When a gas explosion ripped through a crowded marketplace in Honduras last month, Paola Matute Porter suffered burns over 40 percent of her body. Now, she and three other children who were among dozens of patrons engulfed in flames are receiving free medical treatment at a Boston hospital specializing in burn care.
The gas cylinder explosion rocked the market in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 20 as Paola and her family were eating lunch, killing at least one child and wounding more than 70 other people. Paola's mother recalled her 9-year-old running to her, screaming for help.
"The skin on her arms was falling off and her face was melting," Paola Porter Avila said recently from her daughter's bedside. "I yelled her to stop so I could take her clothes off so they wouldn't continue to burn her."
Young Paola and other injured family members initially were taken to a local hospital. But thanks to local and international charities, Paola was among four children who were flown nearly 3,800 miles from Honduras' capital to Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston.
Paola, the most seriously injured of the children, has had two major operations since arriving at Shriners on Feb. 27. In the most recent, doctors spent more than four hours grafting skin from her legs onto her badly burned arms, hands and fingers.
"This skin grafting is actually life saving for her," said Dr. Philip Chang, who operated on Paola. "As long as she had burn wounds on her body that were not covered with her own skin, she would be at grave risk of having an infection that could lead to overwhelming bacterial infection that could lead to death."
The four children, who range in age from 6 months to 16 years old, are all expected to make a full recovery, Chang said. Paola's younger brother, Jossan, who suffered less serious burns on his legs and feet, already has returned home.
Paola still has a long road ahead.
Chang says the skin grafts appear to be taking well and she gradually is being weaned off pain medication. But Paola will spend a couple more weeks in the hospital before being transferred to a temporary residence to undergo physical therapy.
It may be three more weeks after that before Paola and her mother can return to Honduras.
Avila, who suffered minor injuries in the blast, says the experience has been challenging. She's been at her daughter's side the entire time, sleeping on a daybed in the hospital room.
Before her skin graft surgeries, Avila said, her daughter was in intense pain, her skin healing from infections that developed during initial treatment at the hospital in Tegucigalpa.
At night, she said, her daughter would cry out for her father, who also suffered serious burns and was treated at the same hospital.
Avila worries about how the rest of the family is coping back home, but she is grateful her children had the chance to receive world-class care.
The hospital is covering the medical expenses for all four children, as well as any housing and physical therapy costs. The Aleppo Shriners, a local Shriners fraternal organization, donated nearly $65,000 alone to bring them to Boston.
"I thank Jehovah because she could have easily died in the explosion," said Avila, a Jehovah's Witness who has put her law school classes on hold to be with her daughter. "She kept on asking, `Why did this happen to me?' She would look at her hands, the horror at what she was seeing. I told her Jehovah kept her alive and that he loves her and will help her have a quick recovery."