By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
Natalie Zofkie has walked through fire and lived to tell about it.
On Wednesday, the 12-year-old Noblesville girl walked out of Riley Hospital for Children on her own power – 150 days after suffering critical burns over 93% of her body.
By her side this week and throughout her difficult recovery were her mom, Sarah, her dad, Michael, her older siblings and a host of family and friends praying for her from afar.
Sarah can’t quite believe the day has come when she can take her little girl home, but she is busy fielding phone calls and packing up her daughter’s things while Natalie does the talking.
“Everyone says that I’m a hero of some sort, but I don’t feel that way,” Natalie said just minutes before she was discharged. “I’ve never saved anyone or been through a battlefield.”
But in fact she has been through a battle unlike any most people will ever see in their lifetime.
“Natalie was one of the sickest patients we had in the hospital when she arrived,” Dr. Brett Hartman said. “She was in a critical state.”
Dr. Hartman, the burn team and the rehab team at Riley worked together to make Wednesday’s celebration possible. Natalie was injured the night of Oct. 4 when she poured gasoline onto a small backyard fire at a friend’s house and it erupted into a ball of flames that engulfed her.
Most of her burns were third-degree burns, meaning they penetrated deep into the layers of skin and fat. All of that tissue had to be removed before Dr. Hartman could begin the process of covering her with temporary skin, then grafting skin from the small parts of her body that were not burned – her scalp and under her arms, and “growing” more skin to cover her body.
The challenge for Natalie, whose beautiful face was left untouched by the flames, was to slowly get comfortable in that new skin, something she admits has been hard and painful.
“None of this is fun,” said the former gymnast, before offering some advice to other burn victims. “If you do what you’re supposed to do like stretching and walking and moving, you’ll get to full function again. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get out there and help yourself.”
Natalie is honest about her painful journey over the past five months, saying there were many days when she didn’t want to get out of bed to do the hard work that recovery required and sometimes she took her frustration out on her therapists.
But she also knows that she wouldn’t be walking out the doors of Riley without their help. Same goes for her family.
“My parents had to help me with everything, and I’m so lucky that I had parents to be there with me because I probably wouldn’t have gotten through this,” she said.
What she didn’t know was that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were praying for her, not just in Indiana but around the country. Strangers who had heard about her accident through Facebook joined hands and hearts to lift her and her family up through her arduous journey.
In fact, a Columbus, Indiana couple drove up to Riley on Wednesday just to meet this young girl who had been in their prayers. They were standing in the background just outside the doors of Riley when Sarah Zofkie noticed them.
“We wanted to tell you that you are an inspiration to so many people,” the woman said to Natalie, who responded with a hug.
Just before that moment, she had said goodbye to her rehab therapists, nurses and other team members on the third floor, who cheered as she rang the bell and pinned her butterfly to the wall, signifying the end of her in-patient stay. Her rehab will continue on an out-patient basis.
Natalie, who will finish out the school year online, expects to be back with her friends in middle school in the fall. Many of those friends were among the hundreds who stretched out for a mile on the side of the road Wednesday, waving signs and cheering as a police escort led her home.
“I’m grateful that people want to be there for me and take time out of their day to welcome me home,” she said.
She knows her life has changed but says she takes things less for granted because of it.
“I think mentally it’s made me stronger. It’s made me work hard. I have a better understanding of how short life really is, and it’s made me grateful.”
A Riley wagon with Natalie’s name on it will serve as a reminder to other patients and parents about the little girl who walked through fire and lived to tell about it.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org