Location: Magadam, Siberia, Russia
Date: September 17, 1990
In a remote part of Siberia lies the seaport of Magadam, home to the Avdeyenko family. On the afternoon of September 17, 1990, eight-year-old Anton Avdeyenko and his best friend, Maxim Buldakov, decided to make a fire to toast bread and potatoes. Anton found some matches he'd hidden in his apartment building, then he and Maxim headed next door to a construction site to gather wood. There they found large barrels of liquid that smelled like oil or shellac. "This liquid will burn really well," said Maxim, as they tipped a barrel to fill a small can. The fluid poured out hard and fast--onto Anton's clothes. Maxim told him to go change, but Anton was afraid his mother would get mad at him.
The children were sitting around their fire when a piece of burning paper flew up and landed on Anton's leg. Instantly, he erupted into flames. Anton started running wildly. Anna Avdeyenko was in her kitchen when she heard screaming outside and rushed to her balcony. "I saw a burning torch," recalls Anna, "but I couldn't see a face because of the fire. Then I saw a red cap and figured out it was Anton." The driver of a passing water truck stopped and poured water on Anton to extinguish the fire. In tears, Anna carried her son upstairs and cut off his clothes, but his polyester pants had melted onto his skin. He was a horrifying sight.
"It's impossible to say how a mother feels when she's losing her child right in front of her eyes," says Anna. "My heart broke into littles pieces and couldn't be put back together again." A passing truck drove Anton and his devastated parents to the hospital. "I wish I could have put myself in his place," says Anton's father, Vladimir, "and do the suffering for him."
Doctors at the Magadan Regional Hospital rushed Anton into the first-aid room where they removed dead tissue, disinfected his wounds, and eased his pain. Since most burn victims die of infection, Anton was isolated, even from his parents. Despite doctors' best efforts, Anton deteriorated. He had received burns over 33 percent of his body--it was crucial that he be treated at a burn unit. But there was no vehicle in which the critically injured Anton could safely ride four thousand miles to the nearest burn unit.
Vladimir was determined to find help. He approached Larry Rockhill, an American foreign exchange teacher in Magadan. Rockhill contacted Dr. Ted Mala, Director of the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, in Anchorage, Alaska. Dr. Mala agreed to try to cut through red tape for official government permission for Anton to be treated in the United States. If he succeeded, it would be the first time anyone was permitted to leave what was then the Soviet Union to receive medical treatment.
Another contact in Juneau, Alaska, Betty Johnson, made hundreds of phone calls over a three-day period to secure the Shriners Burn Institute in Galveston, Texas, to provide treatment: Rocky Mountain Helicopters to provide transportation: and Anchorage's Providence Hospital medivac team to provide in-flight medical care--all for free. Dr. Mala received the U.S. and U.S.S.R. governments' permission for Anna and Anton's journey. Flight nurse Marilyn Belanger says of the historic trip, "When we were flying over, we didn't think of Americans and Russians. All we thought of was a patient and a life."
Surgeon Paul Waymack of the Shriners Burn Institute recalls that Anton had one of the deepest burns he'd ever seen. In Russia, the wounds had become extensively infected with bacteria, and now reached down to muscle and bone. Anton was administered massive doses of antibiotics, and, because too much of his own skin was burned, wounds were surgically treated with cadaver skin.
Anton began to improve, and it soon became apparent that he would pull through. "The happiest moment," recalls Anton, "was that I got back up on my feet, and that I came out alive. The doctors who treated me in Texas were the best of all."
After three weeks in the United States, Anton returned home to Magadan and to a joyous family reunion. "Now I feel very well," says Anton, "I want to thank all of the people who helped me fly to America. And I learned that matches are a bad joke. I don't think I will be playing with fire again."