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A dancer undaunted

Ballet dancer Kim Poling was severely burned in a skating accident 2 1/2 years ago, but today she is back on stage.

By CHRISTINE GRAEF

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- As an aspiring ballerina, Kim Poling dreamed for years of dancing in the The Nutcracker as Clara, the girl who falls asleep by the family Christmas tree and dreams the dance of the sugar plum fairy.

She practiced from the time she was 3, working several hours every day at a studio to achieve her ambition. But after an accident 21/2 years ago left her with severe burns on her face, arm, legs and stomach, she didn't know if she would ever dance again.

With determination and the help of volunteers who understood what she was going through, Kim has worked her way back to the stage. Last summer she auditioned for the part of Clara. Today she will dance as Clara in a Florida Gulf Coast Ballet production of The Nutcracker at the Largo Cultural Center.

Her mother, Jill Poling, said Kim's time spent at a special camp for burn victims in Central Florida helped her daughter maintain the positive attitude she needed to achieve her goal.

"She was around other kids who were burned, some worse than her," Jill Poling said of the camp, which is sponsored by the Children's Burn Foundation of Florida. "Because they share the experience, I think they could talk to each other about things that they can't talk to anyone else about."

And after spending time with children who were burned even more severely than she was, Kim said she understands how important it is for people to offer acceptance. In her case, she said it made a huge difference.

"I had so much support from so many people," Kim said.

Kim's ordeal started late on the morning of July 29, 1998. She said good-bye to her parents, who left the family's home in Palm Harbor to take her sister Kelsey to a doctor's appointment. Kim was going to bake some brownies and walk the family dog.

"When my parents left that day, I put on my Roller Blades and took our dog, Rugby, out for a long walk," Kim said. "When I came back, the door was locked so I went from neighbor to neighbor in search of a spare key."

Kim continued her search across Willowbrook Road, where she found a neighbor who had a key. Scooping up her 4-pound Yorkshire terrier, Kim began to cross the street to return home. She could smell hot black tar that had been freshly poured, but seeing no signs posted, she didn't realize it was not safe to skate across.

"I was skating at full speed when all of a sudden I found myself stuck in the burning black tar," Kim said. "I could feel my skin begin to fry and melt off. The pain was unbearable."

Kim suffered third-degree burns -- the most severe kind -- on her face, left arm, stomach and both legs. She threw Rugby to safety and tried to get out of the tar.

"I was close to the sidewalk when I fell for a second time," she said.

Kim's screaming alarmed neighbors, who called her parents on their mobile phone to tell them what happened. They rushed home, but not before a medical helicopter took off with Kim inside.

"I was driving back and had 911 on the phone begging them to wait for us," Bill Poling said. "But before I got to Alderman Road, I could see the helicopter leaving."

Kim ended up in the burn unit at Tampa General Hospital, where she was immediately soaked in mineral oil. Nurses worked for hours to remove the gritty tar.

"After hours of that, we thought we were done," Bill Poling said. "But then they took her to the debridement room."

Although morphine was given to Kim, Bill Poling said he and his wife were asked to leave the floor as staffers scraped off Kim's skin.

"They were doing that so my parents wouldn't have to listen to my cry for help," Kim said. "I was so scared. Every time they rubbed the dead skin off my body I cringed."

Kim said it was a relief when her parents came in and hugged her.

"It seemed like everything happened in five minutes," Bill Poling said. "But it didn't. The accident happened about 1 o'clock. When Jill and I left the hospital, it was 10 p.m."

Bill Poling said at first glance, the burns didn't seem so bad. He expected to bring Kim home within a few days. But when the Shriners flew Kim and Jill to a burn center in Cincinnati for a second opinion, they learned the seriousness of her injuries. The options of treatment were to do a skin graft or apply burn garments in the hope of reducing scarring.

"My greatest worry was in making the wrong decision," Bill Poling said. "I didn't want to look back and realize we didn't do something we should have done. But we decided not to do a graft at this point because Kim is still growing and grafts don't grow. We'd only have to do another graft later."

Choosing instead to wear burn garments, first a custom-fit cotton knit pulled over her arms and legs, then later a tighter nylon "skin." She wore the garments for two years, but had to stop wearing them on her legs because they cut off circulation. The garments apply pressure on the wounds and don't allow scar tissue to build up.

"Most kids didn't wear the garments," Kim said. "They hurt to put on, but I saw what a difference they made in healing."

Bill Poling said Kim's skin was so sensitive that even a change in the temperature of the air conditioning would set off pain.

During those first months, Kim traveled back and forth to Cincinnati for follow-up treatment, first every week, then every two weeks and finally only once a month. It wasn't until mid-November of 1998 that Kim's wounds scabbed over and she was no longer at risk of infection.

Kim missed only the first two days of school that fall, but she was unable to audition for The Nutcracker.

"I couldn't move my knees," she said.

Still, she was determined not to lose her dream. In April 1999, Kim began practicing at the Florida Gulf Coast Ballet studio in Palm Harbor.

"It was her passion," Jill Poling said. "These girls would do their homework on the bus so they could go to the studio and dance."

The Shriners also arranged for Kim to attend a three-day camp at Fort Wilderness at the Walt Disney World complex near Orlando with other children who were victims of burns. The camp is sponsored by the Children's Burn Foundation of Florida. Each youngster is paired with a burn buddy, usually a firefighter.

Kim has attended the camp twice, in the summer of 1999 and this past summer. There, she played kickball, picnicked and went to Disney attractions with fire educator Jeanine Glass of the Largo Fire Department. The kids and buddies slept four to a trailer at the end of the day, when they spent the time talking.

"It really helped," said Kim.

Kim said most of the burn injuries she saw on other kids were caused by playing with matches. Among her campmates were 12- and 11-year-old brothers who were burned in January 1995 when a fire one of them set with a cigarette lighter killed their father and destroyed their St. Petersburg apartment. A 13-year-old was burned after he dropped a match into a gas tank on a boat. A 12-year-old St. Petersburg girl was burned when she slipped in the kitchen, spilling a pan of bubbling grease over her neck, arms and upper torso. And an 8-year-old boy was severely scarred in a house fire that killed his mother.

Kim said the children's scars run deeper than their skin. They become introverted as people stare and make them feel different, she said. The camp provides acceptance and support.

"The thing I remember most is how wonderful everyone was to me," Kim said. "I never could have made it if my friends had not come by to cheer me up."

Now Kim hopes to return that support to other victims by becoming a burn buddy. An eighth-grader at John Hopkins Middle School, Kim has resumed plans to become a professional dancer and one day open her own dance studio. She said it's her turn to help other children get through the process of healing.

"Kids just coming in don't realize the difference it will make if they wear garments and follow all the precautions," Kim said. "I want to be able to share that."

Two years later, Kim's own scars are virtually invisible. Kim plans to return to camp this summer with about 120 other youths from Florida and Orlando who have been burned. Along with canoeing, archery, swimming and hay rides, Kim plans to share her experience with newcomers to the burn camp.

"Some people treated me better and some worse because of my scars," Kim said. "It made me feel sorry for the other burn kids who were burned worse than me. It also made me realize that scars, like the color of your hair, mean nothing. It is the person underneath that matters most."

- Staff writer Christine Graef can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or graef@sptimes.com.

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