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Amid 3rd- and 2nd-degree burns, missionary family trusts God

CLEBURNE, Texas (BP)–“Knock, knock!”
“Who’s there?”
“Beezer who?”
“Beezer black and yellow.”
Ryan Parham smiles and moves on to another “knock-knock” joke. He’s gotten several in a get-well card sent to him by a girl he doesn’t know or has ever heard of but who is praying for his recovery.
Moments before he smilingly read the card — one of hundreds he has received — tears streaked his cheeks as his parents and therapists at the Sprague Rehabilitation Center at Parkland Hospital in Dallas stretched his arms above his head so braces could be fitted to hold them in an upright, over-his-head position.
The braces will help stretch the scars on 8-year-old Ryan’s back. He can wear them during the afternoon or evening while studying or watching television. Stretching the scars is part of a therapy process that will increase the flexibility of his arms. Soon he will be fitted with a garment that will cover the scars and minimize their thickening.
Ryan and his father, Terry, are recovering from burns they received Aug. 1 at their home in Zaria in northwest Nigeria, where Terry and his wife, Joanna, missionaries with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board for the last 11 years, live with Ryan and his brothers Kyle, 13, and Cameron, 11, and sister Rebecca, 6.
Aug. 1 was a Saturday, and they were expecting company from Ibadan who were to take a Hausa-language primer Terry had been developing back for publication.
Terry was preparing the grill. The children were in the area, but Ryan was the nearest. Cameron called to him to look at some ant eggs he had found. As Ryan turned to look at the eggs, he turned his back to the grill — an act that probably saved his life — and in that same instant the fuel on the charcoal in the grill and the fumes in the air nearby ignited. Ryan’s tank-top shirt was instantly on fire.
The frightened boy began to run, with Terry frantically trying to stop him, but it took a few precious moments to catch him. When he did, Terry beat out the flames with his hands, seriously burning them in the process.
Joanna at first took them to an outdoor faucet and poured water over their burns and then moved them to the bathtub inside. Ryan was crying and afraid he would die, she said.
“Everyone [was] in a panic of how to help them,” Joanna wrote later in her daily journal. “The dread of traveling to Jos overwhelmed us. We had no idea how serious it was.”
The nearest hospital in Jos was four and a half hours by automobile from Zaria, and fuel is in short supply. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest producers of oil, but the local fuel supply is tightly controlled and scarce.
Nevertheless, a teacher/nurse who had come to the Parhams from Eku to assist Joanna in finishing the year of home schooling for the children advised them they had to go to Jos for treatment. Within an hour, they were on their way, with the nurse, Kyle, Cameron and Rebecca in the cab and Joanna, Ryan and Terry in the back of a truck.
Ryan was crying and in shock. Joanna tried to soothe his and Terry’s pain with cold water. Most of the way over the bumpy road, Terry kept his hands immersed in ice water — as long as the ice lasted. It was 10 at night before he or Ryan received anything for their pain and another 11 hours before anything other than cold water was applied to the burns.
Terry’s burns were largely second-degree and extremely painful. Ryan’s were mostly third-degree, covering all of his back from his waist to his shoulders and on the back of his left leg — burns over 36 percent of his body. The third-degree burns had destroyed nerve endings, and he apparently was not in as much pain as Terry, but he was in shock and in danger of kidney failure.
There were “endless bumps” along the way, Joanna wrote in her journal. “I saw the intenseness of the moment; no one said a word, all faces forward … .”
Yet, she wrote, “I was totally overwhelmed with peace. While I kept pouring water over them, I felt God’s grip on us. It made me just keep praising God, singing every praise song I knew, quoting every Scripture I had ever memorized.
“And Ryan just fell asleep. I thanked God more. Terry was in unbearable misery, groaning. It was such a long, long way to Jos.”
The Parhams knew Terry and Ryan had to get to the United States for treatment, but with the fuel crisis, they had difficulty going from Jos to Lagos to the airport. They were delayed for two days but found later that Ryan needed the time to stabilize. And during the time another missionary couple drove back to Zaria to get their passports.
Finally, in “the old yellow mission van,” they drove more than 11 hours to Lagos, stopping only to change IVs and for shots administered by the nurse, Cassie, who accompanied them. “God had included her in his plan,” Joanna said.
In Lagos, they found the local missionaries had turned the mission guest house into an emergency medical center. Don Myers, a physician, was there. Myers had received special burn training at Parkland and was able to treat the burns. Ryan was scrubbed and treated with Silvadene. Myers accompanied Terry and Ryan on the 27-hour flight to Dallas.
Ryan — his seared back exposed to the elements — miraculously survived the first days without a life-threatening infection.
“On a burn unit, they will tell you that it is critical that burn victims are kept in a sterile environment for risk of infection,” Joanna said. “Ryan lay naked and exposed to the public germs of three continents, not to mention the bush stops along African roads with crowds pushing to look in the rolled-down windows of a mission van.
“That is not sterile. That is a medical person’s worst nightmare.
“But that is the place, the very place, if you read through the Bible, where the best-loved Bible stories take place. God loves to rescue his people.”
In Dallas, other miracles began to happen. The Parhams had been on furlough in 1996 and had lived in the missionary residence of First Baptist Church, Cleburne. The Cleburne church immediately surrounded them with love. Ryan never was left alone in the weeks he was hospitalized. If a family member was not available, a member of the church was there with him.
When it came time to leave the hospital, the same residence beside the church where the Parhams had stayed for a year and which they thought had been reserved for other missionaries until the year 2000 was available.
It gave a measure of stability to the children, whose lives have been altered so abruptly. Joanna and Terry praised the Cleburne Community Christian School for making a place for the children and permitting Ryan to attend on an altered schedule necessary for his therapy.
Terry’s burns largely were to the top of his hands, particularly the right one, on which he wears a pressure-applying glove to minimize the thickening of the scars.
Ryan has had skin grafts from his legs to cover the burned area of his back. He will require active physical therapy for at least a year and semiannual or annual evaluations thereafter to ensure the scars are growing with him and not causing scoliosis or growth defects. More surgical procedures and skin grafts are likely.
Although they escaped the effects of the fire, the other children have suffered the emotional pain of seeing their father and brother injured and their lives interrupted. The older ones fear they might not be able to return to Nigeria, which is home to them, their parents said. They also are in an unfamiliar school situation after being home-schooled by their mother.
Terry may be suffering the most, however, trying to shoulder the blame for the fire, Joanna said.
“He is hurting more inside than Ryan is on the outside,” she said.
They expressed gratitude for the great outpouring of cards, calls, gifts and prayers on their behalf, for the generosity of the church and to the Cleburne Community Christian School for the financial aid that permits all four children to attend.
In spite of the pain — physical and emotional — that all of them have endured, “God has been glorified and will be glorified again,” Joanna wrote in her journal.
Her prayer request, she said, “Is only one, but it encompasses all — that God’s will be completed in every one of the many lives touched by this incident. We are praying for revival and spiritual awakening.”
She has two favorite verses of Scripture that have sustained her through the ordeal, the first is Isaiah 8:18: “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols from the Lord Almighty who dwells in Mount Zion.”
The other is Hebrews 12:2: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.”

    About the Author

  • Toby Druin