Every time Michael Brewer looks in the mirror, he is reminded of the blaze that charred his skin and changed his life.
He sees the butterfly-shaped scar on his chest that wraps around his back and neck, all the way up to his cheeks.
When an after-school tiff escalated into a tragedy in October 2009, leaving the 17-year-old so badly burned that he spent months at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital Burn Center at Ryder Trauma.
While daily physical therapy helps the scars adjust to his growing body, the psychological remnants of the episode are taking longer to heal.
“It’s a grieving process,’’ his mother Valerie Brewer said of her son, who has made headlines after classmates doused him in rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. “He still has nightmares two to three times a week.”
On Wednesday, she spoke in gratitude about the team at the burn center who has made the nightmare more bearable. Reconstructive surgery has helped restore Brewer’s skin, the body’s first line of defense.
He is one of three victims invited to share their story of recovery, as the Ryder Trauma Center celebrates its 20-year anniversary.
A multi-disciplinary team provides an environment for patients to get back to wherever they were before their accident, said Albert Hernandez, a nurse manager at the burn center.
“We try to manage the stress of not looking like everyone else.”
Two other burn victims, Cooper Grecco, 24, and Feride Buch, 39, know that stress on a daily basis.
Getting ready each morning, Grecco sees the large burn scars on her face, arms and legs, which remind her of the car accident that engulfed her in flames in 2005.
She had pulled over to the side of the road to check a flat tire when another car going 90 miles per hour hit her. At 17 years old, Grecco had third degree burns on most of her body.
Buch was 22 in 1995 and working as a model on South Beach before her life changed completely. She raced home one day to put rubbing alcohol on a cut. In the rush, she accidentally spilled the flammable liquid on herself, the bathroom curtain and towel.
Later, not thinking about the spill, she lit a cigarette which ignited, charring the bathroom and engulfing her.
Most of the visible damage is to her face, completely changing her looks.
In spite of the two freak incidents, the two women are thriving and helping others overcome their injuries.
Buch later married and has two children. She now lives in Fort Myers with her family, but comes back to the burn center often to counsel other patients. She remains positive about her experience and said Wednesday her life has never been better.
“I had three years of reconstructive surgery,” Buch said. “But I am alive.”
Grecco works as a medical assistant for an orthopedist in Broward, taking up the role of caretaker. She goes to “burn camp” every summer in northern Florida to mentor children who have been burned.
Her mother, Sherri Grecco, was in tears at the event as she greeted doctors who treated her daughter seven years ago.
“She has mentally accepted it,” Sherri Grecco said. “But she doesn’t look at herself as burned.”
Michael Brewer and his family are getting closure on the fiery episode.
Still, when Valerie Brewer makes dinner for her son, she lets him know when she’s turning on the gas stove.
“His eyes will glaze over if I don’t,” she said of Brewer’s fear.