Living in a place where there is no electricity, eight-year-old Floramie Gumalal’s family has to rely on gas lamps to provide them light. But the same source of light almost cost Floramie her life.

On Feb. 3, 2002, Floramie and her younger siblings were left home alone. Their parents went to town to sell bananas that morning. Getting up before sunrise to look after her siblings, Floramie sat above the sewing machine where the gas lamp was also located. Her shirt accidentally caught fire just as she stood to go to the nearby bed. Her siblings could only watch in horror as their sister writhed in pain while the fire burned into her skin. Her mind went blank as she felt the flames eat through her skin.

The young girl felt intense fear, she recalled later. Her siblings splashed water on her, neighbors came to her rescue, but the damage had been done. Floramie sustained third degree-burns. She was brought to the nearest hospital, a three-hour drive away.

The accident left Floramie’s chin stuck to her chest, while her left arm was stuck to her body from the elbow up. Her wounds, treated only with guava leaves, remained fresh even after two years because of lack of proper medication.

“Floramie changed after the accident,” Nestor Gumalal, Floramie’s father said in Tagalog.

Discrimination, inability to play and go to school, and medical debts are just some of the downsides she has had to deal with because of her physical condition. Because of all these hardships, Floramie almost stopped hoping to live a normal life.

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After she was discharged from the hospital, however, she became quiet, shy, and antisocial.

“She became a sad child,” Nestor told the Varsitarian. “After the accident, she didn’t want to go outside and play.”

Nestor felt really bad for his daughter. The physical and emotional pain was taking its toll on Floramie, but no matter how much he wanted her to get better, it seemed almost impossible. His earnings as a farmer were not enough to pay for an extensive medical operation, not to mention that he and Floramie’s mother had four more children to take care of. Nestor admitted that he had been resigned to Floramie’s disfigurement. Little did he know that things were about to change.

Last August, Dr. Oscar Tagulinao, training officer of the UST Hospital (USTH) Department of Plastic Surgery, met Floramie in a Couples for Christ (CFC) medical mission in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte. Tagulinao told Floramie’s parents that her burns were too severe and she needed to be brought to Manila for operation.

Unexpected gift

The following month, in September, a crew from GMA 7’s Kapuso Foundation providentially came to Tagulinao’s office for a documentary on plastic surgery. The crew brought a fire victim for free treatment, but Tagulinao used the opportunity to recommend Floramie, who had more serious burns. Photos of Floramie convinced the crew that she needed immediate treatment. Tagulinao asked the head of the CFC medical mission in Dapitan to forward Floramie’s address to the crew.

With the help of GMA 7, Floramie was brought from Zamboanga to USTH last Oct. 1 for surgery.

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“We were surprised,” Nestor said. “It made us so happy to learn that Floramie was going to have an operation.” His eyes were full of happiness as he recounted the memory.

The day after Floramie’s arrival in Manila, Oct. 2, was her 10th birthday.

“Jessica Soho came and gave me a cake,” Floramie said in Filipino. “They also gave me balloons, lots of it.” Though she spent her birthday in the hospital, she said that it was a nice one.

In the same month, Floramie underwent her first major operation, financed by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and several other institutions. Her story was also featured in the pilot episode of Kapuso Mo…Jessica Soho.

Floramie’s wounds were covered with skin grafts coming from her thigh and her abdomen. “We released her neck and arm contractures which resulted from burn wounds that contracted while these were healing,” Tagulinao said.

Floramie had a second operation last Nov. 18, wherein more skin was added to her neck to complete the release of the contracture. With the successful operations, Floramie can now move both her arms and head.

“I am happy,” Floramie said in a small shy voice. She could now freely play her favorite game of jackstones and a medical toy kit that was at her bedside at the UST Charity Hospital.

She still doesn’t speak much, but there is was a telltale spark in her eyes. Soon, Floramie will go back to school.

According to Tagulinao, Floramie needed only the two operations to restore the normal function of her arm and neck. But if Floramie wishes to have the burn tissue removed, she will need another series of operations.

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All in the family

Floramie’s happiness because of the successful operations is marred only by her longing to see her mother and siblings. Her father explained that Floramie cries at night, calling for her mother. But he knows that Floramie’s happiness will be complete when they go home this month, just in time for Christmas.

For now, Floramie’s family still needs to pay for the medical expenses, but she is thankful for the UST Charity Hospital and other sponsors for shouldering some of the expenses. Thanks to that meeting with CFC a few months ago, and to the events that followed, Floramie received the best Christmas gift that she will treasure for the rest of her life. Rica May M. Forto and Kathleen T. Valle with reports from Kapuso Mo…Jessica Soho

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