1. Life & Culture

Dispatches from Next Door: Burn survivor's words are the balm that soothe

TAMPA — "Joe Versaggi," he said, lightly bumping fists with the young man in the hospital bed. "Burn survivor."

Kris Ward, 20, looked at Joe as people almost always do at first. His mouth open and eyes reckoning, he studied the splotchy, pocked canvas stretched tautly across Joe's face. He saw a head on which hair can no longer grow and a pair of ears that resemble chipped seashells.

"I'm an alumnus of the floor, as you can tell," said Joe, 71, his native Long Island still present in the words. He motioned to his face. "I was in a plane accident, and I was up here for three months."

Kris had been rushed to Tampa General Hospital the night before after tossing water on a grease fire. He had expected to die but escaped with burns on his right arm and forehead. Joe mentioned grease fire videos he had seen online and guessed that even someone who watched them 100 times would still try to use water. Just human nature. Joe said this because he knows victims feel embarrassed after such accidents and Kris' spirits needed lifting.

Joe ran hands without fingertips over his arms and head, explaining that almost all his visible skin had been grafted on. Joe told Kris that he wouldn't need grafts and that the blotch of raw pink on his forehead would heal nicely. "You just got a sunburn there." Joe said this because he knew Kris didn't want to look like him.

Joe noted that at least Kris had a good story to tell his buddies. He also talked of Kris' lawn care job and suggested he wouldn't need a doctor's note. "Hey, Boss. Look at this." Joe said this because he knew Kris needed to laugh, and Kris did.

They talked a few minutes more, until a nurse came in. Joe told Kris to keep pushing and stay positive, and then he said no more, because Joe says to people only what he knows they need to hear, and that's all Kris needed.

To another burn survivor, Joe might have said that in 1967 he married a sweet brunet named Estelle because he just couldn't stand going to Vietnam without her as his wife. He survived 980 missions as a helicopter pilot and won the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing 25 of his comrades who had been trapped on a ridge. To a fellow veteran, Joe might have said that in his nightmares he still sees the mortars exploding. He might also have said what a marriage of 38 years meant to him: their two kids; his jokes that she sometimes loved and sometimes tolerated; the dance floors on which she glided and he didn't; those joy flights in their Cessna 320. To someone who had lost a loved one, Joe might have said that in July 2006, he and his wife and two friends crashed in that plane and five weeks later, when his coma had ended, he learned that Estelle had died. He might have said that nearly a year after that — following three resuscitations, intermittent blindness and two dozen surgeries — he sat at a table undergoing physical therapy and told another burn survivor that life wasn't so bad. That people with broken backs had it much worse. That the two of them were lucky. A physical therapist, her eyes welling, later told Joe he had changed the man's life.

In the hallway outside Kris' room, Joe talked of a woman in intensive care. Her burns were self-inflicted. He understood her physical pain but not the anguish in her mind. He considered how alone she must feel. Joe thought about what, when she was ready, he would say.

Contact John Woodrow Cox at or (727) 893-8472. Follow @johnwoodrowcox.