Connor McKemey's hospital room is plastered with photographs of smiling friends and family. And there are pictures of Connor before the accident in which he suffered extensive third-degree burns. The face of the 14-year-old -- who was once given a one in three chance of survival -- looks much like the face in the photographs.
His healing face, still moderately swollen after being burned, then grafted with his own skin, is uniform and flesh-tone in color. There's a patch on his forehead where a skin graft did not take, which now looks like a minor abrasion. The top of his head is covered with thick chocolate brown hair, standing straight up. It extends almost to his ears, which are scabbed around the edges, still healing.
All Connor's features are there -- his wide eyes, a perfectly shaped nose, rose colored lips and gleaming white teeth beneath silver braces. But the one thing missing is Connor's smile.
"He understands the magnitude of his injuries," his mother, Karin McKemey, said. "He asks, 'Will I ever be able to do sports again?'"
It's not a question she or his doctors can answer. Although Connor has overcome huge odds -- he has survived severe burns without developing deadly complications, such as organ failure or infection -- he still has to endure more surgery and rehabilitation before he is fully recovered.
The McKemeys are trying to keep life as normal as possible for Connor's brothers, Tripp, 15, and Quinn, 12. The family has endured long separations. During the week, the boys' father, George McKemey, stays in their Tega Cay home with Tripp and Quinn. Meanwhile, Karin McKemey stays in Augusta, Ga., where Connor is hospitalized at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital. On weekends, she comes home to stay with the boys, and George goes to the burn center to be with Connor.
Karin McKemey said the boys are close, and they long for the day when Connor will be home. Frequent inquiries about Connor from friends are hard on Tripp and Quinn.
Right now, she said, there are no answers about what happened the night of the accident, and no one knows what the outcome will be.
Karin said the December accident still is too painful for her to discuss, and she has not tried to talk about it with Connor. He was burned just days before Christmas when a wood-burning outdoor fireplace erupted at the family's home.
Connor was outside alone behind the house while Karin, 40, was inside with Tripp and Quinn. She ran outside when the fire erupted and was burned trying to extinguish the flames on Connor.
She suffered second-degree burns on her face and second- and third-degree burns on her hands. As the event unfolded, George McKemey was en route home, on leave from active duty in Iraq.
No indication of the cause of the fire eruption was found, said Tega Cay Fire Chief Scott Szysmanski, who said it has been ruled an accident.
Connor is in serious condition in the intensive care unit, where he was flown immediately after the accident, spokeswoman Olena Scarboro said.
Because of the severity of his burns -- which covered 87 percent of his body -- doctors kept Connor in a drug-induced coma for more than two months. Third-degree burns cause excruciating pain, and a patient must be still. Only three weeks ago, Karin heard Connor speak for the first time since his accident, when he was taken off a breathing machine.
The drugs used to keep Connor in a coma controlled his pain and made it impossible for him to move. During that time, he underwent dozens of surgeries to cut away burned skin and cover exposed areas with skin grafts.
Before the accident, Connor was an avid sportsman, playing lacrosse, football and baseball. Now, his muscles are severely weakened from nearly three months of immobility, his mother said. Swelling from the burn injury and new skin grafts has created a band-like effect on his limbs and torso, making most movement difficult and painful, she said.
"He will have to learn how to walk again," she said.
Little things, such as sitting up, are difficult for Connor, Karin said. And sitting or standing makes him light-headed and nauseous because he has been bedridden for so long, she said.
"He gets determined," she said. "But then, he gets frustrated if he can't do it."
When asked how he felt during a visit Monday, Connor responded optimistically from his hospital bed: "eeling good."
Connor made a thumbs-up with his right hand when asked to do so by his mother, who was dressed in a gown, gloves, mask, hat and shoe covers. The sterile coverings are necessary for hospital visitors to protect Connor from getting an infection in the wounds on his lower legs and feet, which are not healed yet.
The skin on his right hand and arm is intact, with scattered reddened areas. The rest of his body was covered with a sheet, and Connor barely moved his other limbs, neck or head.
Because Connor was burned over so much of his body, doctors only had enough of his own skin to use for the grafts on his face. By using his own skin, they hoped for a close match of skin color and an even tone. Other parts of his body were grafted with skin produced in a lab, which was grown from skin samples taken from unburned areas on his body.
On a nearby bedside table was the clear face mask that Connor eventually will wear for 23 hours a day to minimize swelling and scarring of his face. Connor said he now is wearing the mask for about five hours a day. He said its design keeps it from being too uncomfortable.
"It's molded really well," he said.
Last weekend at the hospital, Connor celebrated his 14th birthday surrounded by family and a few of his closest school friends.
"It was exciting," he said. "I don't get to see them a lot."
Connor said he missed his other friends and wanted to tell everyone, "Hey."
Karin said Connor's typical day is filled with treatment to prepare him to leave the burn center. He has recovered more quickly than his doctors had anticipated, she said.
"The original plan was six to eight months," she said.
Connor has a small area on his right foot that needs to be grafted with skin. Once the graft takes and the area is covered by skin, his risk of acquiring an infection decreases, his mother said.
In about three weeks, Connor is expected to leave the burn center to begin months of rehabilitation. His parents have not decided where Connor will go for rehab. They are considering the Shriners Hospital in Boston and Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, Karin said.
To ready him for rehab, physical therapists work with Connor daily to strengthen his muscles and increase his range of motion. The therapists also get him out of bed to sit in a chair for several hours each day.
After sitting in a chair for a few hours, Connor said he would be helped back to bed so his nurse could remove the bandages around his lower legs and feet. Those areas were most severely burned and were the last to be grafted with skin, just a few weeks ago. Leaving the bandages off for about six hours helps the areas dry, he said.
After his nurse unwrapped his legs, Connor said he was looking forward to enjoying, "a Subway turkey sandwich." For a couple weeks, he has had an appetite for cheeseburgers from Sonic and cinnamon rolls from Breadsmith of Fort Mill.
Since the accident, the McKemey family has received an outpouring of support from people around the world. Fundraisers and blood drives honoring Connor have been held, and a trust fund was established to help the family with medical expenses. Karin said the family has been touched by the support.
She said many other families of burn victims at the center need financial help. In order to benefit all burn victims, the McKemeys are considering using the money raised for Connor to bring new technology to the burn center.