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Ohio Amish boy severely hurt in fire gets help from twin

Twins Jerry and John Miller just wanted to cook breakfast over the fire.

<p>Akron Children's Hospital</p>

Jerry and John Miller just wanted to cook breakfast over the fire.

After a night of camping in their backyard in Tuscarawas County near Dundee, the 11-year-old Amish twins with matching dark hair and even darker eyes, wanted to enjoy one last Memorial Day weekend activity.

It's not something Leah Miller, their mom, would normally do - take so much time to cook a meal on a weekday morning. But she was feeling different that day, so she told the boys to go get the fire ready.

As Leah gathered the dishes, a loud boom suddenly rattled the house. She looked up to see a gas can sprawled 20 feet from the fire.

Outside, her youngest boy was up in flames.

"Jerry's on fire!" Leah screamed.

Between the nightmarish blur of soaking Jerry in the bathtub and transferring his scalded body to a life-flight, Leah doesn't quite know how long it took to get him to Akron Children's Hospital.

What she does know, though, is the comforter she hung to dry near the door saved his life.

"I heard the explosion and when I looked up, I saw that he was burning," Leah said. "When I saw that, I just ran for the blanket. I screamed for my husband, and he was in the shower, but he literally was almost right behind me when I went out the door.

"(Jerry) was jumping up and down so I almost couldn't get the blanket around him, but my husband just grabbed it and then put him on the ground."

While John was in the barn tending to his rabbits, Jerry went to start the fire with gasoline, and the nearly-empty can exploded from built-up fumes. The fire chewed through over 85 percent of Jerry's body, sparing only his face and hands.

When he arrived at the hospital, doctors gave him a 50 percent chance of survival.

"I can't give him anymore than that," Dr. John Crow, a pediatric surgeon at Akron Children's Hospital, told the family. "If he makes it, he'll be here at least four or five months."

Jerry underwent five surgeries the first 10 days of his hospital stay.

Surgeons work quickly to remove the dead skin from burn victims and cover their wounds with cadaver or pig skin, but it's only a temporary solution until they're healed. With such a severe burn on Jerry, doctors fought against the clock to prevent infection.

When nurses chatted about Jerry's twin in the post-op room, though, Crow uncovered a glimmer of hope.

The next day, he asked Jerry's parents, Leah and Wayne, if the twins are identical.

"Giving skin from another human being - even from a sibling - unless they're identical, it just rejects," Crow said. "The only time you can use someone's skin and not have to remove it later is if it's an identical twin."

The question was a mystery even to the Millers. The twins' shy demeanors, their subtle smirks, their same inclination to the outdoors - everything about them was so similar that even extended family members couldn't tell them apart.

Leah had all nine of her children at home with the help of a midwife, though, so the thought of them being identical was one she'd only pondered before.

"I always said I feel they are (identical), because in nature they're so the same," Leah said.

The Millers knew Crow's intention before he could mention it. The next morning, Wayne asked him about the possibility of using John's skin to graft Jerry.

"I've been up the past couple of nights thinking about this," Crow told the family.

The twins took a blood test, and after two weeks, the results were in to explain the similarities and give doctors a new hope in saving Jerry's life: He and John were identical.

"I never knew they were identical until this," Leah said. "To me, that was the Lord saying yes."

John had never stepped foot in a hospital, but he showed no qualms at the prospect of it all.

When asked if he would donate his skin, Leah said John replied with a simple, "I don't care."

"That's kind of always the attitude he had," Leah said.

Despite consent from the family, and even from John himself, the hospital was weary of ethical concerns involved with helping one child at the cost of another.

Crow met with the hospital's ethics committee to weigh the risks facing John if he went through with the graft - and the risks facing Jerry if he didn't.

The committee met with the Millers and then John separately to assure the 11-year-old knew what he was getting himself into, including the pain of surgery, risk of infection and scarring.

Crow even met with Amish elders to weigh the effect of John's decision when he faced his community.

"That gift to be able to help someone in the family is highly regarded in the Amish community," Crow said.

With approval from all sides after a month's time, Crow was ready to move forward with the surgery.

Jerry's stay in the hospital was often arduous.

He endured hours every day of stretching out the new skin that tightened around his limbs and massages that made him wince to the touch. He struggled to maintain regular body temperature, and he was confined to a wheelchair until he regained mobility in his limbs.

"For the first five months, his life was pain," Leah said.

But without John, those pains would never turn to progress.

"He might not have survived, and he would've been in the hospital at least two to three more months and needed five to ten more surgeries if we didn't use John's skin," Crow said. "I mean, it was huge."

All in all, Jerry received 16 major surgeries. John donated his skin not once, but twice, providing enough to nearly graft Jerry's entire body.

"They volunteered to do it a second time, which I think really leaped Jerry to recovery," Crow said.

Jerry was released from the hospital in early December, but his journey to healing is far from over.

For 23 hours a day at least for the next year, Jerry will have to wear full-body compression garments to minimize scarring. Most of his days will be consumed by physical and occupational therapy sessions filled with stretching and massages to loosen the skin, and Crow said he'll need careful follow-up for many years.

But bits of lifesaving luck cut through the series of misfortunes for the family.

"Of all we've been through, there's so many things to be thankful for. A lot of things," said Leah.

For one, Crow said, the two areas preserved on Jerry's body - his hands and face - are the areas burn patients struggle with the most during recovery. Jerry has already made a lot of progress toward recovery, too, as he was up and walking the first week he was home.

"He floats all over the place at home," Wayne said.

He's not alone, either. The Millers held a meeting in their home earlier in the month to schedule times for people in the Amish community to come over and assist in taking care of Jerry.

Nearly 150 community members showed up to help.

"You couldn't have asked for a better family or a better community," Crow said. "I think his prognosis because of them is extremely good."

And then there's John.

The twins spent their entire being sharing toys, sharing hobbies, sharing looks.

Now, for once in their lives, they'll assume separate identities by the traces of their scars: For Jerry, a survivor who beat the odds.

For John, a hero who saved his twin.

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