Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Did I Survive?

One second I was partying. The next, I was fighting for my life.
by Austin Atkinson, as told to Christy Heitger-Casbon

The strong smell of cleaning agents and the repetitive sound of beeping monitors filled the air. My eyelids fluttered open as my pupils struggled to adjust to the bright light. I'd just had the most bone-chilling nightmare, and my foggy mind fought to make sense of where I was.

Then I heard a woman's voice softly say "hi." I turned my head and saw that she was wearing a nurse's uniform.

"Am I in the hospital?" I asked with a sore, scratchy throat.

"Yes," she answered. "You've been here for three weeks."

As I stared at my bandaged body, scenes of the accident flashed across my mind. Alcohol. Gasoline. Flames. Smoke. Screaming. It was no nightmare. I had been on fire.

Getting Crazy
The night started out innocently enough. A few friends and I were hanging out playing video games. Then my buddy Pete* showed up with some vodka. Within an hour we were all pretty wasted and our small "party" had gotten out of hand.

Josh cranked the music and then grabbed his lighter so we could all try "breathing fire." We took turns spitting vodka and tried lighting it on fire as it left our mouths. With each attempt we kept moving the lighter closer to our faces. But no one could do it.

For some reason, and I'm not really sure why, Josh thought it would be cool to get in a circle, pour gasoline in the middle and make a "circle of fire." So he ran outside and picked up a can of gasoline. We watched as Josh doused the gravel driveway with fuel.

"You need more over here!" I shouted. I grabbed the container of gas away from Josh, carelessly drenching my shirt and pants.

"Man, you reek!" Pete laughed.

Josh knelt down on the gravel and clicked his lighter several times.

Foop, foop—sssssshhh.

Our ring of fire was born. We high-fived one another and celebrated by opening a second bottle of liquor.

Feeling pretty wasted from the vodka, I plopped down on a chair.

"I've got a killer idea," Josh said.

He then poured gasoline all over the plastic chair sitting beside me. A moment later I heard the flick of Josh's lighter, then swooosh! The chair was ablaze.

I could feel the heat of the flames. I started to get up so I could move away from the burning chair, but just then I looked down and saw flames ignite my gas-soaked shirt and pants.

Panicked, I jumped up and started screaming and running. No matter which I way I turned, red-hot flames chased me.

"Drop and roll!" Josh yelled.

I rolled for what seemed like an eternity. Then I heard Josh shout, "You're good! It's out, man!"

It didn't feel that way to me. I felt like I'd been swimming in a sea of bubbling lava. That was my last memory until waking up in the hospital.

So Much Pain
The nurse told me that I had been rushed to the hospital three weeks earlier with 35 percent of my body covered in third-degree burns. During my 21-day medicated coma I had fought off life-threatening pneumonia and had endured three surgeries to help repair my burnt, blistered skin.

Over the next several weeks, physical therapy tore me apart. My leg muscles were so weak I couldn't walk. In one session, tiny beads of sweat formed at my temples as I strained to pick up a paperclip. I winced in agony each time my finger grazed the clip. I couldn't believe this simple task could be so excruciating. I was in so much pain and full of so much anger, I wanted to rip the room apart. But I couldn't even pick up a paperclip.

Why me? I screamed inside my head. And why now? The day of the accident I had landed a part-time job—one that I'd get to drive to once I passed my driving exam, which I had been planning to take the week after the accident. Now all of my plans were ruined.

I knew I had messed up big time. It was totally stupid both to drink and to mess around with fire. But why was I the only one paying for our stupid actions?

Was God Punishing Me?
Along with regular visits from my parents and friends, my friend Michelle dropped by the hospital several times. We usually talked about movies or music. But one afternoon the conversation turned in a different direction.

"You're gonna be OK," Michelle said softly.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I've been praying for you," she said.

I leaned my head back on my pillow and looked at Michelle. I guess I had an idea she believed in God, but we'd never talked about it. So it kind of surprised me when she said she was praying for me. Maybe I should have been thankful, but I blurted out, "Have you been praying for a miracle? That's what I want! I want to turn back time and make it so that night never happened."

"I know it's hard," Michelle said. "But try to concentrate on the future."

"Easy for you to say!" I snapped. "You're not living in constant pain. Your skin still looks and feels normal. For the rest of my life the first thing people will see when they look at me will be these stupid scars!"

Awkward silence filled the room.

"Next time you talk to God," I told Michelle, "ask him why he's punishing me."

"I don't believe God's punishing you," Michelle said slowly.

"It doesn't feel that way to me," I shot back.

"What about your eyesight?" Michelle asked. "Didn't the doctors expect you to go blind? But, you're looking at me, aren't you?" Michelle said. "Maybe you can be grateful that all you might need is a stronger prescription."


"Honestly, I don't blame you for feeling hurt and mad. But maybe there are things to be thankful for."

"Who in my condition would be thankful for anything?" I asked.

"Austin, you almost died," Michelle nearly whispered. "But God has given you another shot at life—a chance to make better choices from now on."

I sighed and looked away. I didn't know what to think. As Michelle stood up to leave, she placed a Bible on the table next to my bed. "If you want, I can read a little to you the next time I see you," she said.

Would Life Ever Be Good?
When she left, I stared at the Bible. I don't know why she brought that, I thought. It's not like reading a Bible will fix me. Besides, I can't even pick it up. I can't pick anything up!

Without thinking, I pounded my fist on the bed and a fiery jolt shot through every fiber of my hand. I fought back tears as I looked out my window at people walking, talking, hugging, laughing. I wondered how long it would be before I could do those things again. When would I get to give or receive a hug without pain shooting through my body? Would life ever be good again?

As I stared down at my red leathery hands that just weeks before had been so smooth and strong, a tear slid down my cheek. Then suddenly, almost against everything I was feeling and thinking, I remembered what Michelle had said about God giving me a second chance.

Why did I survive? I suddenly wondered. Maybe there really was a God out there who not only gave me a second chance but who actually loved me.

A New Direction
Through physical therapy over the next several months, I made great improvements. I learned to walk, write and even drive. On the one-year anniversary of the accident, I hopped into my car and headed toward Josh's house. It wasn't like I wanted to see him. He'd visited me a couple of times in the hospital, but we'd hardly talked since the accident. I just had to look at the place where my life had changed so much.

Driving with my windows down, inhaling the crisp, fresh air, I thought about everything that had happened. A year earlier I was mad at myself, mad at Josh, mad at my body for not healing fast enough. And I was scared I'd never feel happy or normal again. But then Michelle helped me see that Christ could change my life, and slowly things did change. When my hands started to heal I did something that surprised even me—I picked up that Bible Michelle had given me and started reading it. Soon after that I dropped by Michelle's church, just to check it out. Everyone there was so friendly. And the more I learned about God's love and goodness, the more at peace I felt. With time, my heart softened and I was able to forgive both Josh and myself for the stupid mistakes we'd made. And as my fears faded, I began to see that a caring God had not only saved me, but he had also stuck with me throughout this difficult journey.

As I pulled my car in front of Josh's house and sat there in silence, horrific images flashed across my mind. My stomach knotted and my body shuddered as I tried to shake off the memories. Then I took a deep breath and bowed my head in prayer, thanking God for my second chance at life and for my new life with him. Suddenly my anxiety melted away and I was filled with peace—the kind of peace that only God's love can bring.

It's been a year and a half since Austin's accident. It's unclear whether he'll need more surgeries in the future, but he's happy putting his life in God's hands. After he graduates in May 2007, Austin plans to go to college and triple major in criminology, psychology and photography.

*names have been changed

Copyright © 2006 by the author of Christianity Today International/Ignite Your Faith magazine.

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