Remarkably courageous, animated and wise far beyond his years.
Not what I expected from a 9-year-old. Certainly not from one who has been holed up for more than 60 days at Akron Children’s Hospital. He’s recovering from severe burns over 24 percent of his body, affecting his face, head, neck and chest area.
But Jayden Daniel Wallace, I learned during my visit, defies expectations in so many ways. He never complains, those close to him said.
I owe meeting him to an early morning email from an observant and curious reader.
“Every morning on my way to work, I pass Children’s Hospital via Locust Street,” Elisa Raicevich wrote. “For the past couple of months, there has been a sign in one window that says ‘Jayden is here.’ After seeing the sign day after day I realized that this child must have a pretty serious condition to have been there so long. So, I pray for Jayden every morning as I drive by.
“Do you know anything about Jayden? I’d love to know more.”
So, the challenge was on for me to shake a few trees to find Jayden.
Hospital officials ran my inquiry past Jayden’s family, who gave the green light for me to visit later that evening.
A small, bespectacled face, swathed in gauze from the top of his head to his chin, looked up from his bed, quietly announcing, “Hi, I’m Jayden.”
He was cuddling Ernie the Elephant — a small, gray stuffed animal.
“It used to be mine,” his mother, Amber Hardman, said. “Now Jayden has it to watch over him. Ernie has been with him during all of his surgeries.”
“He really helps me a lot,” Jayden said.
Asked if he was in pain, he said: “No. Not anymore. But I used to be … It really hurt when they took the staples out. And when they did the Biobrane covering.” (That is a biosynthetic skin substitute used in the management of burns.)
While it will be some time before his life truly returns to normal — lots of physical healing — strong-on-the-inside Jayden doesn’t seem to be bothered by what’s on the outside.
In that way, he reminded me so much of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, my very favorite book.
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” the author wrote. “But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand …
“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. Sometimes it hurts, but when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt … It doesn’t happen all at once. You become … Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
Even at his young age, Jayden seems to get that. So does his mother. She wishes it hadn’t happened, but she’s grown to accept the new reality.
Hardman — gowned in a sterile yellow gown like others in the room, including this columnist — talked about what landed her son in the Burn Center, what shook her and husband, Matt Hardman, and the rest of the family to their very core.
“It was Aug. 1, in the evening. Around 7:30,” Hardman began. “Jayden was outside at a friend’s house when that friend decided to build a fire with charcoal and gasoline. As he tossed gasoline on the fire, Jayden turned around.”
His upper body was immediately enveloped in flames. His screams found their way to his father’s ears as his friend rolled him on the ground to put out the blaze.
Incredibly, Amber Hardman steadied her nerves enough to drive her son to the hospital.
Jayden remembers with astonishing clarity everything that happened that day — “I closed my eyes really tight when it happened. I was screaming” — and everything since then.
He’s had seven skin grafts, with possibly another scheduled for today.
As rough as his journey has been, Jayden and his family have been comforted not only by the Burn Center’s staff but also by the kindness of friends and strangers.
He’s had four visits already from Petie the Pony (a miniature horse/pony mix from Victory Gallop), who gifted him with four Petie stuffed animals, one of which he surrendered to his little sister, Kiyleigh.
Jayden’s relationship with Petie the Pony will extend after his hospital discharge, expected in a week. Both have October birthdays: Petie’s is Oct. 13, and Jayden’s is the 18th.
“I’ve been invited out to the farm for Petie’s birthday,” said Jayden, his voice close to a whisper.
Also on Jayden’s recent list of visitors was Santa.
He knows the feeling
New friend Nick DeWalt of Uniontown — accompanied by his wife, Hallie — knows better than most Jayden’s journey, having spent 21 days in the Burn Center two years ago recovering from injuries when his boat exploded, and has been there to offer support.
The DeWalts recently hosted a golf outing fundraiser to benefit Jayden and his family.
“My community and family pulled together to help out when I was here,” DeWalt said. “I was looking for a way to give back.”
The proliferation of encouragement cards and drawings — about 300 of them — wallpapering his hospital room are a major indicator of Jayden’s popularity and a reminder of the goodness of humankind.
“He’s received cards from Tasmania, New Zealand, London and Canada and from all over the United States,” his mother said, adding that some have come from preschools, both near and far, and from Jayden’s fourth-grade class at Akron’s Mason elementary.
The cards are a result of a Facebook posting for cards and prayers for Jayden.
The staff at the neighboring Ronald McDonald House — which provides housing, meals and laundry facilities for out-of-town families whose children are patients at the hospital — posted a picture of Jayden’s window sign on its Facebook page with this message: “We’re rooting for you!”
As bad as it’s been, Jayden cited with a chuckle an unanticipated silver lining: “I don’t have to go to the grocery store.”
His family had a different answer.
“The best has been the people who work here,” his mother said.
“He’s gained a lot of new aunts and uncles, as he calls them, here,” his Nana, Debbi Weitzel of Akron, added.
The worst thing about being in the hospital — apart from the obvious — Jayden noted, is the physical therapy.
“They come at the wrong time,” he added in typical 9-year-old style.
He’ll still have physical therapy as an outpatient, but he’ll know in advance when that’s going to happen.
In addition to his own birthday celebration, Jayden is focused on Halloween. He’s already thinking about costumes.
“I have a few ideas,” he declared. “Something scary like creep clowns, a Michael Myers character, the Annoying Orange, or Fred Figglehorn [from the Fred show].”
He’s also thinking about returning to school. And Christmas, of course. At the top of his holiday wish list is an Xbox 360.
Right now, he’ll settle for going home, not being poked and prodded. And he’ll continue to be thankful to his Burn Center family, who got him to where he is.
Friends have set up a Jayden Daniel Wallace Benevolent Fund at FirstMerit Bank to help his family.
Here’s wishing him nothing but a Real happy life!
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.