Every Dec. 21, the rising senior at Fort Mill (S.C.) High School and his family honor the day in 2008 when he was engulfed by a fireball and nearly died at Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta.
His story and those of six other burn survivors is told in a new documentary, Trial By Fire, that will be screened next month in New York and Los Angeles. Producer/director Megan Smith-Harris said she is working on arranging a screening in Augusta.
Connor was 13 when he was turned into a “fireball” by an explosion in the family outdoor kitchen, said his mother, Karin, who was burned while trying to put him out.
They were taken by helicopter to the burn center, where Connor was found to have third-degree burns over 87 percent of his body.
“They gave him a less than 1 percent chance of surviving,” Karin McKemey said. His father was on a plane coming home from Iraq and was whisked from the airport in Atlanta to Augusta.
“Their primary goal was just to keep him alive until his dad got there,” Karin McKemey said. But he survived, day after day, surgery after surgery.
When Connor woke up after being in a medically induced coma for three months, the first thing he wanted to know was when he could get back on the lacrosse field, his mother said. But the doctors told the family, “We don’t know if he’s going to be able to walk again, much less ever play sports,” she said.
After about four months, he was transferred to a facility in Charlotte, N.C., for intensive rehab, but the doctors at the burn center kept up their treatment.
Medical director Fred Mullins flew up to Charlotte “just to make sure everything was OK and check everything out,” Karin McKemey said. “They went so above and beyond what any hospital I think would ever do. I can’t say enough good things about everybody there at (the burn center) because they were truly amazing.”
Connor has made a remarkable recovery.
“Eleven months to the day after the accident, he walked onto the lacrosse field again for the first time,” Karin McKemey said. “He has been playing varsity lacrosse. He is looking at getting recruited to colleges. It is just an amazing story.”
It was those kinds of stories that drew Smith-Harris to pursue a film about burn survivors.
“It was something that I just felt very strongly about telling their story because nobody really had,” she said. “I thought it was important to give a voice and a face to burn survivors.”
Like Connor, many choose to honor the day of their burn in some way, she said.
“Some people like to use it as an opportunity to reflect on how far they’ve come,” Smith-Harris said. “It’s usually a very meditative time or contemplative time. Some people celebrate that they are alive and well.”
For Connor, it is his “rebirthaversary,” his mother said.
“We celebrate it more than we celebrate his birthday,” she said. “It is a bittersweet day, but it is a day that completely changed our lives forever. I thought we would never be able to celebrate another day with him, and so we celebrate every chance we get.”