Out of the fire

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Out of the fire

For people who have suffered serious burns, something as simple as a change in the weather can cause great havoc.
In winter, a burn victim’s skin dries out much faster than a normal person’s. In the heat of summer, a burn victim’s body temperature rises a lot quicker, for dead skin cannot push body heat past perspiration.
In the case of Lee Ji-sun, 25, who suffered second-degree burns, the pains of the seasons can be excruciating. Moreover, her burns were not limited to one area. Her whole body was scorched.
The mild weather these days has brought her great relief. Just a few months ago, however, winter’s aridness and cold temperatures caused her skin to compress so much it bent her spine.
People who suffer from partial burns often elect to hide them with long sleeves and long pants. Lee Ji-sun does not. Despite her scars, she regularly visits a hair salon, goes grocery shopping and buys bread at the corner bakery. Simple as these tasks may seem, many burn victims consider them too difficult because of the unwanted attention their appearance gets.
“If I had only suffered partially I probably would try to cover my scars,” she says. “But the way it is, I have nothing to hide. This is who I am right now. Come summertime, I wear shorts just like everybody else.” As she walks down the street in Jamsil this day, past a Burger King, Ms. Lee acts oblivious to the curious looks thrown her way.

Before July 30, 2000, Lee Ji-sun’s life had been normal. Originally from Seoul, she majored in early education at Ewha Womans University. She was just another college student, a senior, fretting about finding a job.
That night, Ms. Lee was sitting in a Daewoo Matiz, driven by her brother, Lee Jung-keun. It was about 11 p.m. and the siblings were traveling back home from Ewha and were in Seoul’s Yongsan district. Jung-keun’s car had stopped at a traffic light that had just turned red and she was telling her brother that she had so many appointments the next day when suddenly she heard the screeching sounds of a car braking. When she turned to try to find the origin of the sound, it was already too late.
A drunken driver in an oversized Galloper jeep, who had already caused a traffic accident elsewhere, smashed into the tiny Matiz, sending it the Daewoo spinning.
When the car came to a stop, Ms. Lee’s brother noticed that his sister wasn’t in the passenger seat anymore. Unconscious at the time, Ms. Lee only knows from her brother what had happened.
“He told me I was in the back seat of the car ― which was on fire ― with my legs hanging out of the rear window and my upper body still inside,” says Ms. Lee, who gained consciousness very briefly after she got out of the car.
‘When Jung-keun pulled me out, the car suddenly exploded.”
Ms. Lee remembers what she told her brother at that moment. “I said, ‘I can’t live like this,’ and that I wished he’d kill me.”
She now regrets having said those words as she has come to terms with her disfigured appearance. At the time, however, burns ravaged 55 percent of her body. Doctors say that such devastating burns come along only every 4 to 5 years in Korea.
At first, doctors abandoned all hope for her. In addition to the burns, she had lost enormous quantities of blood and suffered an acute head injury from being slammed inside the little Matiz. But perseverance among medical staff won out over the life-threatening injuries.
Over the two years since the accident, Ms. Lee has undergone surgery after surgery in Korea and in Japan, mostly in the form of skin grafts. The grafted skin has been growing slowly, but that painstaking process has been suspended, for she has run out of undamaged skin.
Compared to the period immediately following the crash, her daily life has improved, and for that she is grateful. “At first, my mouth was so small that I could only eat food the size of quail eggs,” she says. “It’s bigger now, see?” She fishes a rice cake out and pops it between her teeth. The opening of her mouth has been widened considerably, thanks to surgery.
Except for her two thumbs, all her fingertips had to be amputated. Pointing to her right hand, she says that eating and carrying things has gotten easier. “I had to use a fork, but now I can use chopsticks.”
Many people ask her whether religion played a role in giving her the strength to carry on. A faith played some part, she says, for she she had been a Christian for about 10 years. But friends and family were the main forces behind her will to live.
“When I walk the streets I can feel how people look at me,” says Ms. Lee. “Sometimes it’s a real burden, but with my friends, I’m the same as I always was. We chat, we go to the movies [She just saw “Chicago”]. To them, it’s just me.”
The indifference with which she has been treated by her friends is probably the biggest help she is getting.
Kim Jin-young, a middle school pal who flew to the United States a day before Lee Ji-sun’s accident, found out only two weeks later what had happened to her friend. “Before my return, Ji-sun sent me a picture [of her] so that I wouldn’t be too surprised. But when we met it was just like the old days. Nothing really had changed for us.”

Five months after the accident, Lee Ji-sun began to post short messages on a Web site created by the choir of her church. Then, in April 2001, she organized her own homepage, www.ezsun.net, where she regularly places essays written about her accident and her life after.
Photos of her past as well as present-day photos also appear on her homepage, along with excerpts from her diary. Her story has since spread from one Web surfer to another, and to date more than 2 million people have visited her site and left thousands of messages. On Friday alone, the site recorded 17,000 hits.
From normal people who feel inspired by her story to those who have endured some form of hardship, that Lee Ji-sun is trying to lead a normal live is what touches so many hearts.
Lee Seon-ju, a resident of Gyeonggi province whose mother-in-law suffered severe burns in a house fire, says Lee Ji-sun’s story has heartened her family. In an e-mail message, she wrote, “My mother-in-law looks just like you. After reading your story, we all have received renewed hope. The fact that you refuse to cave in gives hope to people who are suffering like you and my family.”
Lee ji-sun says she never had a boyfriend before the accident and is comforted by that fact. “If I would have had one, that would have been another problem,” she says.
Ms. Lee hopes to study in the United States, perhaps at New York University, which is known for having a fine rehabilitation counseling program.
“In my senior year, I had thought of studying child therapy. Well, as it is, children might get very frightened when they see me. The accident has led me on a new path.”
She has never met the drunken driver who changed her life. At first, she would grow enraged whenever she thought about what he did and that he had consumed five bottles of soju that day. Her rage has since turned to forgiveness.
“God has gotten inside me,” she says.
The accident changed even her voice, made it soften, much younger. If she answers the phone at her house, a stranger on the other end will often ask her, “Are your parents home?”
“People think I’m a child,” Lee Ji-sun says. “I’m not. I’m still me.”


On a single day, it’s not unusual for this Web site to get 10,000 hits

These excerpts are from the “My Heart” section of Lee Ji-sun’s popular homepage, where, in a diary-like format, she writes candidly about her thoughts and tells what has been happening in her life.

March 11, 2003

Okka, my Okka
Ever since the accident, my okka has never allowed a day to pass without worrying about me. Although none of it was his fault, and although he was there with me and saved me from the fire, he still feels sad and guilty about me. He calls me many times a day. I know ... it’s because he feels hurt seeing other girls my age walking around the school campus ... I pray that he will become liberated from the evil spirit that gives him sadness and guilt.

(Note: “Okka” refers to Ji-sun’s brother. “Oppa” is the Korean word that girls use to address older brothers, but because of her injuries Ji-sun could not pronounce the word oppa for a long time, and instead it came out sounding “okka.” Since then, okka has become like a nickname for Jisun’s older brother.)

Feb. 2, 2003

My prayer requests
1. Please pray that my new skin will graft well so that it will breathe and sweat.
2. Please pray for the “re-creation” of my face. That my creator, who from the very beginning, molded me into who I am, may create me again. Please pray that I can have faith in miracles, faith to be prepared for treatments and surgeries.
3. Please pray for my way to United States. I will need future plastic surgeries, artificial fingers and I want to pursue my academic interests, too. But I have no idea yet where I should go, what I should study, or how things will work out. Please pray for me for His guidance. I wish to be treated in the United States and to study there. I wish for the wisdom and academic preparation so I can spread words of good news and encouragement ... to the people who are in worse situations than me.
4. I am not yet sure when, but I may be going back to the hospital this summer. Please pray for me that I can be strong to handle the continued surgeries and treatments. Please pray for my health ... And possibly that the number of surgeries may be minimized. Oh, and for my anesthesia. I thought I was dying last time because my veins looked so thin. Please pray that Dr. Oh Jun-seok’s hands will be the healing hands of God.

May 24, 2001

Recelebrating my birthday ...
By celebrating my 23d birthday, which I may never have had ... I had to offer special thanks ... as never before.
To my mom ... who gave birth to me through the pain of labor, and has spent the last year in unbearable pain ...
To my dad ... who was always there for me, and never lost his calm demeanor during the hardest of times.
To my brother ... for giving all his heart.
To my uncles and aunts, and to those church members who ached with me as if I were their own flesh and blood ... and the pastor and preachers who declared their faith in me.
To my friends ... for never leaving me lonely and letting me have even more wonderful times.
And ... to my Lord ... for giving me my life back ... letting me enjoy my life again.
My living Father, my God ... comforting me, embracing me, protecting me and wiping my tears away ... when I’m sick, when I’m lonely, when I’m scared, in pain, in tears or just bored ... you are always there.
Thank you, Lord ...
I’m here celebrating my happy birthday again.
God, I’m really very happy.
And I wonder ... I wonder just what other surprises you have for this birthday?
You’re also glad that I’m happy, right?
Thank you, Lord. I live ... because of you, really because of you. I love you.

by Brian Lee
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