Two weeks ago, 18-year-old Abbey Alexander was riding with a friend on a motorbike as they headed to work at a school in Cambodia when a gas explosion at a filling station threw them onto the road.
Now, the Firestone teen is burned on a third of her body, breathing through a ventilator and eating through a feeding tube at the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center in Aurora. She remains feisty and determined, her parents and doctors said Thursday during an update on her condition.
“She’s very strong and very stubborn and that has served her well in this kind of recovery,” her mom, Erin Alexander, said. “She’s a very loving person, very outgoing, and I think that will help her.”
The explosion made headlines in Colorado and Cambodia, where Abbey had lived for seven months to work as a Kindergarten and preschool teacher at IQ International in Siem Reap. Her parents, brother and fiance also lived there.
The explosion killed one person. Alexander, her friend and 10 others were injured.
Abbey’s brother saw the explosion and heard his sister screaming, “Someone call my mom. Call my mom,” Erin Alexander said. Abbey told her parents she also got hit by a car during the commotion.
Her brother called their parents to tell them there had been an explosion and to meet him at a clinic. The journey there was “intense,” and the roads were gridlocked, Aaron Alexander, Abbey’s father, said.
Abbey’s parents were scared.
When they saw their daughter at the clinic, she seemed to be herself, despite the burns. Her mother said she was using Snapchat to send photos, and her father, Aaron Alexander, said his daughter had posted something to the effect of, “it sucks to get blown up,” on a website.
“When we first saw her, we thought it must not be that bad,” Erin Alexander said. But Abbey had to be transferred to a hospital where she was placed on a ventilator. They then realized how bad the injuries were.
Abbey’s face, arms, legs, feet, hips and back were covered in second- and third-degree burns.
And the parents could not comfort their daughter. Because of the risk of infection, their daughter was kept isolated and they could only see her through a glass panel.
Doctors kept her in stable enough condition for her next move.
Last week, Abbey was flown to the Aurora hospital’s burn center, one of the top in the nation, after days of coordination with U.S. State Department officials. The family also has returned to Colorado and is staying with friends in Firestone.
“I was just very grateful Abbey came here,” Dr. Anne Wagner, medical director of the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center, said. “Our hope would be once she’s done with all this is she can go back to do anything and everything she did before.”
Since arriving in Colorado, Abbey has had multiple surgeries, a skin graft and spray-on stem cells to help her recover, Wagner said. She will have additional skin grafts and is expected to be moved off the ventilator Thursday. The hospital stay could last 60 days.
Still, it takes burn patients one to three years to get back to what Wagner called their baseline. People who are natural fighters and those who have strong family support recover faster, and Abbey has both, Wagner said.
“She’s a fighter,” Wagner said. “It’s really interesting to see. She’s very purposeful.”
Although the family does not know what the long-term future holds, including whether they will return to Cambodia, Erin Alexander knows what she looks forward to soon — hearing her daughter’s voice again.
“She never stops talking,” she said.