Making a life after the fire

Making a life after the fire
Beauty really is only skin deep, as Sandra Simpson is reminded

Hasti Adlparvar doesn't want your pity. What's more, she doesn't need your pity. The 24-year-old education student talks about her near-death in a fire dry-eyed and with admirable frankness. She literally still bears the scars of the tragedy and will for the rest of her life. But despite her own trauma and the death of loved ones in the fire, a smile is never far from her face and she is, she says, happy to be alive.
She arrives for our interview apologizing for keeping me waiting (10 minutes). I had mentally prepared for this moment, determined not to flinch when I saw her. Yet my overwhelming impressions are of a wide smile, a cloud of curly, dark hair and a gentle double-handed handshake.
The hands. Her right hand has no fingers, while those on the left have been left misshapen. Yet when Adlparvar, an Iranian born in Lebanon, tells what wonderful things surgeons in Louisville, Kentucky, have done for her hands, it's hard not to agree with her. She's thrilled that she can drive, swim, rollerblade, take lecture notes and make intricate calligraphy.
Since her homecoming in February after 18 months of treatment in the United States, Adlparvar has re-entered the Lebanese-American University and taken up where she left off in her education degree, planning to graduate next year. Her decision to be a teacher came after a year spent as a volunteer teacher and dorm parent in a school in the Czech Republic in 1995. She switched from journalism to education at LAU and in her first year on the new course met Wisam al-Chidiac and fell in love. The couple began to plan their wedding.
But on February 26, 1997, her world fell apart. "It's like God was watching me make all these plans and just wagged His finger at me," she says. About 25 people of the Baha'i faith were gathered at a Monteverde home that evening when the electricity went off. Someone started the generator on the kitchen balcony, refueled it, locked the balcony door and put the fuel container next to the refrigerator.
Adlparvar was washing dishes with al-Chidiac and her brother-in-law, Andrew Wallace, a teacher, when someone filled the kettle to make tea. That person mistook the fuel container for a water container, but the smell as the fuel heated acted as an alarm and the kettle was thrown on to the kitchen floor.
"I could have run out then," Adlparvar says. "I just saw a blodge of fire in the center of the room. There was space for me to get out and the door to the rest of the apartment was still open. Andrew poured water on the fire to put it out and then it was everywhere. "I don't remember the details, just lots of fire. I don't remember any pain ­ it wasn't a horrifying moment for me. I thought I was going to die and go to God. I had my hands stretched out a window, praying. If I had stayed there, I would have died, the fire was leaping towards the open window, that's why my back was so badly burned".
Three people escaped before backdraft swung the interior door closed. Furious efforts by rescuers to get into the kitchen were initially of no avail. Adlparvar moved to comfort a pregnant women trapped with her, placing her right hand over the woman's face. This was when she lost her fingers, the fire burning her skin back to the bone. She fainted.
Finally, the balcony door was forced open by rescuers with a fire extinguisher and carpet. Wallace, 29, was dead. Al-Chidiac was shielding his fiancée and two other women with his body. "Wisam and I talked on the way to hospital and we prayed together. I walked into the emergency room and then realized I really was burned, they had to cut my clothes off. I could hear Wisam telling them that I was his fiancée and that he would make sure my costs were met. He knew I didn't have insurance. I am alive because of him".
Two days later, al-Chidiac died in hospital, a week before his twenty-third birthday. A woman in her 50s died a week later, while the pregnant woman delivered a stillborn baby in hospital the night of the fire. Adlparvar didn't know al-Chidiac or Wallace had died until her family felt she would be able to cope with the news, although whether she would have to be given the news at all was doubtful. She was given a 50 percent chance of survival, suffering burns to 55 percent of her body ­ all her back, face, scalp, neck, one arm, both hands and one leg. The other leg has since been scarred by the harvesting of skin for grafting. "I like that scar," she says. Adlparvar was unconscious for three weeks and stayed in the Jetawi Hospital burns unit three months.
She harbors no bitterness about the fire and has never wanted to apportion blame. "Each person made a little mistake which by itself was not a mistake. So many elements contributed to what happened. I've never felt like giving blame, either individually or collectively. It was an accident.
"Mind you, I've been angry with God a few times."
Visa problems meant she had to wait until September before traveling to the United States for further treatment. Adlparvar has undergone over 10 operations and will return to Kentucky this summer for another.
"There came a point when I couldn't be treated in Lebanon anymore. They wanted to amputate two of my fingers on my left hand and to put my other hand inside my stomach to regenerate the skin. I didn't want that. I knew there had to be other alternatives. I was so lucky to go to Louisville where there is a well-known group of hand surgeons."
She has refused cosmetic surgery, an unusual choice for a young woman who had been beautiful. Her hair has been restored thanks to an operation which saw the "huge area" of scar tissue removed and a flap of healthy skin cut and pulled across the scalp to "patch" the area.
"Beauty is when you accept who you are and appreciate who you are. Ugliness is when you try to be something else." I am moved by the profundity of this, then moved to laughter by Adlparvar's glee when she tells me it's not original, but a quote from Italian actress Sophia Loren. Her own take on cosmetic surgery is, "the scars are proof of part of my life ­ I don't want to erase that or them. I can't ever not look like a burn victim and right now I'd rather get on with my life here."
"I had the most amazing support in hospital here, friends and family who took a big chunk out of their lives to come and be with me. Even when I was unconscious there was a steady stream of visitors who talked to me, telling jokes, bringing me up-to-date on gossip. That support led to a particular kind of faith which in turn led to a belief in myself."
Surgeons have concentrated on her mobility, freeing her neck from both skin grafts which had tightened and scarring which kept it rigid. One doctor undertook hand surgery for free "just because he was nice".
"They're more humanitarian in America," Adlparvar says. "In Lebanon everything is money oriented. The nurses in Louisville genuinely cared for me and would explain every procedure and say sorry if they hurt me with a needle. Here, no one tells you anything, they just do things to you and an apology is out of the question. But I have to say that nurses give their lives to the job because they're not paid well."
She also appreciated the American attitude to physical difference. "In the U.S. you see differences all the time from really obese people to people with major disabilites so everyone reacts in a very friendly normal way.
"I was very worried about coming back because I've seen people react to differences, even cultural differences. A Lebanese looks down on a Sri Lankan, for example, a rich person looks down on the poor, a beautiful person looks down on the ugly, the educated look down on the non-educated. Everything in society here is ranked and the disabled are looked down on as lesser people.
"So far I've been in a very protected environment. My friends take me out and we are all people who don't hide what we feel. They all saw me at my worst. Their reaction was, "wow, we can see through the scars now." The Lebanese are followers, so if someone reacts well and positively to me, they will too."
The turning point in her recovery was, she says, when she realized she was happy to be alive. Banal perhaps, but a major step forward. "In the beginning I wished I had gone with Wisam," Adlparvar says simply. "I lost someone I loved and the picture of me going with him is very natural. I don't feel guilty that I survived, but he was a big part of saving my life and I wanted to live my life to the full with him."
She admits that during her long recovery she sometimes doubted her faith, yet regular dreams of her fiancé and "many, many other things" answered her questions. "I believed in life after death before, but it has really come home to me now. I find myself talking to Wisam and I know he is with me."
Adlparvar remains close to her fiancé's mother, although knows the visits are bitter-sweet. "I remind her of her son not being here, but she's taught me what mother love really is. Seeing her now is like being given the best gift in the world. It gives me life, it makes me feel closer to Wisam."
The ongoing support of her sister Huda, widowed and made a single parent to two young children by the fire, has been a major part of Adlparvar's healing. "She's a connection to my previous life and we talk a lot. We've always been more than sisters ­ she's my role model and is so selfless in loving me. She was going through so much herself, yet she was there every day taking care of me.
"I'm learning that the number of ways of dealing with loss is the same as the number of people in the world. I'm still going through it. I'm still living it and I won't ever get over it in the sense that most people talk about."
Yet she talks excitedly about completing her degree, working as a teacher and "ultimately" doing a Ph.D. I remind her that she's making plans again. "We live in a third world country," she says. "You need to plan ahead. If you don't you're doomed".
Then she laughs. A hearty, healthy, happy laugh.

©Copyright 1999, The Daily Star, Lebanon
Original Story

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