Burned Sisters Struggle toward Normalcy Christmas Eve Fire Changed Their World

Article excerpt

Joy and Alex Hall's world went up in flames last Christmas Eve.

Someone started a fire that destroyed their home and killed a house guest. Joy eventually lost her legs. Both she and Alex were terribly scarred and spent months in a hospital hundreds of miles from home.

And then, they started living again.

All year, two little girls in Springfield have been learning a bitter lesson about putting tragedy behind them and looking ahead.

"It's just a miracle that they're here," said the girls' grandmother, Carolyn Fuller, who has raised them for most of the past year of painful, frightening rehab. "Some days we laugh, and some days we cry. Some days we get angry."

In slow, hard steps, the Hall sisters -- Joy is 11, Alex is 9 -- and their family have been getting on with the business of normalcy. Their recovery is a work in progress, with medical milestones reaching years into the future and a schedule of doctor appointments scattered from Jacksonville to Tampa to Texas. But there are small everyday achievements, from building up muscles to maneuvering fast without legs.

And they've made room for dreams.

Seated next to her prosthetic legs on the floor of her grandmother's sitting room, Joy stopped to think about what she wants in her future.

"I want to play basketball," she said.

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It was 3 a.m. last Dec. 24 when the Hall family's world changed.

Joy and Alex were in bed on the ground floor of a rented wooden duplex on Ionia Street, about a block from their grandmother's home. A beeping Giga Pet, a present from a toy giveaway the family visited the day before, woke Alex's twin brother, Albert. He yelled that he smelled smoke and woke his mother.

But the smoke and flames spread too fast for the whole family to escape.

"When I was on my way out, I tripped over the sofa and fell flat on my face," Alex said.

Joy stumbled, too, and fell close by. A house guest and family friend, 27-year-old Arteshia Raines, was caught in the burning building with the children and would die the next day at a hospital. Part of the ceiling fell in.

Their mother called to the girls, trying to find them in the smoke by following their voices. But there was no air, and the girls passed out.

It was January when Joy woke up in Galveston, Texas. Her family had been talking to her for weeks, but she had been sedated or feverish and remembered none of it.

She and her sister were at the Shriners Burns Hospital, a charitable 30-bed children's center where Jacksonville's Morocco Shrine Temple paid to send them on a private jet.

Joy was badly burned over about 60 percent of her body. An infection had settled in her legs. Doctors had amputated them both just below the knee.

With tears, Joy struggled to accept the amputations and the artificial legs the doctors offered her. It wasn't fair, she cried; she wanted her legs back. These are your legs, your new legs, her family told her.

And slowly, she learned to walk again. Using her new legs was the hardest thing she'd had to do, and Joy is still proud of how well she can walk.

The girls stayed at the hospital until March.

The rehab continued back in Florida. A Shriner orthopaedic hospital in Tampa built a better set of legs, a better fit and colored like her skin, and Joy spent weeks there practicing with them. She'll need new legs as she grows, and there are twice-weekly exercise sessions at Brooks Health Southside, a rehabilitation center in Jacksonville where she works hip muscles needed to stand straight. The girls also receive emotional counseling at Brooks.

Joy and Alex will both be treated at Shriner hospitals at no charge until they're 21, said Garry Abshier, their care coordinator in Galveston.

Joy, who likes sports and wants to be a lawyer, went back to school this summer with a transfer to Biltmore Elementary School, a 350-student center in the Paxon area that specializes in teaching physically impaired children. …