Erika Mendoza was only four years old as she sat in her aunt’s car with three of her cousins. Her aunt parked the car in front of the bakery for a quick errand. The four children remained in the car, doors locked, when suddenly a fire erupted from the backseat. The girls couldn’t get out. After what seemed like an eternity, Erika was the first to be pulled from the burning vehicle. Her two three-year old cousins were rescued next, and finally, the baby in the car seat in the front was pulled to safety.
Thankfully Erika’s baby cousin escaped the wreckage unscathed from the front seat. However, the three toddlers in the backseat, including Erika, were not so fortunate and were all rushed to an urgent care facility for treatment. Requiring additional care, they were transported to a hospital about 30 minutes away. Erika’s parents were told multiple times at the hospital that Erika was not going to survive her injuries. That was when her parents decided to have Erika transported to Shriners Hospitals for Children-Northern California in Sacramento via helicopter, where they were told she would receive the specialized burn care that might help her survive. Erika was burned over 40% of her tiny body and her cousin Stephanie was burned over 50% of her body. Unfortunately, Erika’s cousin Suzette did not survive the fire.
Erika spent three months in the hospital with her parents by her side the entire time. It was a challenging time for the entire family, with months in the hospital and dozens of surgeries. Erika’s family moved from Mexico to Sacramento to stay with her during her treatment and recovery. Erika’s dad, Enrique, learned English and even had to start a new profession in order to provide for his family in America.
Erika lovingly remembers being called the “Pink Panther” by the hospital staff, because she was covered head to toe in pink pressure garments, to prevent scarring and infection from her burn injuries. Despite the years of recovery from her burns and countless visits to the hospital, Erika fondly remembers the care that she received from the burn unit staff and how attentive they were to her needs.
When Erika was discharged and first entering school, the hospital staff provided a back-to-school presentation to prepare the students for Erika’s arrival and to answer any questions that they might have about burn injuries and the recovery process.
At age 5, Erika’s family learned about the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation’s Champ Camp, a summer camp for burn-injured children. Her family was willing to let Erika go to Champ Camp, but they were anxious about sending their tiny, burn-injured child away for a week. When the Champ Camp bus arrived to pick up the campers, Erika recalls a number of children crying and holding onto to their parents, but Erika hopped on the bus happily, yelling “Bye dad! Bye mom!” She was very excited and wanted to be the first to see everything.
Erika fell in love with Champ Camp her first year and wanted to go back every year. She wanted to try everything at Camp and she loved the support and motivation she received from her counselors. She loved horseback riding, swimming and meeting kids who had been burn-injured, just like her. Erika attended Champ Camp from ages 5 to 17, missing only a few years when her family moved from Sacramento to Phoenix. At age 18, Erika became a Counselor-in-Training, helping campers with activities at Camp, preparing to be a Champ Camp Counselor.
“Being a Counselor is an indescribable feeling. It is so, so special. It feels like you are meant to be here.”
Transitioning from a camper for nearly 16 years of her life to a Camp Counselor was a proud accomplishment for Erika. She says, “All of the behind the scenes hard work that is put into camp is no problem at all when you see the excited faces of the campers.”
Erika credits Champ Camp in part for helping her become the strong, loving and intelligent young woman that she is today. She received her Bachelor’s degree from The University of Arizona and a Master’s degree from Arizona State University in Family and Human Development. Erika wants to become a Child Life Specialist so she can provide children with a positive hospital experience like she had when she was hospitalized for her burn injuries. She recently joined AARBF’s Council of Advisors and hopes to assist with outreach. She wants those families and burn survivors in need to know about AARBF’s programs and services, just as she and her family had.