weekends.
Her journey hasn't been easy, and she acknowledges that she couldn’t have done it alone. The unconditional love and support she received from a town 7,300 miles from Fuyang have made the difference. Without the kindness of the people of Batesville, she says, she may not have survived. And, she certainly wouldn't have discovered her calling: to become a doctor in honor of all the health professionals who have cared for her over the years.
"YOU'LL SEE ME once you walk in. I’m wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.”
I first met WuShuang (her friends call her Wu) at Marian University outside Starbucks. She was relaxing between her English and biology classes that morning.
I stroll into the lounge, and sure enough, Mickey's black circular ears grab my attention. What catches my eye even more is the radiant smile on the face of the girl wearing the hat.
She approaches me with a grin and greets me like an old friend, asking me in perfect English about my drive to Indy and cracking jokes about the Presidential debate on TV a few nights before. As we chat, a friend from Wu’s English study group interrupts us.
“Hey Wu, did your English class get cancelled?” she asks.
“No, it’s just the afternoon classes that are cancelled. Mine’s at 8 a.m.,” Wu replies.
“No way! So that’s why mine is cancelled.”
“Yeah, you’re lucky. Have fun with your cancelled class.”
Wu apologizes for the interruption and smiles sheepishly. “I just like feeling normal,” she laughs, brushing her hand against the terrain of scars that cover her face.
Wu was awoken this time by her father screaming for help.
The fire had restarted in her bedroom and was spreading through their first floor apartment. Thick, dark smoke filled the rooms, cutting off the oxygen.
“I remember not being able to breathe,” Wu says. “There was no air.”
The only way for Wu and her mother to escape was the front door connected to Wu’s bedroom. Wu’s parents’ room had a window, but metal grates guarding the window from the outside made it impossible to escape through. To get to safety, Wu and her mother would have to go through the blaze.
Wu’s father had managed to reach the door and break out, but in a moment of panic as Wu ran towards his voice, she fell and her body was engulfed in flames.
She shut her eyes and waited for the blaze to envelop her. Then, she remembers, a hand shoved her out the door.
It was one last gift from her mother.
WU'S MOST SEVERE burns cover her arms, feet and hands. The left side of her torso, plus most of her back, rear, stomach and face were scorched as well. The only parts of her body left unscathed were her neck and the backs of her legs.
Wu woke up in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Fuyang and immediately began treatments for her burns. The excruciatingly painful skin grafts “hurt even worse than the actual fire,” she remembers.
For six months she lay in a hospital bed, suffering treatment after treatment. Her father and extended family visited every day, giving her hope to keep fighting.
Then, doctors gave Wu devastating news: She had only a 20 percent chance of surviving her injuries. The Chinese hospital didn't have the surgical resources necessary to preserve and rebuild her burned skin, so even if Wu did survive, the scars would be so tight that she wouldn’t be able to move. She would never regain full function of her body and would be permanently bedridden. She would never go to school. She would never have a job. She would probably never leave the hospital.
“In that moment, I started to lose the will to survive,” Wu says. “I knew I would never have opportunities as a disabled person in China.” Due to cultural norms, Chinese children with disabilities are often times shunned by society and not accepted into public schools.
Her future would be life in a hospital bed. She would need someone to feed her and help her use the bathroom. “I would only be able to blink and talk,” Wu says.
As she lay in her hospital bed, Wu thought about her mother’s fate. Did she survive the fire? Those last fateful minutes played over and over again in her head, but she didn’t have a definite answer. Her father evaded the question by changing the subject or saying her mother would be there shortly to visit.
But she never came.
HOPE, HOWEVER, DID COME. The Chinese Agape Foundation, a Chinese non-profit organization that provides health care for underprivileged children in rural China, heard of Wu’s situation and stepped in. The group offered Wu a chance to have life-saving surgeries at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While the opportunity seemed like a dream come true, Wu and her father had reservations. Neither had visited the United States, and the only English words Wu knew were “water” and “hamburger.” Plus, she was 11, in critical condition and would have to go alone.
“My dad and I talked about it, and we both knew this was my last chance,” Wu says. “It was a gamble, but the answer was yes.”
Within days, Wu was placed on a plane to the United States. She flew directly to Chicago, but her injuries began to burn and bleed after the long flight. It was clear she wouldn’t be able to withstand another flight, so Chinese Agape arranged for a private ambulance to shuttle Wu to Cincinnati.
Wu lived at Shriner’s for nearly a year. Those months were “incredibly uncomfortable.” She was terrified of the strangers injecting her body with foreign medications and performing operations she didn’t understand. Since she couldn’t communicate with her caregivers, she didn’t know why these strange people were hurting her.
Wu admits she was not the perfect patient. She kicked. She screamed. She even bit a nurse. She would sit on the floor during physical therapy and wail — it hurt so much to move.
Wu spent most days alone in her room watching Cinderella, Toy Story and Monster’s Inc. because the animated stories were easy to follow. She emailed her father once a week to update him on her progress, but other than that, she talked to no one.
“It was the most helpless I’ve ever been,” Wu says.
Wu desperately wanted to ask about her mother — she left China still uncertain of her mother’s fate. She cried for her mom until the hospital’s translator finally broke the news: Her mother had died in the fire.
“You’re lying!” Wu screamed at the translator through her tears. Wu called her father to confirm the story, and he admitted it was true. He said he lied to her because he was afraid if she found out her mother had died, she would lose the will to live.
But the news had an opposite effect. Wu decided in that moment to live her life to the fullest. “I’m living our life now, my mom’s and mine,” Wu says. “She sacrificed her life for mine, so it's not just my life anymore.”
AFTER A YEAR of surgeries at Shriner’s, Wu was stable enough to return home for a summer in China. Once she arrived, though, she faced an immediate culture shock.
Although she was physically unable to do the activities she once enjoyed, like rollerblading, Wu found solace in spending time with her friends and cousins at local malls and restaurants. That is, until she noticed the way people looked at her.
People would stare, point at her scars and whisper when she walked by. She could hear snippets of their conversations, calling her “the burned girl” and pointing out her scars. Soon, she was too self-conscious to leave the house and found herself wishing to go back to America.
Then came more bad news: Chinese Agape could no longer sponsor her. If she wanted to return to the United States to continue her treatments, she would have to find another sponsor.
MARY DICKEY IS the volunteer director at Everyone’s Child International, a Batesville-based nonprofit that helps children from other countries get medical treatment. She remembers taking the call from Shriner’s Hospital asking if the group could host Wu for her next round of surgeries.
“Her story was heartbreaking,” Dickey says. “We wanted to do everything in our power to help her.”
Dickey began planning Wu’s return to the United States. She spread the word in Batesville, and in a matter of months, the community raised the funds to fly Wu to Cincinnati.
On November 4, 2009, Wu returned to the United States for another round of burn treatments. But this time, her experience would be different. Everyone’s Child wanted to immerse Wu in American culture and help her learn English, so the group asked families in Batesville to host Wu between her surgeries. Barron and Thais Cook volunteered their home, and at the end of November, Wu moved in and began taking classes at Batesville Middle School.
“We have two daughters of our own,” Thais Cook says. “We couldn’t imagine them being in this situation, which is why we were so drawn to Wu.”
At first, Wu was nervous about living in Batesville, especially after seeing how people in China had reacted to her scars. What if she was bullied by her new classmates because of her appearance?
Between surgeries, she often had to wear medically prescribed white garments and even a facemask to protect her scars. She was also self-conscious of a large, bright pink scar on her left arm. She would shift and hide it so people wouldn’t see.
But her worries were for nothing. The Batesville community welcomed her with open arms. She was never called cruel names. She was never bullied. In fact, kids would approach her at school and offer their help. “A lot of people knew me, but I didn’t know them,” Wu says. “And they would still go out of their way to help me.”
Wu credits Everyone's Child with helping her survive as an American teenager. She says Dickey and Batesville volunteers Jenny Geers, Lisa Tuveson and Rhonda Savage drove her to Cincinnati for doctors appointments, attended her physical therapy sessions, held her hand before and after surgeries and offered their shoulders to cry on during stressful moments with school. They even arranged a special presentation for the entire Batesville Middle School before Wu’s first day of school, explaining who Wu was and how she had gotten her scars.
“They took care of me in my worst times,” Wu says.
SINCE SHE BOUNCED between the operating room and the classroom, Wu began to fall behind her classmates. She kept up in math and science, but her English grades suffered as did her confidence with the language.
Barb Maple, an English as a second language teacher at Batesville Middle School, started tutoring Wu and became her mentor and closest confidante. “She’s a fighter, that one,” Maple says. “She sets the bar high and never gives up.”
As Wu’s English skills improved, she became more involved in the Batesville community and made friends. At her middle school graduation, she won the Jennifer Bergman Award, an honor given each year to a female student in Batesville who has overcome a physical or mental obstacle.
In high school, Wu lived like a normal Batesville teenager. For fun, she and her friends would drive around the back roads while listening to Top 40 radio. They visited McDonald's so often for Cokes and McChickens sandwiches that the employees knew them by name. After school, Wu would do her homework at Ameck’s Well, a local coffee shop and her favorite spot “to chill.”
Eight years after arriving in America terrified and alone, Wu graduated from Batesville High School as a member of the Class of 2016. Despite having nearly 20 surgeries over the course of high school, she attained a 3.9 GPA and graduated with honors.
After the ceremony, Dickey organized a graduation party for Wu at Shriner’s Hospital. The room overflowed into the hallways with friends and family who wanted to congratulate her — even the chief of medicine made an appearance. "Everyone that meets her just falls in love with her. She’s such an amazing kid,” Dickey says.
TODAY, WU'S INJURIES don’t define her. “I hate it when people say I’m a burn victim,” she says. “I’m a burn survivor.”
Her scars don’t bother her that much anymore. Wu wears short-sleeve shirts and shows her face, hoping that her peers see the woman underneath the burns. “I want people to see the scars as a part of me,” Wu says.
She is self-conscious, however, about the scars on her legs, so she usually wears jeans or tights to hide them. A hat, usually her Mickey Mouse cap, covers the bald spot on the back of her head.
She officially started school at Marian University in August 2016 and is studying biology to follow in the footsteps of the physicians that have cared for her throughout the years. All that time at Shriner’s inspired her passion for the human body and how it works, but her own body may limit her dreams. Since Wu has spent so much time in hospital beds, her ankle bones had to be readjusted to prepare for the walking she’ll have to do at Marian.
She's still learning how to be on her feet for long periods, a factor that could influence her dream of being a surgeon who has to stand in an operating room all day. Wu's concerned about those limitations but also determined to work in medicine.
If becoming a surgeon doesn’t work out, Wu has a backup plan. She’s considering a career as an anesthesiologist so she can still have the opportunity to work in an OR.
Whatever path she chooses, she believes it will work out — with the right attitude and some recovery time. Her latest surgery, a skin graft to fix a scar under her bottom lip, was scheduled over winter break. It's the latest of over 40 surgeries she’s had since arriving in the United States.
Nearly 10 years have passed since the fire broke out in her bedroom. But the only thing Wu says she would change is the loss of her mother. “She sacrificed herself for me," Wu says, "and I just wish I could thank her.”
But she doesn’t think about the past anymore — just the future.