Nearly eight months ago, then 4-month-old Domingo Abarzua was rescued by his mother from their burning house near Youngstown.
The baby was burned over a third of his body. The majority of his burns were on his face, but also the front part of his torso and arms and legs.
Some of the burns were fourth-degree burns, which are the worst and usually means exposed bone, said Dr. Richard Lou, a reconstructive burn surgeon at Akron Children’s Hospital. Lee has cared for Domingo and with a team performed nine major surgeries on the boy.
Other parts of Domingo’s body sustained third-degree burns, which are also serious, Lou said.
“He’s lucky to even be alive at this point. Most people in house fires this young typically don’t make it to the hospital,” Lou said.
Domingo, who will turn 1 on July 18, is scheduled to be discharged from the hospital on Monday.
The family has found a rental house in Akron to restart their lives since they lost everything in the house fire and want to be near the hospital that’s caring for Domingo.
But there’s a long road ahead.
Domingo first underwent multiple surgeries to remove the burned tissue. He also had several fingers and toes amputated.
Cadaver skin initially was used and later replaced with skin grafts of his own skin.
After spending time in the intensive care unit, he spent months on a rehabilitation floor, gaining strength and receiving therapies.
Domingo was on a ventilator and has a tracheostomy in his neck to help him breathe. He also still feeds through a G-tube, so will need to learn how to eat.
He also underwent reconstructive surgery to loosen some of the scar tissue, particularly on his eyelids.
Domingo’s early scars prevented him from opening and closing his eyes which then resulted in his developing vision issues.
He also has undergone laser therapy surgeries to soften the scars or improve the texture and pliability of the skin.
“Burn scars are really really tough and can scar severely and distort facial features,” said Lou.
As he grows, his bone structure will grow as a normal child but he will need more surgeries to release the scars to free up the tension on his skin, Lou said.
But even after childhood, Domingo will always have scars and medical needs.
“Ultimately, everybody who has been involved in his care has done a remarkable job in really helping this child who at the beginning I was questioning whether this kid would live,” Lou said.
Nearly fatal fire
Domingo’s mother, Maricela Daza, questioned whether her baby boy would live after she pulled him out of a fire in November in Struthers, southeast of Youngstown.
Maricela and her husband of five years, Orlando Abarzua, had been living in Struthers for about three years after moving from New York for a better life in Ohio. The couple met when Orlando, a U.S. citizen, went on vacation to Chile and fell in love with Maricela.
“Obviously, everything changed when this incident happened,” said Maricela, through hospital interpreter Silvia Edwards. Maricela also is the mother of three boys ages 6 to 15, who live in Chile with their father. She had plans to bring the boys to Ohio, but that has been delayed because of the fire.
The day of the fire, Maricela and Domingo were going to leave the house to run an errand, so she left the sleeping baby in a carrier in the kitchen while she brushed snow off the front steps. Her husband was at work at the time.
An Ohio Edison employee working nearby told Maricela that there was smoke coming from the roof of the house.
“I don’t remember much,” Maricela said. “All I know is I ran inside because I knew exactly where Domingo was.”
Maricela had to get through a door to the kitchen once inside. She could see smoke near Domingo.
As soon as she pushed through the door and grabbed Domingo, she was unable to go out that same door.
“When I grabbed Domingo it’s as though he stopped crying, but I felt dizzy or lightheaded because there was a lot of smoke at that time.”
She went through another door leading to the basement to get to another door to the outside.
Once outside, Domingo was no longer crying. She began to scream “Domingo! Domingo!”
“I was asking God to please make Domingo answer or move. At that moment, I remember Domingo taking a deep breath and he started crying again. I laid him carefully on the grass and the first thing I did was start to remove his clothing because it was very hot and almost sticking to me on my body.”
Firefighters and an ambulance arrived right after mother and baby emerged from the house.
Maricela said she had some burns on her chest, hands and face from grabbing Domingo and holding him and her hair was singed.
After the firefighters arrived on the scene, Maricela said she was hysterically crying and had a hard time speaking English with the paramedics. A neighbor told them she was Domingo’s mother.
Maricela said she was forced out of the ambulance and a police officer did not let her re-enter the ambulance as paramedics were working on Domingo.
The crews eventually rushed Domingo to a nearby hospital, leaving Maricela behind.
A helpful neighbor took her to the hospital.
At Mercy Health-St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown, a Spanish-speaking paramedic told Maricela that Domingo was “very very sick.”
“It was at that point I was aware that basically Domingo was close to death and it was a matter of life or death,” she said.
When Maricela saw Domingo, she realized he was actually burned.
“I kind of surrendered to whatever it was that was going to happen,” she said. “If he dies, I was trying to prepare myself for that and to accept he would die from this. But I never lost my faith and I grabbed ahold of all my beliefs in God and faith and knowing that he would live. He would make it through.”
A helicopter arrived from Children’s to take Domingo to the burn unit.
Once at Children’s, doctors said the first 24 to 48 hours would be critical.
Domingo made it through the first weekend and has had a major surgery almost once a week, Maricela said.
“It has been a very long road for us the past eight months,” said Maricela. “We are happy because he’s alive. We are happy because in the process, we have met a lot of wonderful, humane people. We are in an excellent hospital. We have encountered a lot of wonderful nurses and Cassie here has almost adopted us or we have adopted her,” Maricela said, referring to Cassie Harhager, a hospital social worker who has been helping the family get on their feet.
The couple have been working hard to try to raise funds to rebuild their life.
The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical issue. The couple said there were no working smoke detectors in the home they were renting.
Maricela said she wanted to stress that people learn from their hardship and make sure there are working smoke detectors in the house.
Domingo’s hefty bills for his medical care will be handled by Medicaid and other programs. Orlando was able to get a cleaning job at the hospital and the family has been staying at the Ronald McDonald House nearby while Domingo has been in the hospital.
Maricela was making homemade chili and empanadas and selling them through her church in Campbell, Santa Rosa de Lima Catholic Church, and also locally at St. Bernard’s, but the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the sales.
Maricela has been selling masks, which she learned to make at the hospital using a borrowed sewing machine.
“We are really starting from zero,” she said.
Harhager, the social worker, said the couple was not asking for anything, but “they not only brought a sick child to the hospital, they brought a sick child to the hospital and lost everything.”
His nickname is Supermingo, she said.
Domingo and his family have captured the hearts of his caretakers at the hospital. Many have bought T-shirts that say “#FuerzaDomingo,” meaning Domingo strong, to help the family raise funds.
A GoFundMe has also been established to help the family with everyday costs and care for Domingo: www.gofundme.com/f/help-domingo-fight
Maricela and Orlando said they are grateful for the outpouring of support from the hospital community.
“As a mom, what I’ve been doing and trying to do is opening doors for Domingo,” she said as she recently held Domingo in a courtyard outside the hospital. It was the first time since arriving at the hospital that Domingo had been outside. “We are trying to foresee all of the things Domingo will need and give him the best life possible.
“I want to teach Domingo that anything he sets his mind to, he can do. We’re going to treat him as a normal child. We’re not going to hide him. We’re going to try to empower him in everything he wants to do and support him in everything he wants to do and let him be normal in his own way.”