Teen's treatment ends in tragedy
Berkeley teen badly burned when mom used gasoline on lice
By Kristin Bender, STAFF WRITER
BERKELEY -- They were just trying to save his hair.
But what started as a desire to preserve Koran Akindele Jenkin's dreadlocks, grown during his 13-year life, ended in tragedy and changed the Berkeley boy's world forever.
Koran had picked up head lice in his thick, black shoulder-length dreads during a backyard campout with a group of friends. The eighth grader had never in his life had a haircut. He loved his hair. His mother loved his hair. Koran, a member of a hip-hop group, needed the hair to complete his look.
But as the critters hopped around in Koran's locks, mother and son became increasingly repulsed and headed for the boy's pediatrician. The doctor was out.
They drove to Alta Bates hospital, where medical staff covered Koran's head with a surgical cap and instantly diagnosed him with head lice, his mother said.
Medical staff talked of a prescription medicine, but because there are dangers, it was not prescribed. Then the conversation turned to how gasoline and kerosene are used to clean the hair and kill head lice in some cultures where dreads are more common, his mother, Ayodele Nzinga, said.
In the end, medical staff told Koran to get a haircut so over-the-counter treatments could readily attack the lice.
"We discussed cutting his hair," said Nzinga. "He was in tears, I was in tears. We didn't want to cut his hair. So we remembered that we had some gas in the car (trunk) for emergencies. We figured we would clean (the hair) with gas and then use the medication."
That was Sept. 18. At home in Berkeley, mother and son headed to the kitchen with the gas. Bent over the sink, Nzinga covered her son's eyes and face with a towel and soaked the hair in gas. It's a compact kitchen and the sink and the gas stove are tucked in the small space.
Nzinga said nothing was on in the kitchen, but somehow the pilot light on the stove flared, sending enough of a spark to set Koran's head ablaze.
"One minute I was twisting the gasoline out of his locks and the next minute my baby was on fire," said Nzinga, a single mother who has seven children ages 12 to 26.
Nzinga said she couldn't move quick enough. "If I could have remembered what to do quicker maybe he wouldn't have been burned so bad," she said, tears streaming down her face.
Water wasn't working to douse the flames so Nzinga grabbed a towel that was on the nearby washing machine and wrapped his head in it. "I brought him to my (chest) and smothered the fire out," she said.
From that moment forward Koran's life was forever altered, family and friends said. He was burned over 23 percent of his body and spent two weeks at Doctor's Hospital in Pinole and two months at Shriner's Hospital For Children in Sacramento. He underwent eight surgeries, including many skin grafts.
His right hand, which sustained fourth-degree burns, was so badly damaged doctors had to amputate all his fingers.
Nzinga, with third-degree burns to her left hand and second-degree burns to her right hand, was also admitted to Doctor's Hospital, she said. Her hand is still badly discolored and she has some pain.
Looking back, Nzinga said her boy was amazingly strong from the minute the accident happened.
"He said, 'We are going to be OK, Mama,'" she recalled. "I think he was possibly in shock too, but there are two ways to deal with extreme trauma -- fight or flight. You can either stay coherent and fight on your own behalf or you can become hysterical."
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