Christina Cameron spends most of her time these days waiting and praying in a little corner of the waiting room in the ECMC burn unit.
She invited me to join her on New Year’s Eve day so she could share her story and tell people how amazingly strong her daughter, Jessica is. Christina wants to make it clear, this is not Jessica’s story – that is for her to tell someday – this is Christina’s story from her perspective. The story of a mom who is doing whatever she can to help her little girl. The story of a mom who lost another daughter only months ago. The story of a mom who’s left to care for her three little grandsons as her daughter fights for her life. The story of a mom who has to be brutally honest about what comes next. And the story of a mom whose faith in God is getting her through it all, even if it is just one day at a time.
Visiting hours in the burn unit are very limited, so this has become home – this tiny corner of a small room. This is where meals are eaten, where prayers are said and where encouragement is found. Christina is surrounded by her parents, her friends and a fire chaplain – who, before that terrible day, didn’t even know this family. It was here, too, where Christina told me about her daughter – I’m sharing only what this family wants shared, but I can tell you – their strength and love could be felt by just sitting there.
December 17th started off like many days for this family. Jessica had recently broken up with her boyfriend – the father of her 3 boys – and moved in with her mother. She was looking for a fresh start. “She left at 2 pm that day to go to work. She was happy,” Christina recalls, “She kissed her boys and said ‘mommy loves you and I’ll see you when I come home.’ She still hasn’t come home. They’re just waiting for her to come home.”
Unfortunately, they will have a very long wait. On that Monday afternoon, Christina said her daughter was contacted by her ex-boyfriend – either by a phone call or text – and asked to go out back near the dumpsters to meet him. She did and that is when – according to police – he threw some type of lighter fluid on her and lit her on fire. Christina, who also works at that same Tim Hortons, got the frantic call just moments later. “The manager called and she was just screaming and crying and she said, ‘did they call you?’ and she was just screaming and I knew it was bad and she mentioned there’d been a fire and I left and went right there.”
When she arrived, Jess had already been taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Christina left for ECMC and found her daughter in the emergency room. Jessica was already hooked up to a ventilator and was unable to speak. She was trying to communicate in other ways, including sign language and nodding yes or no. “She was so brave, so calm, so aware. She knew what was happening. I told her the doctors were going to take care of the outside of her body and that she had to take care of the inside. She needed to go to a place of healing and work on her inside, we’ll do the rest.”
25-year-old Jessica Cameron’s injuries are extremely severe.
She is in a medically-induced coma to help shield her from what would be unbearable pain and also allow her body to begin to heal. She is badly burned and does not have any skin on her face, ears, neck, chest and hands. She is fighting for her life and has already undergone four surgeries in the past two weeks.
She had a tracheostomy on Christmas Eve, this gives her a stable airway during recovery, and the upcoming surgeries she will face. She’s had several skin grafts and right now has cadaver skin covering her face in hopes that her skin will begin to rejuvenate. Her hands are burned so badly that she will have to undergo another surgery today to remove all of her fingertips on both hands. Something Christina had to sign off on, “She knows, my Jess knows because I had to tell her. I needed her to know before I would consent to it. She understood and she is a fighter. At first they thought they might have to amputate both hands, but she didn’t want that, she wanted to try and fight and so she did and she is. We can live without her fingertips, they are a small price to pay.”
Here, inside this waiting room, there are no pity parties, no asking why – this, much like the patient rooms in this hospital, is a place to heal.
Tonawanda Fire Chaplain, Rick Oates is just one person helping in that area by reminding everyone that hope, light and faith can carry us far. “You overcome evil with good. Dark and light can’t be in the same space. It’s been incredibly difficult for this family and there’s been a lot of sadness and grief up here, but we are here because tremendous hope and true faith will bring the light. This is where grace needs to be more than amazing.”
There’s also plenty of reflection going on in this room.
There are stories about Jess growing up.
Jessica’s grandfather, Clifford Cline, recalls a tenacious little girl: “She was a determined little girl. I remember when she was a kid, she saw an apple tree and wanted an apple. There were all kind of apples on the ground next to the tree that had fallen, she didn’t want those – no, she wanted that one apple that was still high up in the tree. An hour later, we had that apple.”
And her grandmother, holding back tears, describes a kind and caring girl. “People love to be around her. She is witty, kind and sensitive to other people and how they feel. I always said she had the soul of a writer for sure; so sensitive to everything. She read every book she ever touched, she loved to read. She was so happy.”
This family has had countless happy times, but also their share of great sadness.
Jessica had a heavy heart after her little sister, Peighton, passed away in July. The little girl had a very rare genetic disorder called Pontocerebellar Hypoplasia and needed around the clock care her entire life. Christina’s son, Lincoln, has the same disorder and also needs constant care. Jessica was heartbroken by the loss of her little sister – she spoke at her funeral and carried her grief much after.
The young mom, caring for three boys, ages, 4, 3 and 1, was doing the best she could (The family does not want any photos of the boys to be published at this time). She recently came to the realization that she needed more for herself and her babies. She wanted to start over and Christina says her daughter did the right thing. “I want people to know that she did the right thing in the right way and something bad still happened.”
Christina says while Jessica lived with her boyfriend, there were no calls for help, no police reports. There was just one report made, when family members say the ex-boyfriend wouldn’t let Jessica’s grandmother pull out of the driveway. There was no physical altercation and this was after Jessica moved out – just days before the horrifying incident at Tim Hortons. But, sadly, Christina fears there may have been more going on than she knew about, “You don’t know with domestic violence, you just don’t know. Looking back, well I will say this, I have guilt, so much guilt and maybe if I was paying closer attention, maybe it would be different.” Her family and friends surrounding her chimed in, encouraged her and told here there was no need for any guilt.
Christina has been given emergency temporary custody of the boys. She says they are doing okay and thankfully do not know what has happened to their mommy, “Those boys just love super heroes, they really do and someday they will know that their mommy is a real-life superhero. That little girl is my baby and I want everyone to know that he didn’t steal her spirit. Your body is just a shell, but her spirit is intact. He didn’t win. She did. It might be hard, seeing her right now, to think of her as the winner, but she is. She has her spirit and her spirit is lovely. Her grace is my strength right now.”
Christina also gets strength from this community; from friends and strangers. It’s something she’s not used to, because, even with two special needs children at home, Christina always answered the call for help in her community. She works with many charities helping others and now, the favor is being returned. “The community has been, oh God, they’ve been so wonderful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. The outpouring has been unbelievable and undeniable. It’s helping us get through, giving us strength and encouragement.”
There was a candlelight vigil, prayer sessions and it’s all very meaningful for this family.
Cards line the walls of Jessica’s room. Messages of love, prayers for hope and strength, words that mean the world and Christina reads every single one of them out loud and she knows her daughter can hear them. “As we sit here and think about things we are grateful for, I am so grateful my Jess is alive. So grateful. He didn’t steal her life and he’s certainly not going to steal her grace, her courage, or her faith; he can’t, that all comes from God.”
The man police say is responsible has been charged with multiple crimes – including attempted murder. But, this story is not about him. This story is about survival and strength.
Doctors say Jessica will be in the burn unit for at least nine months. They don’t know how she will heal or what will come next. For now, this family will continue to gather here, pray here and hope here.
How Can We Help?
Monetary donations to:
Jim Harszlak Foundation, 2452 Colvin Blvd., Tonawanda, NY 14150 (Just tell them you want your money to go to Jessica Cameron and they will get it to them with NO fees)
Key Bank: Account #320077004911
There is also a GoFundMe Account set up for Jessica – Here is a link if you would like to help.
You can send a card or well wishes: ECMC, 462 Grider Street, Burn Unit – Room #1954, Buffalo, NY 14215
Right now Christina is not working and needs to care for those three boys – she can use gift cards, gas cards, and would love to have the boys get out and have some fun so family passes to any sort of entertainment for toddlers and preschoolers would be very much appreciated.
You can follow Jessica’s Journey on a Facebook page set up by family – Jurassic JessE’s Journey.
If you or someone you love is a victim of domestic violence, there is help available. You can call (716) 834-3131 – they are available 24 hours a day.