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Burned over 85 percent of his body and given a .5 percent chance of survival,
Steven Leymeister '12 accepts the Phoenix Award at the Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage Awards ceremony at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in October 2011. Leymeister was honored for his commitment to burn education.
"Either get up and walk out with us or we'll leave you here to die."
That's what Steven Leymeister '12 remembers hearing as he lay on the cold, damp ground of a wooded area a quarter mile from the road, his body severely burned by two men with an acetylene torch.
Earlier that evening, two men Leymeister knew from work had knocked on his door and invited him to a party. Leymeister was hesitant because he had had problems with the men in the past. They picked on him and were jealous of his position within the company. But Leymeister agreed to go anyway, hoping they were there to make a peace offering. Piling into a pickup truck, the three men drove to a wooded area near Langingville, Schuylkill County, Pa., parked the truck and made small talk as they walked further into the secluded woods. Small talk quickly turned to rage. After attacking Leymeister and ripping off his clothes, one man held him down while the other man burned his neck, chest, arms and legs with a torch.
Although he went in and out of consciousness with second-, third-, even fourth-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, Leymeister somehow made the quarter-mile walk back to the truck. The men drove him home and ordered him to "lie on the couch and die" while they set up the surroundings to appear as if he had burned himself. Shortly after the men left, Leymeister's father found him.
That was Dec. 4, 2004, the date he now claims as his rebirth. In October 2011, while accepting the Phoenix Award at the Valley Preferred Spirit of Courage Awards ceremony at the Lehigh Valley Hospital's Muhlenberg campus in Bethlehem, Pa., Leymeister quoted Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in his remarks: "I am not what happened to me. I am who I choose to become."
Leymeister has chosen to become an advocate, a leader, a mentor and an inspiration for children and adults suffering similar traumatic experiences. He volunteers at burn camps for children and with Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) at Lehigh Valley Hospital. In the fall he spoke at the Phoenix Society's World Burn Congress, serving on a panel for intentional burn victims.
"He is a walking miracle," says Carla Abodalo, Leymeister's aunt and godmother, and an instructor in sociology and crime & justice at Albright. Abodalo was one of the first to arrive in the emergency room after learning what happened that night. She remembers the blackness of his charred skin against the white bed sheets. "You never forget the smell of burned flesh," she says. "I fell to my knees and was just sobbing. I was whispering in his ear, 'I love you, I love you, I love you. You can make it through this.'"
Filling up with emotion, Abodalo says she could not be more proud of her godson. "He's done an amazing job of not focusing on what happened, but instead focusing on his success." She continues to remind him daily that "every day you are a success is another day you have won over those monsters."
"Those monsters" were never prosecuted.
It took nearly two years for Leymeister to recover his memory of what happened that night. Despite testimony by a forensic expert who said that it was not possible that Leymeister burned himself, state police closed the case in 2009 due to lack of physical evidence.
Leymeister has moved on with his life.
When he accepted his award he acknowledged that he knows the truth, and he knows those who burned him know the truth, too. "The truth has set me free," he said. "While they are lurking in the darkness as cowards, I am rising from the ashes."
But the 25-year-old psychology major admits that rising from the ashes hasn't been easy. He's had 18 surgeries since December 2004, the most recent in June 2011. And he's battled many demons—despair, depression, pain, drug and alcohol addiction, loss of independence, anger and feelings of betrayal. "I got to a point where I didn't want to live but I didn't want to die at the same time," he says.
When Leymeister awoke from a three-and-a-half-month, medically induced coma at the Lehigh Valley Hospital's Regional Burn Center, he couldn't speak or remember what had happened. He needed a ventilator to breathe, and his legs were in traction so the skin grafts would take. He could barely push the channel button on the remote control. But lying in his hospital bed was the easy part.
In April 2005 he was transferred to HealthSouth Reading Rehabilitation Hospital, where he began a grueling and arduous physical therapy process. Joints that had fused together from being in a hospital bed for so long had to be forced to work again. Taking just one step forward felt like razorblades cutting his feet.
Leymeister still wears a compression gloveon his right hand to reduce fluid retention. His right hand took the brunt of the burns when he raised his arm to shield himself from the torch. And he can't play football or basketball like he did before the incident.
But Leymeister is not hindered by his physical limitations, and he is no longer haunted by the psychological demons. He is empowered by them.
He has ambitions to write a book, attend graduate school and continue speaking at burn conferences about the trauma. A psychology project which has turned into his senior thesis is titled "The Effects of Facial Disfigurement on Perceptions of Personality Traits in Children" and is based on his experience.
He will present the project at the Eastern Psychological Association Conference in March.
Driven by a mission to help others, he talks about his recovery and offers support when he visits with burn victims and their families in the hospital."Something happens to me when I go in there (the patient's room)," he says. "It grounds me. It takes me back to that night and humbles me. I always gain a greater appreciation of life every time." When he leaves the room he encourages the patient to attend the support group for burn victims held at the hospital the first Sunday of every month. When he sees them there, he says, "It's always very profound for me."
And for the past three years he has spent several weeks a year with children ages 6 to 17 at the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp in Virginia and Camp Susquehanna in Lancaster County, Pa. One day, he says, he'd like to start his own camp.
"The choices you make," he tells the children, "will define who you become and determine your recovery."
Leymeister's choice to live has determined his.
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