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More than skin deep

A few weeks ago I tripped and fell on the sidewalk.  I went down on hands and knees and scraped my left knee pretty badly.  The onlookers pretended not to notice, I suppose sparing me the embarrassment of asking if I was ok.  I dusted myself off and bled down my leg en route to work.

Since then I kept the wound moist with neosporin and band aids, allowing the skin to heal with minimal scarring.  But as I marveled at how painful this little patch of road burn is, I remembered a young girl I met about a decade ago who had a much more serious burn.

Inga was camping with her parents in a synthetic tent.  They had spent the day fishing and canoing near a campground somewhere in Eastern Europe.  They were huddled together inside the tent in the cool of the evening, speaking animatedly about the day’s events and the beauty of nature when Inga accidentally knocked over the kerosene lamp situated near the exit flap.  The kerosene spilled out onto the tent and the fire ignited immediately.  The tent began to melt in the fire and the zipper got stuck in the hot plastic material.  The unimaginable screams of her dying parents as they burned alive, trapped in this tent, brought help just in time to save Inga’s life.

But Inga was horribly disfigured by the fire.  She spent nearly a year in the hospital, receiving skin grafts and fighting off infections.  She was eventually able to return to school, but was treated like an outcast.  Her former friends were too horrified by her appearance to welcome her back and she spent most of her days sitting alone in the corner, covering her face with a scarf, blaming herself for the death of her own parents.

Her story reached the compassionate ears of a plastic surgeon friend of mine.  He traveled to Eastern Europe to meet Inga and see if he could help her.  As it turns out, she had no living relatives and was dirt poor.  He could see that the medical team taking care of her had carefully covered the defects in her skin, but had not attempted to restore a normal appearance with modern plastic surgery techniques.

The surgeon knew that it would take many surgeries over many years to give her the best result possible.  After some debate and soul searching, he decided to sponsor Inga to come to America where he committed to taking care of her financial needs and to giving her a new life.

I first met Inga after she had been in the states for several years.  She looked like a burn victim, with tight facial skin and abnormal contours – but compared to how she appeared in the photos of when she first arrived (with no nose or cheek flesh at all) this was a huge improvement.  She was meeting with the surgeon to have a seroma evacuated from under her left cheek.  He had to remove the extra fluid with a large syringe.

As I watched him numb the area and sink a deep, large bore needle into this young girl’s face, I cringed internally but tried to appear unphased for her sake.  She didn’t flinch, but sat staring forward bravely, her grey eyes fixed on the wall in front of her.  I saw a tear well up and trickle down her disfigured cheek during the procedure and I instinctively reached for her hand.  The tears continued in silence.  This burn had penetrated so much deeper than the skin.

I haven’t seen Inga since, though I’ve heard that she’s doing well in school, has made some good friends, and is planning to become a nurse one day.  Her decision to devote her life to caring for others is a beautiful example of “paying it forward.”This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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