Fire survivor talks 10 years after attack

HOUSTON Colleen Middleton keeps Robert Middleton's "before photos" on the wall.

"That doesn't look nothing like me up there," said Robert.

"Yeah that's Robert," said Colleen.

Robert is now 17, and can't remember his life before burns.

"Think, how can anybody hurt him? He was so cute," said Colleen.

But Robert's life changed forever on his eigth birthday.

"Some boy tied me to a tree and poured gas on me," said Robert.

Crime scene tape showed the tree in Splendora, Texas, where little Robert was tied up, doused with gasoline and set on fire. Somehow he stumbled back toward his home.

"I thought his eyes were rolled back in his head but they were actually burned and I don't know how he made it out of that trail," said Colleen.

Dr. Art Sanford was a new surgeon at Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston.

"We got to the corner room and they said, 'Oh there's a percent burn, Robert'. I was taken back that a 99% burn would have survived even the first night," said Dr. Sanford.

He did survive. But it was horrible at first.

"He just screamed for months on end," said Colleen.

"There's a reason that God spared him, there's a reason," said Robert's grandmother, Dottie Middleton.

In the nearly 10 years since he was burned, what's been hardest for him?

"Probably surgery," he said. "I had over 200 of them."

He is having another surgery, this one to release the scar on his left hip so he can stand up straighter. Robert has a few places that he wasn't burned.

"The bottom of my feet and hands, that's it," said Robert.

A few remaining skin cells were used to grow sheets of cultured skin in a lab. Then it was grafted onto his arms and legs.

"That's from my feet, right here. It's different stuff," said Robert.

"Yeah they used the bottoms of his feet to do some of that and his back," said Colleen.

But lab-grown skin isn't the same.

"I can't feel touching but heat and cold, I can't," said Robert.

"When he gets out of the bathtub, sometimes his legs are beet red, uh oh the water was too hot," said Colleen.

And Robert, who has kept his sense of humor, likes what's left of his hair.

"I'm gonna keep it," he said.

He has no vision in one eye and scars limit his movement. He could have surgery on it, but Robert is tired of surgery.

"I like the way things are right now," said Robert.

He attends high school at Shriners in Galveston where they saved his life. Psychiatrists here are optimistic about Robert's future.

"Our goal is to rehab his body enough to go out and get a job, meet somebody, marry have children all sorts of those things. He should be a productive member of society," said Shriners' psychiatrist, Dr. Walter Meyer.

They've taught him to deal with the staring.

"It doesn't bother me. I'm used to it," said Robert.

"For the first few years I was just so angry I don't really remember," said Colleen. "I was so obsessed with getting justice for Robert."

The Middletons say two adults and a juvenile were involved in the burning attack, all lived next door. None served time, according to the family, because Robert couldn't remember enough of the attack to make a case.

"He's hard of hearing, he's visually impaired," said Colleen. "They just can't imagine what that's like to be Robert for a day. They have no idea."

No one has any idea. But Robert is not one for self-pity. Instead, he is looking for his place in a world still shocked by that tragic birthday.

Robert was asked to test a computer game that takes young burn patients into a virtual world of snowmen and mammoths that's actually able to reduce pain during burn treatments. You can see that on Eyewitness News tomorrow night at 6.


Christi Myers is ABC13's Healthcheck reporter

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