TEGA CAY, S.C. Connor McKemey remembers the moment he first saw his new face.
Hed put a DVD in his laptop in the hospital room and, waiting for the movie to load, happened to glance into the dark, barely reflective screen.
He turned away and pushed his laptop aside.
It was too soon to see how he looked, what that meant, and how he felt about it. He was having a hard enough time figuring out what had happened that a fire had nearly killed him, that doctors had induced a two-month coma, that he was in an Augusta, Ga., burn center, 150 miles from his Tega Cay, S.C., home. His mothers gentle prodding was helping him remember, filling in details.
He knew one thing, though, with the certainty of a 13-year-old: He desperately wanted his routines back. Get up, get dressed, go to school, go to lacrosse, hang out with friends.
I wanted everything to just be normal, he says.
The remarkable thing? Now, for the most part after almost four years, 126 surgeries, a sports magazine cover and a documentary film everything is.
Each day, Connor gets up, gets dressed and gets going.
He showers quickly, but only after carefully checking the water temperature. Doctors have warned him how easily it could scald him, since he cant accurately feel heat or cold anywhere but on his palms and fingertips.
He uses little in the way of products, except for Arbonne NutriMinC lotion, which he slathers on his limbs after every shower. He rubs it into tough-textured skin marked with the diamond pattern characteristic of lab-grown skin grafts. Sometimes, when he remembers, he dabs sunscreen on his face, which is wrinkled with small scars, and onto the thicker scar on his neck, which surgeons sliced to relieve the tension of healing skin. He runs his right hand his left is missing part of his thumb and index finger through his thick brown hair, which took about a year to grow back.
That he can do any of this is miracle enough. In December 2008, doctors didnt expect Connor to live, much less heal, grow or walk again.
It had been cold on Dec. 21, the day Connors dad, now U.S. Naval Reserve Capt., George McKemey, was due home from Baghdad for Christmas. Connor was in the backyard and decided to light the outdoor propane fireplace. Connor turned on the gas, allowing fumes to build in the fireplace, an error in lighting the logs. From inside, Karin McKemey heard a whoosh, glanced out and saw her son in flames. She dove through a living room window to get to him.
Their neighbor Daniel Tucker, who is also a firefighter, heard the explosion and rushed to help Karin and Connor. He called 911, tended to their injuries and stayed with them as medics arrived to transport them to Tega Cays Turner Field. Two helicopters landed in the field to take both of them to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. Within 24 hours, George and Connors brothers, Tripp and Quinn, joined them there, and got the news: Connor had a 1 percent chance of surviving.
Burns had ravaged nearly 90 percent of his body; most were third-degree, the worst. The deeper the burn is, the sicker you are, said Dr. Richard Cartie, who treated him. Catastrophic burns dont often happen, and they usually result in death.
Doctors put Connor in a coma to help him heal and cope with the excruciating pain. Connors family anxiously awaited updates from physicians. Karin, healing herself from cuts and burns to her arms, legs and face, stayed in Augusta, terrified for her son. George received temporary orders to relocate from Baghdad to Fort Gordon in Augusta, to be close to his son. The Army and the Navy Reserve were phenomenal throughout the entire ordeal, George says. It was truly an example of them taking care of one of their own.
The surgeries began immediately. First came major skin grafts onto Connors flanks and limbs. Then the less intrusive treatments began, ranging from laser therapy that loosens scar tissue, to procedures that reduce scarring. For more than three months, he endured at least two surgeries a week.
Next month, Connor will have his 127th surgery. Its a new procedure that injects fat cells from his abdomen into scars on his chin, mouth and neck. Not because of how he looks, explains Connor now a 17-year-old high school senior but because the scars have begun to tighten painfully. He may choose to have more surgery if more scars tighten or if he changes his mind about his appearance.
The bathroom mirror is easy these days, he says. But that first time he saw his face in the laptop screen?
I didnt want to accept it (but) at a point, I had to get over it. This is who I am, so I have to deal with it.
That was harder for Karin, who has no significant facial scarring from her burns. She would anger at the stares of passers-by, and recalls Connor asking: Why do you assume its a negative? People have always stared. Im 6 foot 3 and Im a big guy.
Connors best friend, Harrison Lancaster, agrees with Karin. People stare when the two go to the mall or the movies. But that has never fazed Connor.
Hes never shown a sign of weakness, Harrison says. Its just Connor.
The emotional recovery of people badly burned is highly contingent on what happens when they get home, says Dr. Cartie, director of pediatric critical care services at the burn center.
Tega Cay wrapped its arms around Connor when he returned, near the end of his eighth-grade school year. Hed been gone about five months, says his mother: We really had this unique experience where he was enveloped with love and support.
A banner in his front yard welcomed him home. Neighbors and friends started blood drives and a website for medical financial aid. Community members, some of whom had never met Connor, held a homecoming party at Towne Tavern in Fort Mill, S.C. And when it was time to start high school that fall, with Connor moving from middle school to a high school of about 1,400 students, the principal and doctors checked with Karin: Should they bring in counselors or prep the kids in some way?
Why? asked Karin. They all knew. Theyd seen him; theyd come over to the house.
There was no need for anybody to say anything, Connor says.
Still, the principal made sure Connors best friend was in all of his main classes for support and to help carry his backpack, says Karin.
Harrisons response: I am not carrying his backpack around.
The two have known each other since the fourth grade. They were the first boys to move into their neighborhood, so they always played basketball and football together.
If he cant pick up a book bag, then hows he going to be able to pick up a lacrosse stick? Harrison remembers thinking.
His friends never let him cry in his soup, Karin says, with a smile.
It doesnt take much to get ready for lacrosse practice: Connor grabs his socks, slides on tennis shoes and walks to his car.
Getting back to lacrosse drove Connor.Instead of saying, OK, I want to go out and play lacrosse, What are the things to do to get back there and work your way up? he says. You want to have the overall big goal, but theres lots of little steps to take to get there.
He set small goals in the hospital. He walked 5 feet one day; he walked 50 feet the next. It was a good day if he could achieve just a bit more. When he started physical therapy, Connor got deep tissue massages, worked his shoulders on a stretching table, walked on a treadmill and used weights to regain balance. He consumed 6,000 calories a day, much of it in nutritional shakes.
After 3 1/2 months in Augusta, he spent a month in Levine Childrens Hospital in Charlotte and worked on dexterity, including learning to button his pants and tie his shoelaces. He stretched, then stretched more. After he arrived home, hed play video games with his brothers in their man cave while pedaling steadily on a stationary bike.
Doctors had been surprised when he grew an inch while in a coma and when he kept gaining weight after the accident. But they insisted he would never play contact sports again his fragile skin grafts would too easily split.
Im stubborn, Connor says. I thought, Im going to prove them wrong.
Six months after the accident, he returned to the lacrosse field, reteaching his body how to run, catch and throw. One of the first things he learned before a game: Game eyeblack soaks into his new skin and doesnt come off for days.
He wore it anyway.
Now he is a starting defender on the team, and wears only the protective equipment that other players wear. He is careful on the field. Body and stick contact can cause his skin to bleed more readily. He comes out immediately and wraps any injury in gauze.
His performance has earned him recruiting trips to Methodist University, Mars Hill and Hendrix College in Arkansas. He also is considering attending Clemson, the University of Mississippi, High Point University or the University of South Carolina.
Lacrosse is his sport, and a key piece of his community.
Immediately after the fire, Connors longtime coach Michael Desmond wanted the team to rally for Connor. He had stickers printed playing off Connors nickname, Bear. Bear Down appeared on the South Charlotte Cyclones helmets then, as word spread through sports circles, on the helmets of the Princeton lacrosse team, then on the helmets of Marines in Iraq.
Connor was even featured on the March 2011 cover of Lacrosse Magazine, photographed with Karin. She is hugging him, with an enormous smile on her face, her eyes closed. His are open wide.
Most days now, he practices cradling and passing lacrosse balls on his high school field until the sun sets. This past summer, he helped coach a kids lacrosse camp and played on club teams. I just think its the freedom of being on the field that I enjoy.
J.R. Martinez traveled to Tega Cay to meet Connor shortly after his accident. Most of America now knows Martinez, badly burned as a soldier in Iraq in 2003 when the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine. He was trapped inside the burning vehicle. Martinez survived some three dozen surgeries, became a motivational speaker and actor, and gained national fame by winning season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.
He tells the Observer about his fight with fire: Mentally, its just an everyday struggle. You wake up in the morning and you actually look at your face and your body every day.
He and Connor became, and remain, friends. (Connor sought Martinezs help in asking a girl to the prom. Dude, thats easy, Martinez told him, and recorded a message for her. Yes, she said yes.)
Im proud to know that I have a young man like himself who is right beside me, advocating for who we are and ... how life can be lived beyond any kind of trauma, Martinez says.
Connor and Martinez met up again this year. This time, filmmakers were involved.
Director and producer Megan Smith-Harris had cast Martinez in her documentary, Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. She also had cast Connor as one of seven main stories in it, after meeting him at The Phoenix Societys World Burn Congress in 2010. The congress is an annual international conference that unites about 800 burn survivors, their families, caregivers, burn care professionals and firefighters.
Trial by Fire has been shown in New York and Los Angeles, making it eligible (though a long shot) for the Oscars. Executive producer Bill Harris expects Connor to be in an upcoming Dr. Oz TV special about the film. Some of the cast, along with Martinez, will be taped Nov. 6 in New York.
Harris calls Connor and Karin, whose story begins and ends the documentary, arguably the stars of the film.
The Los Angeles Times said of the film: Youll likely never look at or look away from a burn survivor the same way again.
In the film, Martinez puts it this way: This is my new uniform and I wear it every single day.
It takes courage to endure, Martinez tells the Observer. Connor accepted everything in such a powerful way ... Thats what Connor does.
And more perhaps the hardest thing of all: Hes made it very easy for others to look at him, Martinez says.
If I show that Im OK with what happened, says Connor, then it eases everybody elses tension.
He says he hopes when people see him for the first time, they will ask about his scars.
I really do feel like Im lucky because my scars are on the outside, so people already know that Ive been through something, he says. But there are a lot of people that have been through stuff and their scars are on the inside.... I try to never judge someone before I really know them.
And now, when Connor takes a hurried minute out of his morning routine to look in the mirror, he says, I see me, Connor McKemey, a pretty decent-looking guy.