Julio Edeza still is recovering, still uses a wheelchair, and still has more surgeries ahead.
But more than anything, he wants people to know he is grateful.
“A lot of people helped out,” he said. “It was good.”
Edeza, 42, was burned over 90% of his body in an unprovoked and unimaginable attack from a man who doused him with racing fuel and set him on fire in 2016.
He spent almost a year in a coma, underwent more than 70 operations and has a long road of recovery ahead, but said he is staying positive. He also is somewhat overwhelmed by the support he’s received from people he’s never met.
“I’m so happy,” he said recently, grinning while relaxing in the front yard of the independent living home he shares with about 10 people. “I’m getting so much better so fast.”
The man who set him on fire, Jose Ricardo Garibay IV, was sentenced in July to four life sentences for two counts of attempted murder and one count of aggravated mayhem. Besides attacking Edeza, Garibay also had severely beaten a fellow inmate while in jail.
Edeza was in a medically induced coma for 11 months the year after the attack. Before he was burned, he scraped by with his own car-detailing business and had been homeless at times, and friends and family members launched online fundraisers to help while he was in the hospital.
Neither fundraiser had more than a few hundred dollars earlier this summer. But after his story was told in the media, including a San Diego Union-Tribune article in July, people were touched by the forgiveness he expressed and his positive attitude. One GoFundMe page jumped to more than US$9,000 (RM37,310) while another older page reached about US$1,400 (RM5,800).
At the time, Edeza had been unable to find a landlord willing to take him in and was unsure how to continue his physical therapy. The donations were twice as high as the goal he had set, and Edeza now hopes to use the money to get a manufactured home.
Donors, who gave from US$5 (RM21) to US$2,000 (RM8,288), wrote to Edeza that they were inspired by his attitude, faith and forgiveness
“I sent them all replies, thanking them,” he said. “They wrote, ‘Thank you for the inspiration. The way you stay positive helps me look at the positive things in my life. Thanks for helping me learn that it’s better to forgive.’”
Learning to forgive didn’t come easily, however. He remembers being mad about the attack, an understandable reaction, but later realised he had to let go of the anger.
“It’s the positiveness that keeps people going,” he said. “You’re going to have good times and bad times. Why focus on the bad?”
Edeza said he isn’t holding bitterness towards the man who burned him.
“I forgive him and just hope he changes his ways,” he said. “Who knows what he was going through? But I know God can forgive him, and God can help him.”
On the day of the attack, Edeza said he was outside a Rite Aid near Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in Oak Park when he was approached by Garibay, who asked him where he could find a water machine.
Edeza said he walked with him to his truck, then was doused with fuel and set on fire with a lighter. A security camera in the store captured him running inside, engulfed in flames.
Although the attack happened while he was trying to help a stranger, Edeza said he still trusts people.
“My spirit is the same,” he said. “I’ll still go out and help somebody. It’s not going to stop me from being the person I am.”
Repeating a praise he’s said often, Edeza said the attack burned his flesh, but not his spirit.
And his flesh indeed is burned. Skin grafts have left checkered patterns on his arms and hands. One graft has left his right ankle thinner than his left and will have to be corrected with surgery, he said.
Another surgery ahead will relieve constriction that is keeping him from lifting his arm. Pins will have to be placed in his hands to straighten his fingers. He may lose one of his toes.
But Edeza said he’s focused on the progress he’s made.
He can walk about 40 steps while holding onto his wheelchair, and he hopes he’ll be able to get around with just a walker in about a month.
His short-term dream is to be able to make it to a bus stop on top of a nearby hill.
“I want to go to the beach,” he said. “Maybe go fishing.”
While in the hospital, Edeza met and began a relationship with Annie Langefeld, who had known his sister while growing up. They are still a couple, and he said she visits him a few times a week.
“That’s another beautiful thing that came out of it,” he said.
He needs a device to help him reach down to put on his socks, but he is regaining the use of his hands.
“I started handwriting again, and then drawing,” he said. “I like drawing. I like drawing basic sceneries, landscapes and sunsets.”
Looking ahead, Edeza said he would like to go back to work detailing cars. He also learned how to cook through the culinary arts programme at Father Joe’s Villages during a time when he stayed there while homeless in 2008.
For now, he’s encouraged by smaller goals.
“They say I’m doing good, and maybe in six months I should be able to walk with a cane,” he said. “That gets me excited.” – The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service