With no fingers attached to her tiny palms, 3-year-old Samantha Gonzalez attempted to flip the pages of a family photo album.
The jolly toddler waved her arms and laughed as she recognized her baby brother and father in some of the pictures. She then eagerly called her abuela to help her navigate the memory book.
“Who’s that, sweetheart?” asked her grandmother, Caridad Fernandez. She leaned in and kissed her forehead.
“That’s me!” the child responded from her pink wheelchair; her eyes wide and happy. “I’m dancing!”
In September 2015, Samantha was severely burned when a pressure cooker exploded while her grandmother bathed her in the kitchen sink. The small child suffered second- and third-degree burns to 60 percent of her body and was immediately transferred to the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Burn Center, where she stayed for 215 days.
“It’s something I struggle with every single day. Looking at my baby hurts my heart,” Fernandez said of Samantha, whose thick scars cover her whole body, except for her face.
“Because of my own disability, I am not able to bend down and bathe [my grandchildren] in the bath tub. That’s why it was always done in the sink where I can stand. … The weight I carry on my heart is heavy.”
Samantha has had several skin grafts and emergency surgeries, but the situation was so severe that doctors had to amputate her entire right leg, fingers and the toes on her left foot.
“It was so hard as a nursing staff to see. When she came in, we weren’t really sure what quality of life she would have or if she would make it,” said Doreann DeArmas, an emergency nurse-practitioner at the Jackson Memorial Burn Center.
“The unfortunate thing with Samantha is that she developed a fungal infection when she came in. Because of that, she was put on a high dose of medication. That medication, which forces all the blood to go to all the most vital organs, ended up affecting her circulation so badly that her limbs had to be amputated.”
“There were ups and downs, but overall, this little girl is the strongest little girl I know, DeArmas said. “They live right near me, so I’m able to go see her. She’s a fighter — that’s what brought us really close. She’s an old soul, that little one. She loves her grandmother so much.”
Fernandez said being Samantha’s primary caretaker is “a blessing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“Seeing Samantha call my name, ask me for hugs and kisses, seeing her face light up when she sees me, amazes me every day; to see that she can love me so unconditionally is priceless and keeps me going,” Fernandez said, her eyes glossy.
On Sept. 15, 2015, Fernandez was cooking some Cuban cuisine for her son and two grandchildren.
“Then Samantha told me she wanted chicken soup instead,” Fernandez said. “So of course, I started to make that. It’s her favorite.”
When it was halfway done, the family decided to go to the park. Fernandez turned off the pressure cooker and walked to the nearby playground. Two hours later they came back and decided to bathe the children. Samantha’s baby brother went first. Then, it was her turn.
“I turned the stove on and let it continue to cook as I prepared Samantha for her bath. Within a fraction of a second, the pot exploded all over her,” Fernandez said.
Samantha still gets physical and occupational therapy several times a week at Broward Health Medical Center, minutes from where she lives in Fort Lauderdale.
The staff at the hospital describes the toddler as “vibrant, resilient and courageous” despite the serious challenges she faces.
They say Samantha is refining her fine and gross motor skills, like learning how to transition from the couch to the ground, move across the room using her one leg and tummy, all while not injuring her fingerless hands.
“She has quite the personality,” said Kim White, her physical therapist. “She is very bubbly and will tell you when she likes something and when she doesn’t. Samantha is starting to move a little bit more. She’s getting more confident, which makes her stronger, and those together make her function better.”
White said that the main goal right now is to get Samantha to be mobile and independent.
“We want her to move as much as she possibly can. If we just scoop her up, then she’s not doing any work,” White said. “Once she gets over her fear of what she can’t do and you show her that she can do it, she will do it.”
Beth Sirois, an occupational therapist who works alongside White, said Samantha is improving with each session.
“She is using her hands better, feeding herself now, reaching up above her head. We are trying to get her to be a little more functional, getting her to use her hands to do her day-to-day tasks. Samantha has a lot of potential. If she gets what she needs, she’ll do well.”
Doctors say she will need a prosthetic leg in the near future. Her grandmother says Samantha needs something that will make her grandbaby even happier.
“Samantha’s dream is to one day walk,” Fernandez said. “But her other dreams are to have a computer that she can play games on and to drive a bright red kiddie car. You should see her face when we walk into the stores. It’s heartbreaking to not have the financial means to buy them.”
With tears trickling down her face, Fernandez looked at Samantha grab a chicken nugget with her arms, dip it in loads of ketchup and place it in her mouth.
“She must have a huge purpose, life must have something special for her,” she said. “During all that time in the hospital I saw children die, but she lived. Why? Her purpose has to be gigantic.”
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.