A New Way Forward

A NEW WAY FORWARD

By Sam Garfield

Dec 8, 1958

(St. Anne’s Hospital) –“He does not allow disasters to take place without reason.”

Standing in front of 27 white-and-gold coffins, and addressing seven thousand people massed inside the Northwest Armory, a Roman Catholic bishop tried his best to comfort grieving families, a community in shock, and a mournful city. The recent funeral service for some of the victims of the Our Lady of Angels fire was, in a way, a commencement ceremony, symbolizing the need for a new way forward following a tragic week of sorrow. Today, seventy boys and girls remain hospitalized, 13 in critical condition. Our spiritual attention must now be focused on these children.

Most of the injured remain at St. Anne’s, where the doctors and nurses have received national praise for the “magnificent manner” in which they treated the young victims, who suffered broken bones, smoke and gas inhalation, and severe burns. Most of the kids were in shock when they arrived at St. Anne’s. Doctors said the children either experienced neurological shock –mainly pain– or shock due to the loss of nutrients and chemicals because of their open burn wounds. Massive intravenous injections of electrolytes and other vital blood substances have kept them alive. Infection is now the biggest concern, especially defiant germs known as staphylococci, which can cause pneumonia. One hundred vials of a wonder drug called vancomycin –developed from a soil mold organism sent by a missionary from Borneo to the drug manufacturer Eli Lily–recently arrived at St. Anne’s.

A team of Army experts on severe burns from Brooke Hospital in Texas is on its way to Chicago. They’ll consult with doctors at St. Anne’s and the three other hospitals where the fire victims are being treated. Many kids are undergoing painful skin grafting procedures. The Navy has sent more than 6,000 square inches from its skin bank in Bethesda, Md. to St. Anne’s, but the donated skin is merely a temporary healing solution to prevent vital fluids from escaping. Eventually these youngsters will need permanent skin graft operations –-using their own skin. A horribly painful ordeal. “These kids have a tough road ahead of them,” one doctor said.

And this “tough road” will continue once the children get home. Many of these survivors –-along with the ones who will return to classes tomorrow at Our Lady Help of Christians-— may carry the burden of guilt: “Why did I live when all my friends died?” It’s not just up to their families to help them with this emotional battle. For starters, the archdiocese must stop worrying about any legal ramifications that may exist -–they’ve already instructed their priests and nuns at Our Lady of Angels not to discuss the fire with anyone. They should start a counseling program to help these kids now and in the future. All of Chicago must help in this way. To date, the Mayor’s fund to assist the victims’ families with medical costs has raised more than $250,200. While this money is certainly needed, it will not heal the emotional scars.

“It never leaves you,” said Roy Williams. He and his wife, Betty, lost all of their six kids in a Kenwood tenement fire last January. “Guilt is draining. You have to move on in inches, hour by hour, day by day. These kids who survived that horrible school fire –-they’re the ones who we have to think about now. They have to be asking themselves: ‘Why did I live? Why didn’t God take me?’ They can’t go on without guidance. They need everyday help from the community and the Church. Especially the Church. They need to know every day that people care about them, too, not just their friends who died.”

It has been just one week since the tragedy, but it seems as though, now that the funerals are behind us, the community, the City –-most of us– are focused on the fire’s cause, specifically who we can blame for the fire. A formal inquest begins this week in an attempt to determine the cause. But what we really should be looking for is a new way forward for our young survivors.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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