“I saw the light to heaven, but I just wasn’t ready”

Patient Stories |

12/21/2020

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Natalie Zofkie walks for the first time since a fire left her with third-degree burns over 93% of her body.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

It took all the concentration and strength she could muster, but Natalie Zofkie took her first steps last week. And not just a few.

The 12-year-old Noblesville girl, who was burned over 93% of her body in a backyard firepit accident in October, walked from her room in the burn unit at Riley Hospital for Children, down the hall and back, with a physical therapist guiding her from behind.

Her mother, Sarah Zofkie, took video of the girl’s triumphant steps as Riley team members rooted her on. She posted it to social media with her daughter’s consent, bringing joy to friends, family and others who don’t even know her but have been inspired by her fight.

Dr. Brett Hartman, director of the Riley burn unit and Natalie’s surgeon, could hardly believe it without seeing the video himself. When he walked in her room, his young patient “was sitting there proud as punch,” her mom said. “Everyone was blown away.”

And Natalie? “I’m really proud of myself,” she said.

It was a rare moment of celebration amid two-plus months of pain, grueling therapy and plenty of tears, Sarah Zofkie said.

“She gets discouraged still. She’s being asked to do a lot, and she’s more aware of her injuries now, so that’s been super hard.”

Dr. Hartman and other members of her care team do their best to encourage her, but she is desperate to get out of the hospital.

Natalie has already spent Halloween, her birthday and Thanksgiving at Riley, and she will be there for Christmas as well. Her mom, who alternates days at the hospital with Natalie’s father, Michael, tries to distract her with games, books and movies, including “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games.”

Part of the family’s village outside the hospital is stepping up to give her bedroom at home a makeover, based on Pinterest boards Natalie put together before the accident.

They can’t wait until the day she is able to walk into that room herself.

Natalie continues to heal from the third-degree burns that spared only her face, her scalp and under her arms. She has had multiple surgeries to clean her deep wounds and add temporary skin, followed by advanced technology that combines her own skin, spray skin and cultured skin to cover her body.

“Using all of those advanced technologies, we’re able to save her life,” Dr. Hartman said a few weeks after the accident. “She has just enough skin for us to be able to do that.”

Once Natalie is healed, she will be transferred to Riley’s in-patient rehab unit, where she will get intensive therapy to become fully independent again.

Sarah Zofkie and her daughter have had plenty of time to talk in the past few weeks, now that Natalie is not sedated. One thing her little girl told her will stay with her forever.

“She told me while she was waiting for the ambulance after the accident, she had seen ‘the light to heaven but I just wasn’t ready.’ ”

Related Coverage:

As flames engulfed her, she screamed for help - Eleven-year-old Natalie Zofkie suffered devastating burns over 93% of her body, but with the heart of a champion, she is fighting back.

Related Doctor

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Brett C. Hartman, DO

Plastic Surgery