The following story by Jacob Goldstein appeared in the "Miami Herald" on February 10, 2007.
Burn victim has the courage to smile
The Marlin, a 32-foot fishing boat, exploded a few minutes after sunset on Dec. 11, 2005.
Tommy Gutierrez, age 6, was on board, along with his dad and his uncle. They had just pulled into a slip at a Homestead marina after an afternoon of fishing.
"We were coming in and we started parking the boat and my uncle said, `There is a gasoline stink,' " Tommy says.
When Tommy's dad, Jesus, went to check it out, he found that the boat's gas tank had rusted out, leaking gas into the area beneath the boat's floor panels. Tommy was holding the flashlight when Jesus lifted a panel off the floor of the boat -- an old Pacemaker Jesus had bought second-hand a few months before. That's when the bilge pump switched on, throwing off a spark that started the fire.
"I was holding the light and he had his arm on the gas, so when it turned on it blew up and he caught on fire and I didn't," Tommy says.
As Jesus jumped in the water, the flames spread, and Tommy caught on fire.
"My dad jumped back on the boat and he grabbed me," Tommy says in an even voice. "He tried to cover me. I couldn't drop and roll. My clothes stuck to me."
Jesus put his wet clothes on Tommy and sprayed him with a hose from a nearby boat.
At that moment, Tommy's mom, Reggie, was in Hialeah, sitting on the front stoop of the family's house waiting for her husband, son and brother-in-law to come home. She got a call on her cell from Jesus, telling her what had happened. She told him to call 911.
A helicopter brought Tommy, his father and his uncle to Jackson Memorial Hospital. When Reggie arrived, doctors said her son, the most badly burned of the group, had three hours to live.
Tommy survived the night, but he was profoundly burned on 60 percent of his body, including his face, arms and legs. He was on a respirator, sedated on pain medication, with fluid oozing out of his burned skin and infection setting in.
In the next few weeks his condition slowly improved. He regained consciousness and began to breathe for himself.
Doctors cut away the burned skin and replaced it with swaths of skin cut from cadavers, forming ''a biologic band-aid,'' in the words of Dr. Carl Schulman, one of the University of Miami/Jackson burn specialists who operated on Tommy.
Reggie spent hours a day by Tommy's bed. When the nurses were going to clean Tommy's skin -- a painful but frequent process, necessary for fighting off infection -- they would call Reggie so she could be there to help.
And she decorated his hospital room with posters of boats.
"I like boats," Tommy says, by way of explanation.
A love of boats and the sea runs deep in the family. Tommy's grandfather used to fish when he was a boy in Cuba. Tommy's brother, Jesse James Gutierrez, is in the Coast Guard. And Tommy grew up fishing with his dad. Getting burned on the boat didn't change any of that.
"He made me promise to bring in all my fishing pictures," says Dr. John Kuluz, a pediatric intensive-care specialist who treated Tommy and got to know the family.
The cadaver skin was temporary. After a few weeks -- when it became clear Tommy would live -- Schulman and his colleagues began to consider longer-term solutions. For many burn patients, doctors are able to graft thin portions of unburned skin onto the parts of the body that have been burned. That's what they did for Tommy's dad.
But Tommy's burns were so extensive, his doctors used a rarer technique: They cut away two small pieces of unburned skin -- one from his groin, one from his armpit -- and sent them off to a laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.
There, technicians used these samples to grow many small squares of skin -- all genetically identical to Tommy's own skin. Then, Schulman says, the newly grown skin was placed in an incubator and flown to Miami.
A courier brought the skin in a steel box directly to the operating room, where Tommy was ready for surgery.
"We don't open up that box until the moment we're ready to use it," Schulman says.
That was one of about 15 operations Tommy had during a hospital stay that stretched to six months and included a long stretch in rehab, re-learning how to use his scarred hands and feet.
"Through the whole thing, as bad as it was, he had this spirit," says Kuluz, who grew close to the family. "He would be in pain and he would scream and cry, but a few minutes later he would be smiling and laughing. I think that's what helped him to get through it all. It certainly helped us."
Tommy got out of the hospital last spring. He remains badly scarred on his face and body, and every few months he and Reggie travel to a Shriners hospital in Cincinnati for more surgery. He will need regular surgeries to keep his limbs functional, at least until he stops growing.
He will remain severely scarred. And the burns on his hands, arms, legs and feet will limit his strength, range of motion, and ability to use his hands for some tasks.
He can perform basic tasks such as writing and eating, "but all with a lot less efficiency and ease than anybody else," Schulman says. "He will have a hard time trying to do the things that we take for granted."
Yet Tommy, now 8, is back in school now and runs around like a normal second-grader.
"Some kids are nice. Some kids are mean," he says, when asked how other kids treat him now.
This is how Reggie describes Tommy's response to the fire: "He took it as an accident. A rock got in his way. You kick it and keep on walking."
The family runs a small trucking company -- Jesus drives, Reggie manages the office. Tommy had insurance at the time of the accident, but Jesus didn't. Reggie says they owe about $500,000 for Jesus' medical care.
In December, they got a call from Kuluz, Tommy's doctor from intensive care. They had seen him occasionally since Tommy got out of the hospital -- once when he organized a trip for his former patients to a Marlins game -- and Tommy had stayed in his mind.
Kuluz had recently bought a new fishing boat. His old one -- 28-feet long, with twin engines -- was a little banged up. "It even sunk one time, but I got it back up," he says.
After an ad in the Boat Trader drew little interest, Kuluz offered to give the boat to Tommy's family as a gift. Jesus wasn't sure whether Tommy would be ready to get back out on the water.
"He doesn't want to go down there," Jesus said, according to Kuluz.
"Yes I do, yes I do." Tommy said.
So in December, Kuluz signed the boat over to Jesus. Now the boat sits, hulking, in the family's driveway. They're hoping to fix it up in the next few months.
"I thought he wouldn't want to go back," Jesus says. "But he's a strong boy."
Editor's Note: He's still smiling
When you read today's cover story on Tommy Gutierrez, his unquenchable spirit captivates you.
Yes, many second-graders have this same attribute.
But it's the rare 8-year-old who has gone through Tommy's horrific ordeal and come out smiling.
A boat fire from a bilge pump spark left Tommy burned on 60 percent of his body. He's had surgeries, skin grafts and will remain severely scarred.
Through it all, he's kept his passion for fun and fishing.
As his mother Reggie says: "He took it as an accident. A rock got in his way. You kick it and keep on walking."
A lesson we can all learn from Tommy.