A Story of Love, Faith, and the Strength of the Human Spirit
by Nicole E. Smith
As with most burn survivors, Justina Page’s story is really two stories: memories of a brief, chaotic incident that forever changed her life, followed by a lengthy and heroic recovery.
A Tragic Night
In the early morning hours of March 7, 1999, in Houston, Texas, an explosion woke Justina. Before she realized that she was surrounded by flames, her husband, James, pushed her through a window to safety. Justina knew that her husband and her six young sons were still trapped inside. The Page family had made a fire evacuation plan together, after a visit to their local fire station, so she felt that James and her older boys would make it safely to their designated meeting place. However, she was very concerned about her youngest sons—22-month-old twins Amos and Benjamin, who she knew would not be able to escape by themselves, so Justina re-entered the burning house to find them. The inside of the house was pitch black and she couldn’t see anything other flames. Suddenly the entire house collapsed, and Justina was trapped under a large, burning bookshelf. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t move, and worse, she didn’t know if any of her sons were safe.
Somehow James was able to find Justina in the darkness and pull her to safety. Justina knew she was badly injured and could see that the skin was falling from her hands, but her thoughts were still on the safety of her sons. Soon neighbors and rescue crews began to arrive and Justina was learning, one by one, that her sons were safe. But she was not content knowing only that some of them were okay. “I want all of them,” she insisted.
The last thing Justina remembers is being loaded into an ambulance next to Benjamin, one of her twins. She knew he was terribly injured; his breathing was so heavy and rough that he sounded like an animal rather than her young son, she says.
The Struggle to Survive
Justina spent the next month in a medically induced coma. She was in critical condition and the doctors had told James, who had escaped the fire unharmed, that his wife was not expected to live.
Justina recalls being scared when she first awoke because she didn’t remember what had happened to her. She slowly realized that she was attached to many wires and that there was a tube down her throat. Her first thought was, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Slowly, Justina began to remember the fire and she says that, in her heart, she knew that one of her twins was gone. Tragically, she was right—22-month-old Amos, had died; Benjamin, his twin brother, was in critical condition. Fortunately, the older boys had sustained only minor injuries.
While Justina and Benjamin were still hospitalized, the family held a funeral for Amos, which James says was especially difficult and emotional since his wife was unable to be there.
Miraculously, Justina and Benjamin both made a complete recovery. Justina suffered third-degree burns to 55 percent of her body; doctors were concerned she would lose the use of her hands, which had sustained the most serious injury, but over time she has regained full use of both. Benjamin sustained third-degree burns to his face, neck, arms, shoulders, and throat, and although he had a tracheotomy for 2 years, he has had no problems since then.
The Power of Faith and Love
The Page home burned to the ground and the family had lost everything they owned, but Justina says that the physical loss of a home and possessions was nothing compared to the loss of their son Amos. For most people, loss of this magnitude is incomprehensible, but Justina and James exemplify the strength of the human spirit in the face of such tragedy. They credit the strength of their marriage, the love of family and friends, and their faith in God for their survival.
The couple, who have been married for 18 years, met when they were students at the University of Missouri. Both were members of the same bible study group and choir, and James tutored Justina in math. Justina says that they have always had a strong marriage, but the fire made their relationship even stronger. “The love of my husband was profound and magnified at a time of crisis,” explains Justina.
While his wife was hospitalized, James was working full time as an engineer and caring for their boys, yet he found time to visit Justina every night. Justina says that seeing her husband’s face every day made her want to live and to go on. But when she realized she was going to have scars, she worried about what James might think. She recalls one moment in particular, when she thought, “I wonder how I look to him now?” At that exact moment, he leaned over, kissed her, and said, “You are such a beautiful woman.” Through this tragedy, Justina says, “he showed me how real his love is.”
Justina also worried about how her sons would react to her changed physical appearance. She had never been away from her sons before, and she was anxious to see them but also a bit hesitant. At their first reunion, Daniel, who is autistic, turned and ran from Justina, which was devastating to her. She could also tell that her other sons were afraid. Her feelings, however, turned from devastation to pride when her eldest son said to his brothers, “This is our mother, and she has been hurt really badly. We need to go to her and hug her.” And they all did.
Justina says it was one of the proudest moments of her life, and it still touches her to this day. Today, despite the loss and trauma that the Page boys suffered, Jonathon, 15, Joseph, 14, Caleb, 12, Daniel, 10, and Benjamin, 7, are doing remarkably well.
James and Justina have an unwavering faith both in God and in mankind. Justina says that without her faith, she “could do nothing.” In regard to her recovery, she says, “The Lord smiled on me and helped me.”
The Support of a Community
Justina credits the love and support from family and friends, as well as her faith, with pushing her through a recovery that far exceeded her doctors’ expectations. Justina, however, says she is thankful that the doctors were so open and honest with her and that she and Benjamin received remarkable medical care at the Memorial Hermann Burn Center in Houston.
The Pages’ “family” extends beyond blood relations to include their church family at the Full Gospel Church of Love in Christ. James says that while Justina was hospitalized, church members “came to the rescue in our time of need.” Family and friends provided meals, transportation, and childcare.
In an act that represents a true Christian deed, their pastor gave the family the home that he had been building for him and his wife. Justina and James are thankful to Pastor Bishop A. Jones and his wife, Norma, for their “unfailing support, love and counsel.”
The family was also touched by the outpouring of love from Houston residents. The story was heavily covered by the news media, and people donated clothes, furniture. and toys. Justina says that they were given more than they had before the fire. This remarkable outpouring showed her “the kindness of strangers” and “the importance of being kind to people.”
James says that, at the time, this outpouring of support was of particular importance to him. While Justina was still in the coma, James says he was walking around “in a cocoon,” but the support from family and friends allowed him to go on from the outside, while his faith sustained him from the inside.
Today, James says he is “still growing and still learning,” but through it all he has developed a greater faith in human nature, explaining, “We’ve been especially blessed.”
A Commitment to Give Back
Today, Justina can do everything that she physically needs to do. In addition to being a full-time mom, Justina teaches a parenting program class, which includes English as a Second Language and GED training for adults. Justina is also active in the SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) program and is the SOAR assistant coordinator at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Justina says that the support she received in the hospital was “the difference between life and death,” and she wants to give back the support that she received. Justina says that through tragedy “you can see where people’s hearts really are.”
Losing Amos created a certain pain that will never go away for Justina, but she has learned to go on and she feels like a survivor. “I know where my son is,” Justina says, “and I know where I am going. It should have been all of us that died in that fire, but I have five living children and a husband that need me. I have learned that life is going to be life, and I am more thankful for everything I have today.”
Nicole E. Smith is a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a burn survivor.