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Shriners a godsend to girl suffering from rare ailment

It looked like the little girl had been singed by flames, family members said. Blisters covered her 11-year-old body inside and out, so that even water burned her swollen throat and bed sheets scraped like sandpaper against her tender skin.

But Jessica Thigpen hadn't been near so much as a candle in the days before her skin exploded with the blisters. The Tampa girl had instead come down with a rare allergic condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a skin disorder that, if left untreated, can spread to internal organs and leave the body susceptible to infection and, in some cases, is fatal.

Doctors and family members don't think that's going to happen to Jessica, though, thanks in part to the Shriner's Hospitals for Children. The organization arranged for a $6,000 charter flight for the girl to the Shriner's Burn Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, early Thursday after learning about Jessica from a relative.

"I put in a call, and within an hour they had the whole thing worked out," said Plant City resident Tami Blackburn, a cousin of Jessica's. "She's on the road to recovery now thanks to them."

Doctors first thought Jessica had chicken pox when red discolorations began appearing over her skin two weeks ago. But after the spots turned into blisters a day later, Jessica was taken to Tampa General Hospital and her condition was diagnosed.

Her condition worsened gradually in the ensuing days, prompting Blackburn to call the Shriners.

After arriving at the hospital in Cincinnati about 2:20 a.m. Thursday, Jessica, a sixth-grader at Dowdell Middle School in Clair Mel, was immediately placed into a sterile bath, a critical step in the treatment of her condition, experts say.

St. Petersburg dermatologist Christopher Nelson said Stevens-Johnson syndrome is essentially an attempt by the body to reject something it is allergic to, usually a medication. The body is in such a hurry to get the foreign agent out that it tries to throw off the outer layers of skin, Nelson said. No one knows what caused Jessica's allergic reaction.

Without the skin, the first layer of the immune system, victims of Stevens-Johnson are extremely vulnerable to disease. The syndrome itself is not fatal, but it can make the body easy prey for other diseases.

"The ones who can die are the ones who develop complications," said C. Wayne Cruse, medical director of the Tampa Bay Regional Burn Center. Cruse estimates about a half-dozen cases of Stevens-Johnson are seen in Tampa each year.

Jessica was listed in serious conditionThursday at the Shriner's Burn Institute, but Nelson said victims of Stevens-Johnson who are treated within two weeks of developing the condition usually make a complete recovery with no scarring. Jessica was already showing dramatic signs of improvement Thursday afternoon, sitting up and drinking Gatorade on her own. Before leaving Florida, she could only muster the energy to cry in pain from the blisters and sores that covered more than 40 percent of her body, Blackburn said.

The Shriners will continue to pick up the bill for Jessica's treatment and therapy, said Bob Elkin, chairman of the Egypt Shrine Temple in Tampa. No one could say Thursday how long Jessica would have to remain in the hospital.

For the moment, though, that question is of little importance to Jessica's mother, Rhea Wonganan, 31. Resting in her daughter's hospital room in Ohio, Wonganan spoke only of the relief she felt at knowing her child's unusual affliction was at last getting better instead of worse.

"Finally, I can sleep again," she said.