It is Sharing Time in Primary and, by choice, the little girl sits in the back of the children’s meeting room by herself. She is like any other child there—except that she doesn’t have a nose, an ear, true eyelids, or fingers. Skin grafts cover 45 percent of her body, and on her left leg is a brace with four pins piercing her muscles to the bone.
Sage Volkman, at eight, has faced—and overcome—more pain than most people experience in a lifetime.
The children begin to sing, and Sage joins in with her small but positive voice:
Jesus once was a little child,
A little child like me. …
On 24 October 1986, Sage’s father, Michael Volkman, decided to take his two children camping. [Only six days earlier, Michael, his wife Denise, and their son, Avery, had been baptized into the Church. Their five-year-old daughter, Sage—a bright, green-eyed child who loved soccer and was developing a talent for drawing—had been disappointed that she couldn’t be baptized, too; but she was content to know that one day she would be old enough.]
There was ice forming on Bluewater Lake that morning when Michael and eight-year-old Avery left Sage asleep in their camping trailer and went fishing. Michael regretted that Denise couldn’t be with them but she was a kindergarten teacher and hadn’t been able to find anyone to substitute for her at school.
As the early morning sky grew lighter, Michael walked back to the trailer to check on Sage. All seemed well. Five minutes after he rejoined Avery at the lake, dogs began to bark, and Avery turned to see smoke rising above their campsite 140 meters away. Michael’s heart pounded as he ran back to camp. The trailer was engulfed in flames. Inside, Sage was still in her sleeping bag.
Throwing open the trailer door, Michael was beaten back by smoke and flame. Taking a gulp of air, he ran into the trailer, gathering up handfuls of burning sleeping bags until he found Sage’s still body.
Ignoring the burns on his face and hands, he dragged Sage out of the trailer and immediately started artificial resuscitation. Almost three minutes passed. Sage remained lifeless. He continued pushing on her chest so hard he broke one of her ribs. Finally, he heard a little sound coming from her and saw her chest heave.
Avery, who had been praying desperately, suddenly remembered the containers of flammable propane gas stored at the side of the trailer. “Dad,” he yelled, “I think we’d better move!”
Michael nodded and painfully pulled Sage farther from the trailer. Seconds later the propane containers exploded.
Then followed a confusion of events: The twenty-minute race against death with another fisherman who drove Michael and the two children over a rough, unpaved road to a forest ranger station where they radioed for help; the ambulance trip to Grants, New Mexico, from where Sage was flown to the University of New Mexico’s burn unit; then Michael’s own 110-kilometer ride with Avery to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in an ambulance he could neither see nor touch because his eyes and hands were wrapped in bandages.
When Sage was first wheeled into the burn unit, the medical staff had little hope that she would survive the night. “They gave her a ten percent chance of living,” Michael remembers. She had third- and fourth-degree burns on her face, arms, chest, and legs. Her nose and one ear had been melted off. Her fingers were so charred that they would have to be amputated. She lost thirty-five percent of her eyelids. One lung had collapsed, and another was barely functioning; a liter of soot would be extracted from them.
She was also in a coma.
Somehow, Sage hung on to life, and two days later the doctors felt she was strong enough to receive the first of what would eventually be eight skin grafts. Then she developed pneumonia.
“All we did those first ten days was cry and pray,” says Michael.
Denise learned of the accident while teaching her kindergarten class. “A deputy sheriff called me. I had to stuff my fist into my mouth to keep from screaming. When I finally saw Sage, I would not have known she was my daughter if someone hadn’t told me.”
Both Michael and Denise credit Sage’s survival to the skill of the medical staff who attended her and to the faith and prayers of the members of their new church.
“We found out immediately what the Church was all about,” Michael says. “The ward held some special fasts, although we didn’t even know what a fast was at the time. And many people came to give their support. Sage received many priesthood blessings.”
One of the first blessings was given by Robert DeBuck. Robert with his wife, Ruth, had introduced the Volkmans to the Church. “When Robert blessed Sage,” Ruth recalls, “he told her to go where it was safe—into Heavenly Father’s arms. We lived for a long time on faith in that blessing. We believe that’s where she was.”
Months later, Sage gave evidence of the power of that faith. One day Denise asked her if she remembered anything at all during those first six weeks. Sage said she remembered being with Jesus.
A little skeptical, her mother asked, “What did he say?”
“He just held me and told me he was sorry that I was hurt. He told me he loved me,” Sage replied.
“What did you say?”
“I told him I loved him, too. I said I wanted to stay, but he told me I had things to do. Then he was gone.”
Denise, always the realist in the family, smiled. “Well, do angels have wings?”
“Mother!” Sage said. “You know angels don’t have wings!”
Two weeks after Sage was burned, the Volkmans were offered the more specialized care available to burned children at a special hospital in Galveston, Texas. Sage was flown the 1,500 kilometers to Galveston on November 6. She was still in a coma.
Among the hospital staff were two Latter-day Saints. Jonathan Brough and Rob Durrans had seen burn victims before, but this case was different. “I had always been able to recognize what part of the patient I was looking at,” Rob wrote in his journal, a copy of which he later sent to the Volkmans.
“When Sage arrived, the doctors were not very optimistic for her future,” he observed. “‘If she makes it through the night, and that’s a big if,’ they emphasized, ‘we are expecting brain damage, loss of vision, chronic lung problems, inability to walk, and probably a major loss of hearing. Anything short of that will be a miracle.’”
In an entry he made in his journal, Jonathan describes what happened next: “Rob and I were asked to give Sage a blessing. We entered the little girl’s room, robed as if for surgery. We approached the bed to find an unresponsive, motionless figure. The respirator was pumping next to the bed, and tubes—for her lungs, for pumping her stomach, and for giving nourishment—entered every opening of her face. She was severely disfigured. Only her small feet were recognizable as those of a formerly beautiful child. If ever I wanted to give a blessing of release from this life it was then. I envisioned the unsurmountable challenges this girl would have to face, as well as the sacrifices her parents would have to make in order to nurse her back to any degree of independence.
“Rob anointed the frail remnant of that little girl’s body and then we both placed our hands on her head to seal the anointing. Few times have I felt the Spirit speak as powerfully through me as it did at that time. To my surprise I heard myself bless her with the strength to overcome the destruction that her body had sustained.”
Both Rob and Jonathan were shocked at the blessing they had just given, especially the promise of full recovery. “Yet we had both been instantaneously told that everything would be all right,” Rob wrote. “As we closed the blessing, I let my fingers linger for a moment on her head—there was a feeling that she was drawing upon my strength, and when I lifted my hands I felt completely drained.”
During the next few days Sage hovered between life and death. Bleeding ulcers set back plans for surgery, and her coma continued. Donations from friends had allowed Ruth DeBuck to come to Galveston to be with Denise, and the two would often stroke Sage’s feet and tell her stories or sing her hymns, hoping that something would get through to the dream world she was in.
Then one day Denise was lying on the bed with Sage. She looked into her daughter’s ruined face and said, “Oh, I love you, Sage.”
And Sage whispered back, “I love you, too.”
Finally out of her coma, Sage began to make progress. She started breathing on her own. Then, though speaking was painful, she slowly relearned how. After being on the operating table five times, Sage returned home December 23—in time for Christmas.
Sage started going through therapy at a rehabilitation center in Albuquerque. Burned skin shrinks as it heals, and stretching exercises became critical. At home, she had to undergo baths that initially lasted three hours in order for her parents to scrape off the dying skin and clean the new, raw skin with hydrogen peroxide. Learning to walk again took all her courage.
Since then, she has returned to school, and she has learned to ride a bicycle. Perhaps her worst ordeal was losing her fingers: she thought they would grow back, like hair. Her favorite activity had been drawing, and she missed it terribly. But she has adjusted. A few months ago a store in Albuquerque gave her a computer, and she has become expert at using it to print pictures and play games.
But life will never be the same. Some people, particularly children, who see her for the first time are frightened. For a friendly little girl who remains the same inside despite the changes on the outside, the rejection can be devastating.
Sage was playing outside one day when a child came upon her. Unprepared for the experience, he ran away screaming, “Monster! Monster!” It hurt, but Sage understood. “The kids used to laugh at me,” she says. Do they now? “Not at school. Sometimes people stare when we go to the store.”
Ward members made very effort to make Sage’s return from Galveston as smooth as possible. During a Sharing Time just before she returned, the Primary presidency held an activity to show the children that although people may be hurt or maimed, they are Heavenly Father’s children and need our help.
Nancy Eldridge, then Primary president, had a video tape made of Sage speaking to the children. On the tape Sage talked about her experience and hopes for the future. She closed by assuring her friends that she was still “the same old Sage.”
Nancy says that each of the children had to adjust to Sage in his or her own way. Her own son had a particularly difficult time. “He loved Sage, but he was afraid, and it bothered him. So he wrote her letters of love and friendship until he was able to work through his feelings.”
The ward leaders and Sage’s teachers, like Kathy Warren who has taught Sage two years, remain constantly aware of her needs. They place her where excited children won’t forget and bump her leg brace. And when it came time to hand out CTR rings, they put Sage’s on a special chain so she could wear it around her neck.
The scriptures declare that “there is no fear in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). One only has to know Sage to love her; there is no room for any other emotion. She exemplifies all any of us can hope to achieve in this life—purity of purpose, charity, and a stubborn independence that refuses to let her quit.
Bishop Webb remembers last year’s tithing settlement with Sage and her family. “I asked Sage, ‘Are you a full tithe payer?”
“She said, ‘No.’
“I asked if she had some tithing to pay to be a full tithe payer.
“She said, ‘Yes.’ Then she pulled out an envelope with some money and pushed it across my table.
“‘Do you want me to fill out your receipt for you?’ I asked.
“‘No,’ she said. ‘You hold the paper, and I’ll write it.’”
And placing a pencil between the stubs on the ends of her arms, she laboriously filled out the receipt.
The bishop knows, as do others close to the family, just how difficult Sage’s healing has been. At times, the pain has been almost more than she could bear. Once when she was undergoing some therapy at home, she begged her mother not to hurt her anymore. Denise told her about a little girl who cried so much that her parents stopped giving her therapy. Now that little girl can’t walk.
Sage wept. “I wish I could give my body so that little girl could walk again.”
And in a way, she has. Sage’s story has been published throughout the United States. “Since the articles started coming out, we get letters from all over the country,” Michael says. One was from a lady dying of cancer; she had cut a picture of Sage from a magazine and put it where it could be easily seen. “Now when I hurt,” she wrote, “I look at that and say, ‘You foolish woman, what have you got to be sad about?’”
Another wrote to tell them he had been so inspired that he had decided to become active in the Church again after many years.
“I believe that part of Sage’s mission is to show people that you can accomplish things with your life no matter what,” Michael says. “She will be a wonderful missionary. She already is.”
Faith in Sage’s future wasn’t easy. During those first terrible days, Michael and Denise faced the agonizing possibility that Sage would die. “We mourned for the Sage we had known,” they say, “and then we faced the challenge of accepting the new Sage. Spiritually and emotionally, we were healed as she was healed.”
The support from fellow Saints and neighbors was a vital part of that healing. Ruth DeBuck stayed with Denise those first few nights in the hospital. They lay on separate beds pulled together, their heads touching, holding hands.
“We talked through the night, working through the nightmare,” Ruth says. “We talked about what it would mean if Sage died, and what it would mean if she lived. All a mother feels and wants for her daughter had been suddenly ripped away, and Denise had to deal with that loss. Those first few days, we had to let the old dreams go, then dream new dreams.”
Ruth has seen those dreams blossom. “We see Sage some time in the future being married in the temple,” she says. “Some young man, kind and pure, who can see through the physical to her spiritual beauty, is with her. We see her with children of her own, living a life in the gospel, taking the joy offered, living beyong the burn.”
“When bad things happen, some people will lean on the Lord,” fellow ward member Kirk Wood says. “Others will become bitter and lose that opportunity. The Volkmans have relied on the Lord and have grown spiritually because of it.
“The whole experience has been difficult and wonderful for all of us,” he says. “It’s hard to describe a tragedy like this as wonderful, but it has shown us what really matters. It has stripped away the nonessentials.”
Michael humbly explains, “We’re luckier than most. We have the gospel.”
Denise smiles. She gazes at Michael, at Avery and Sage, then says simply, “The gospel heals.”