“Sage’s Song,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 30
It is Sharing Time and, by choice, she 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 by no means tentative voice:
Jesus once was a little child,
A little child like me. …
October 24, 1986, was to have been something of a vacation for Michael Volkman. Michael works with a private forestry cooperative, and he had decided to take his two children fishing. Only six days earlier, Michael, his wife, Denise, and their son, Avery, had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their five-year-old daughter, Sage—a bright, green-eyed pixie who loved soccer and was developing a flair for art—had been disappointed that she couldn’t be baptized, too; but she was content knowing that her turn would come.
There was ice on Bluewater Lake that morning when Michael and eight-year-old Avery left Sage asleep in the camping trailer and set their lines. The chill in the air whetted their appetite for trout, and Michael regretted that Denise hadn’t been able to find a substitute teacher for her kindergarten class.
As the sky grew lighter, Michael slipped 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 150 yards away. Michael’s heart raced wildly as he sprinted back to camp. There he found the trailer engulfed in flames.
Throwing open the door, he searched frantically through melting sleeping bags for his daughter. Smoke and flames forced him out to gasp for air; then he threw himself back into the camper, gathering up handfuls of burning polyester until he found Sage’s still body.
Ignoring the burns on his face and hands, he dragged her out and immediately started CPR and 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 squeak and saw her chest heave.
Avery, who had been praying desperately, suddenly noticed the propane tanks on the side of the camper. “Dad,” he said, “I think we’d better move.”
Michael nodded and painfully pulled Sage farther from the trailer. Seconds later the propane tanks exploded.
Michael has run the scenes through his mind a thousand times: The twenty-minute race against death with a fisherman who drove him and his children over a cattle-path of a road to a ranger station to radio for help; the ambulance trip to Grants, New Mexico, from where, ten minutes later, Sage was flown to the University of New Mexico’s burn unit; then his own ride with Avery to Albuquerque sixty miles away in an ambulance he could neither see nor touch because his eyes and hands were swathed in bandages.
Michael and Denise had met in 1967, six months after Denise’s first husband was killed in an automobile accident. They lived in Placitas, a large commune in central New Mexico.
“Our lives were pretty unstructured back then,” Michael remembers. “Mostly, it was one party after another.” Like many of their generation, Michael and Denise had come to Placitas looking for God, for themselves, for some sense of fulfillment and wholeness. Instead, they got lost in the haze of drugs, alcohol, and Eastern mysticism that was so much a part of the hippy life-style.
“What people were really searching for in the ’60s was the gospel,” muses their friend Robert DeBuck. Robert and his wife, Ruth, are former members of the commune themselves. When they moved away from Placitas, Robert became active in the Church, and Ruth was baptized. They moved back later—and introduced the Volkmans to the Church.
Michael and Denise are not reluctant to share their past. As Denise puts it, “Some people need to know what changes you made in your life and why. That way you can help them.”
And help they do. Others may have gone into hiding with a daughter disfigured as badly as Sage. But the Volkmans are willing to share their fiery trial in order to help Sage “live in an unburned world.” It’s painful to relive their experiences, but they do so again and again, sharing their message of hope and love with a world desperately in need of both.
When Sage was first wheeled into the burn unit, the medical staff had little hope that she would make it through the night. “They gave her a 10-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 35 percent of her eyelids. One lung had collapsed, and another was barely functioning; a quart 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 at Rio Rancho Elementary School. “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—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. “When Robert blessed her,” his wife, 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 efficacy 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, the acknowledged realist in the family, smiled. “Well, do angels have wings?”
“Mother!” Sage said. “You know angels don’t have wings!”
“I knew the Book of Mormon was true ten or twelve years before we joined the Church,” Michael says. After Robert and Ruth DeBuck moved back to Placitas, they often invited the Volkmans to their home for family home evening or discussions with the missionaries. Michael got his first “tingle” when one of the missionaries bore testimony of the Book of Mormon. “I had never read the book,” he says, “but I knew then and there that it was true.”
It took Denise much longer to discover the same thing. “We had the lessons three or four times,” she says. “Michael enjoyed them, but I just couldn’t commit. I liked wine with dinner and didn’t think a glass would interfere with my spirituality.”
“We had given up hard drugs as part of our marriage vows,” says Michael. “But we still smoked a little marijuana and drank wine.
“Sage is responsible for our baptism,” he continues. “She kept asking questions about Heavenly Father that I couldn’t answer, so I asked her if she wanted to go to church. She said yes, so I took her to the church of my choice—the LDS church in Bernalillo.”
Denise was reluctant to go at first, but finally agreed to try it—“if we could check out some other churches, too.”
That Sunday Michael and the children visited the Bernalillo Ward, about five miles from Placitas. “I don’t think they ever made it to any of the other churches they had planned to try out,” says Bishop Peter Webb. “They felt at home here.”
After that first visit, Brad Greer, the ward mission leader, arranged an appointment with the missionaries. Their answers to Sage’s questions satisfied everyone—even Denise. With Sage pressing to learn more, Brad and the missionaries continued to return until Denise was ready for baptism.
Although Denise felt right about being baptized, she still had some questions. One was whether the Book of Mormon was true. “I had expected lightning to strike or something,” she says. “It didn’t.”
But a year and a half later, she received a witness. “I had terrible bouts of insomnia following Sage’s accident,” she remembers with tears in her eyes. “One night I couldn’t sleep, so I started thinking about my past life—the drugs and all—and how I hoped I could help others escape that.
“Suddenly, a little voice in my mind said, ‘You know, the Book of Mormon is true.’ I was startled for a moment, but then I just accepted what was happening and asked, ‘Then why haven’t I been able to accept it? I usually accept true things.’
“And the voice said, ‘Because you don’t want to change.’
“I thought about that for a minute and realized that I was afraid to change. ‘Don’t be afraid of change,’ the voice said. ‘Just accept it. The Book of Mormon is true.’
“The Lord changed my heart,” Denise concludes. “I went to bed with this sweet, warm feeling in my heart. I woke up with the same feeling. I’ve never doubted the Book of Mormon since.”
Two weeks after Sage was burned, the Volkmans were offered the more specialized care available to burned children at the Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston, Texas. Sage was flown the eight hundred miles to Galveston on November 6. She was still in a coma.
Among the hospital staff were two Latter-day Saints in training. 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 a memoir he later sent to the Volkmans.
“When Sage arrived, the doctors were not overly optimistic,” 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 airway, 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 insurmountable 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 onslaught 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 in Placitas 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 dreamworld 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.
When Sage returned from Galveston, her parents rented an apartment in Bernalillo because their old concrete “free-form” in Placitas was deteriorating and the chance of infection was too great. The family has since moved to a new home in Placitas built largely by donations of material and labor from people in the area.
Sage started going through therapy at a rehabilitation center in Albuquerque. Burned skin shrinks as it heals, and stretching exercises became critical. At home, Sage 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 the courage she could muster.
Since then, she has returned to school—she just finished the second grade—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 a whiz 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 gregarious 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.”
The ward went the third and fourth mile 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, obtained a videotape the Shriners made of Sage. 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 love letters until he was able to work through his feelings.”
The ward leaders and Sage’s teachers, like Kathy Warren who has taught Sage for 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 will not let her quit.
Bishop Webb remembers a recent tithing settlement with Sage and her family. “I asked Sage, ‘Are you a full-tithe payer?’
“She said, ‘Nope.’
“I asked if she had some tithing to pay to be a full-tithe payer.
“She said, ‘Yep.’ 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.
“‘Nope,’ 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 widely. “Since the articles started coming out, we get letters from all over,” Michael says. One was from a lady dying of cancer; she had cut a picture of Sage from a magazine and put it on her refrigerator. “Now when I hurt,” she wrote, “I look at that and say, ‘You foolish lady, 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. Already is.”
That faith in Sage’s future was hard-won. During those first terrible days, Michael and Denise faced the agonizing task of letting their little girl go. “We mourned the old Sage,” they say, “and struggled to accept the new Sage.”
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 cots, 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 beyond 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 is characteristically low-key about any praise. “We’re luckier than most,” he says. “We have the gospel.”
Denise smiles. She gazes at Michael, at Avery and Sage, then says simply, “The gospel heals.”