Chloe’s story: The painful recovery of a Va. Beach 5-year-old after a freak accident

Posted at 11:00 PM, Apr 28, 2016

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Five-year-old Chloe Garcia loves shopping, especially for anything that is pink and lavender. If it has glitter on it, well, that's even better. Her mom Melanie Garcia describes her as an even-tempered child who rarely cried.

"She was a very mellow child, would play by herself, a happy well-rounded little girl," Melanie said.

That was before a horrible accident in October 2015. Like most families at Halloween, Chloe and her family were getting ready to display the traditional Halloween pumpkin. But something went terribly wrong. There was an explosion when they were lighting the pumpkin that burned the little preschooler on her face, neck and arm.

Read more: Man and 4-year-old girl suffer first and second degree burns after trying to light pumpkin

Chloe spent weeks in the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia.  She had 12 surgeries that included skin grafts to try and minimize her wounds and scars.  Now that she's home from the hospital, there is a lot of aftercare to tend to her wounds. Her mom has to rub scar cream on her tender face three times a day.

"This has changed her dramatically. She cries all the time," Melanie said.

While Chloe is out of the hospital and doing much better, the scarring on her face was not healing as well as doctors had hoped. They told the family the best chance for her recovery was to get a special plastic mask.

So, Chloe's family planned a trip to the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, one of only a handful of places that hand crafts facial compression masks.

The local Shriner's organization paid the transportation costs for Melanie and Chloe to go to Cincinnati. The hospital does not charge patients for their services if they can't afford to pay.

Melanie said Chloe was very anxious and nervous about getting the mask. She doesn't like her tender face touched, so the thought of convincing her to wear a tight compression mask 22 hours a day is going to be a challenge.

Physical therapist Carol Schwanholt, who helped fit Chloe with the mask, says the mask is crucial to Chloe's recovery.

"Oh, it is the only treatment to smooth out the face scars," Schwanholt said.

The mask is made by a medical sculptor. First, the medical sculptor takes a medical impression of the patients face. When the impression hardens, he scrapes off the scars and lays a piece of plastic over the mold of the child's face so it will fit tightly.

If Chloe doesn't wear the mask, the consequences are grim.

"The scars will distort her face. It can pull the eyes down. It could pull her lips down. The scars are pulling against her facial features, so the only treatment is to put pressure on to keep good alignment," says Schwanholt.

That's what Melanie is afraid of, she says, "I just  want her to be like she's normal because when we go places, people look at her."

While Chloe was waiting to get her mask, a nurse came out and gave her something very special, an American Girl doll dressed in burn garments and wearing a mask very similar to the one Chloe will wear.

Chloe gave a brief smile when she saw it and stroked the little doll's hair.  But as time passed, it was clear that she was getting nervous about what was to come.

Thirty minutes passed and Chloe, Melanie and Chloe's grandma emerged from the clinic and into the waiting room . Chloe was wearing the  plastic mask, but was not crying.  "It was definitely tough," her mom said.

Chloe surprised everyone and wanted to keep the mask on.

"When they took the mask off to adjust it, she didn't want to take it off, she wanted to wear it. She knows she's superhero Chloe and that 's what we're going to call her," Melanie said.

Most superheros have a sidekick. In this case her name is Gracie, Chloe's new doll.