T.J. SIMERS

Marine veteran keeps a smile on his face, which is a medical miracle

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"I believe it was through the grace of God it was not my time," he says. "I was spared, but I don't know why…"

He's stays at Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio for two years, doctors removing patches of good skin from head, forehead, chest and feet to graft to damaged areas.

"My face looks like a quilt," he says, "patches here and there."

He spends much of the time doped, but he hears the screams of other burn patients who are taking showers.

He doesn't feel such pain, the burns so deep he figures his nerves are shot. But he recalls a nurse mistakenly pulling a sheet stuck to his rump and an open wound.

"Pain like I've never known," he says.

In time he allows his hand to be amputated. He says the only pain he feels now is phantom pain where he had a right hand.

While in San Antonio he sometimes awakens from sedation in the middle of the night asking for his wife, Vanette. She's living in a hotel across the street, and she's there in minutes.

"She's a gift," he says of his wife. "I can't do it without her."

"He's the one who gave me the strength to go," she says.

I do not want to start an argument.

His wife takes control while he's in the hospital, allowing no mirrors in his room until he is prepared for what he will see.

"The first time my 4-year-old boy looked at me he hid behind my wife. He said, 'That's not my daddy.'

"But my older boy knew it was me because he saw the tattoo of my wife's name across my chest."

He survives, he says, because his room is flooded with the love of family. But he grows weary of surgeries. He dreams of his cousin taking his place so he might catch a break.

"I felt guilty later," he says. "I apologized to God for putting someone in a place where I was supposed to be."

When he returns to Fontana he's still without a nose. He's fine with it until his children notice people staring in the mall. His son cries.

When he hears about "Operation Mend" and a miracle worker in UCLA's Dr. Timothy Miller he knows what he will do.

Dr. Miller and the UCLA medical system are committed to giving faces back to those who have served their country. He tells Sanchez he can fill the hole in the middle of Sanchez's face with a nose.

"I didn't care if people stared," his wife says. "When you get married and love somebody it's in sickness or in health."

But Sanchez agrees to another round of surgeries for his kids. A nose is harvested from the skin on his forehead, cartilage taken from his rib and ear to hold his nose in place. He says now he can smell a UCLA victory.

He's not sure what he's going to do now. He's been staying home with the kids, but his wife was just laid off. Things aren't easy, but how could they get any worse?

"I met a man at a gas station, and he tells me his wife has brain cancer. He starts crying, but he's happier after we talk. He says it was meant that we met.

"Maybe that's my purpose for being here. I don't know, I just figure no matter what happens to us there is a way of making the positive out of the negative."

The football game continues, meanwhile, no surprise at all if we hear later someone talking about the courage it took to hang in there with the game on the line.

t.j.simers@latimes.com
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