Wilton filmmaker offers emotional look at burn survivors in new documentary

Posted on 09/23/2011

By SCOTT GARGAN

Staff Writer

The day that Megan Smith-Harris and her film crew joined Karin and Connor McKemey on their return to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., was a moment that will blaze in her memory forever.

It was December 2010, and Smith-Harris had the cameras rolling as the McKemeys celebrated Connor’s “rebirthaversary” — a term the family used to commemorate the teen’s struggle through, and triumph over, a 2008 accident that left him with severe burns to 90 percent of his body.

“I was really touched by their strength as a family, and the mutual affection between the McKemeys and the physicians and nurses,” she recalled. “The moment was the essence of the family’s experience.”

The heartfelt moment was one of many captured by the Wilton filmmaker in her documentation of the lives of acute burn survivors in her upcoming, feature-length film, “Trial By Fire: Lives Re-forged.”

Smith-Harris conceived of the film two years ago with the goal of demystifying the burn community — a group whose physical scars can be a liability in a society that places a premium on aesthetic beauty.

“I wanted to show that people are not defined by their injury,” said Smith-Harris, a veteran documentarian and executive producer and director of Wilton-based Pyewackitt Productions. “They may start out as victims in the hospital, but the minute they go through the doors, they are survivors.”

She added: “We can learn a lot from (burn survivors) in their courage to reclaim their lives.”

In September 2009, Smith-Harris and her film crew set out across the country to record the harrowing and hopeful tales of seven of the 40,000 Americans suffering the aftermath of being consumed by flames.

One of those stories came from the McKemeys, of Tega Cay, S.C., whose lives changed the day the family’s outdoor fireplace exploded. While packing for a family Christmas trip, Karin heard a loud whoosh, looked through the family room window and saw Connor, who was just 13 at the time, engulfed in flames.

In the film, McKemey recounts how she leapt through the window and threw herself onto her son’s burning body. She was unable to stop the flames, but was saved when the McKemeys’ neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, came to their rescue. After being medevacked to the hospital, Connor was given a mere one percent chance of survival.

“The doctors told us, `You’re going to have to make arrangements for him,’ ” recalled McKemey, who also was burned in the incident. “Then, after the doctors said he’d survive, they said they were going to have to amputate his fingers and his toes. I wondered, `What’s he going to be left with?’ ”

Another one of those stories came from actor J.R. Martinez, known for his role as Brot Monroe on the ABC drama “All My Children” and a contestant on season 13 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Prior to his career in show business, Martinez was an infrantryman in the U.S. Army, having been deployed to Iraq in 2003. That April, Martinez was driving his Humvee when his left tire hit a roadside bomb, transforming the vehicle into a fireball. Forty percent of his body, including parts of his face, suffered burns.

“This experience taught me so much,” Martinez, who now travels the country as a motivational speaker, said in an email. “I’m going to accept who I am. This is who I am and I’m not going to try to please anyone. This is my body, these are my scars, this is my new uniform, and I wear it every single day and there’s nothing I can do to take it off.”

Due to the shocking and traumatic nature of “Trial By Fire,” people may be reluctant to watch it, Smith-Harris admitted. However, she said, it is a film that is deeply rewarding.

“A major theme in the film is about acceptance and making the world a more welcoming place for anyone who is perceived as different,” said Smith-Harris, who will host a private, first-look screening of the film at the Phoenix Society’s Annual World Burn Congress in Cincinnati on Friday, Sept. 23. “It’s a message anyone can connect with.”

Beyond raising public awareness of an underrepresented segment of society, Smith-Harris hopes the film can be an educational tool for individuals with burn injuries. To that end, she hopes to make the film accessible to burn survivors living in isolated areas, who may not have the benefit of a support group.

“I want to make them aware that there is a huge community out there,” she said.

Among the members of that community is Connor McKemey, a high school junior who, after a miraculous recovery, was discharged from the Joseph M. Still Burn Center just six months following his accident. In the film, Smith-Harris shoots Connor playing lacrosse — something his mother, Karin McKemey, thought she would never see again.

The inspirational character of his story isn’t lost on Connor, who was “very happy when Megan came to me and told me she wanted to do this project.

“I definitely hope people realize that you can’t really control what people say about you,” Connor said, offering his single most important piece of advice to burn survivors. “It all depends on how you react. Even though you’re stuck in a bad situation, you can be positive, taking it one step at a time. That’s how I got to where I am today.”

For more information, visit www.trialbyfiredoc.com and www.pyewackitt.com.