When emergency medical technicians wheeled 11-year-old DeeAnn Wright into the burn unit of Columbia Augusta Medical Center at 1:03 a.m. Wednesday, a team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists met her at the door.
Doctors immediately inserted a breathing tube, then hooked her to a ventilator. Medication to stop the burning sensation rushed through her veins. A few hours after her arrival, Joe Still and his surgical team suited up for two hours of tedious surgery to replace DeeAnn's parched skin with skin from a cadaver.
Dr. Still, director of the burn unit, had been notified of DeeAnn's condition and was waiting for her when the ambulance from Merriwether arrived. "She was just one huge burn," Dr. Still said. "(DeeAnn) is one of the worst I've ever seen, but she will make it."
Firefighters from the Merriwether Volunteer Fire Department arrived at DeeAnn's burning mobile home on Springhaven Drive within eight minutes of the 911 call at 12:04 a.m.
Paramedics tried to revive her 17-year-old sister, Karen, at the scene, but she was pronounced dead at about 1:30 a.m. at University Hospital.
Even before firefighters arrived, DeeAnn had been found near the front door by a love seat that was on fire, said Chief Rudy Brooks.
A sixth-grader at Merriwether Middle School and a gymnast, DeeAnn remains on life support, in shock and comatose. She also has suffered smoke inhalation.
Her fourth surgery was completed Friday, and it's likely she will endure at least 10 more before leaving the hospital three months from now, doctors said.
Patches of skin on the back of her scalp and behind her neck are the only places on DeeAnn's body that aren't scorched.
"We've excised that skin and shipped it to Boston, where it will be stored in a laboratory and processed for future surgeries," Dr. Still said. "The surgical process is like literally being skinned alive."
In the waiting room, DeeAnn's mother, Jeannie Simmons, paces the floor. Bloodshot and puffy-eyed from constant sobbing, she stares into oblivion. She will bury Karen today.
Aunts and uncles from out of town have flown in and camped out in the waiting room around the clock. Constant prayer and lots of hugs have held the group together.
"We're just filled with an immense amount of grief," said Doug Wright, DeeAnn's father.
There's a pause, then in shaken speech Mr. Wright said, "All I can see is a small person wrapped in bandages. We've been telling her we're pulling for her, and she has the best doctors caring for her. Sometimes when she hears our voices, she shifts her arm or shivers."
It's too early to tell whether DeeAnn will regain use of her limbs.
A trust fund has been established in Karen's name at the North Augusta branch of Palmetto Federal Savings Bank. Money collected will help pay for DeeAnn's medical bills.
Back in North Augusta, DeeAnn's classmates remain upbeat about her recovery.
"Miracles happen every day, and we're just hopeful that the sweet, quiet girl we all know, who's always concerned about the well-being of others, will be OK," said Jan Rushton, DeeAnn's homeroom teacher.
How to help
To contribute to the trust fund in memory of Karen Wright, contact Palmetto Federal Savings Bank, 432 West Ave., North Augusta, SC 29841. Money collected will help pay DeeAnn Wright's medical bills.