Wheeling about the school yard like the last bright leaf of autumn, 8-year-old Constantina Triantafilidis is, in almost every respect, a little girl like any other. But there is a difference. None of her classmates at Chicago’s Waters Elementary School has ever seen Dina’s face.
Pathetically disfigured in a crib fire six years ago in her native Athens, Dina wears a skintight Dacron elastic mask—with holes for her eyes, nose, mouth and ears—24 hours a day. She will continue to wear it for as long as 18 months after doctors at Children’s Memorial Hospital finish reconstructing her burn-ravaged features. “The mask is an important part of Dina’s therapy,” explains plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Schafer. “Elastically compressing her skin grafts makes them heal smoother. The mask is not meant to hide Dina’s face.”
For the child and her family, the nightmare began one afternoon in 1971. Her mother and father were out, her older sister Manuela was at school, and her great-grandmother was babysitting while Dina’s grandmother was hanging wash in the courtyard. Somehow a kerosene space heater ignited a rug under Dina’s crib, and by the time the grandmother rushed into the room, 20-month-old Dina was clutching her face in agony and her 90-year-old great-grandmother was dying of burns. When Dina’s mother, Georgia, arrived at the hospital, doctors estimated the little girl had only a 20 percent chance of survival. Mrs. Triantafilidis couldn’t even recognize her daughter until Dina began crying “Mama! Mama!” For the next 40 days Dina lingered on the critical list, while her mother stayed day and night, feeding her with an eyedropper through a tube in her nose. “I felt jealous toward other children,” Mrs. Triantafilidis remembers. “I cried so much I thought I could not bear it anymore.”
In 1973, after a series of operations, doctors in Greece told Dina’s mother they could do no more. Determined to find help, Mrs. Triantafilidis set up a trust fund so she could legally solicit donations, then appealed to shipowners and other wealthy Greeks. She asked the Soviet Union to take Dina as a patient and was turned down. Then last December Mrs. Triantafilidis received a phone call from America. It was Bobby Papademas, host of Greek-language radio and television shows in Chicago, who had read about the tragedy. “We’re going to adopt Dina here,” he told her. “We’ll take care of everything. Go to the consulate and get your papers ready.” Mrs. Triantafilidis could not speak for a moment, then she began to weep. “No one could have given me a more beautiful gift for Christmas,” she says.
Though fearful of Chicago’s reputation for gangsters, Dina’s father, Stavros, a flour mill worker, brought her to the U.S. last January. The city’s Greco-American community raised $18,000 to cover her medical expenses, and she was operated on several weeks later. “God,” she prayed as she was rolled into surgery, “please hurry up and make me well so I don’t have to go through this anymore.” Afterward Dina called for a mirror and screamed with excitement when she saw the improvement. Unenthusiastic the first day about wearing a mask, she went along with her doctors. (Developed at the Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston, the masks are now being worn by hundreds of young victims.) “That first night she saw the difference it made,” says a friend, Lydia Argiris, “and after that she never said a word.”
Tutored privately for several months, Dina was enrolled in school for the first time in September and has thrown herself joyfully into her studies. “She has strength you don’t often see among children,” says her second-grade teacher, Jeanette Foster. “It’s as though she’s an adult in a child’s body. Nothing is going to stop her.”
Insatiably curious, Dina displays an inner security that other children might envy. During a recent art lesson, the other children drew their own faces, while Dina nonchalantly made a sketch of her mask. Cutting out two holes for the eyes, another for the mouth, she proudly announced, “This is me!” Mrs. Foster was impressed. “She didn’t make it something she wasn’t,” says the teacher. “But after a while you don’t see the mask. You don’t see anything but Dina.”
Her classmates seem to feel the same way. On the first day of school, Mrs. Foster and Dina’s bilingual teacher, Helen Georgopoulous, were reluctant to let Dina play outside during recess. “Nobody has to go out there with me,” she told them fiercely. “I know how to make friends by myself.” The teachers let her go, then went anxiously to the window to watch. “There she was,” Mrs. Foster recalls with a smile, “fluttering all over the place like a butterfly.”
“My class loves me,” says Dina, and Mrs. Foster agrees. “The children are proud of her,” she says. “They feel responsible for her.” They are not alone. Vasilios Gaitanos, 32, a piano player at a local Greek nightspot, starred in a television benefit to raise money for Dina’s hospital bills. Now Dina phones him every day, and says she wants to preserve him in oil and vinegar so he won’t be too old to marry her when she grows up. Another who cherishes Dina is Mrs. Argiris, who helped the Triantafilidis family find a home in Chicago and has unofficially made Dina her godchild. “I never experienced anything as painful as when I first saw Dina,” she says. “But I like courageous people who are strong and survive. I’ve watched her grow better every day, and I’ve seen her settle down.” Mrs. Argiris was ecstatic a few weeks ago when Dina came rushing home after school to announce: “I don’t have time to talk to you! Little girls are waiting outside to play with me!”
Whether Dina’s face can ever be completely restored, or her badly crippled fingers rehabilitated, doctors are unwilling to speculate. “There are no miracles,” sighs Dr. Desmond Kernahan, chief of plastic surgery at Children’s Memorial Hospital. “Burns are a dreary business from all points of view.” Still, the specialists are confident of Dina’s will to endure, even though as many as seven more operations may be required in the next year and a half. “Dina will be able to get along with a handicap that would subdue other kids,” says Dr. Schafer. “What we’re trying to do is make it so her face can keep up with her spirit.”