Doctors crowded around the boy, trying to save his sight. His father began to feel reassured until the next day, when an intern approached and whispered to him that if Josh didn’t get to a military hospital soon, he was going to die. The intern explained that only the military had the ability to deal with the kind of burn injury that Josh had. The elder Jean commandeered a pay phone in the hospital’s waiting room and got through to Park Slope’s congressman, Hugh L. Carey, who reached out to the U.S. surgeon general’s office. Soon a call came in to the pay phone from Col. Basil Pruitt, a doctor who was head of the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the only military hospital at the time dedicated to treating burn victims.
Dr. Pruitt told Josh’s father that he was sending a medical team and a C-9 transport plane to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to pick up Josh. Josh’s father just had to get his son there. The distraught dad worked that phone some more, shoveling in dimes, and convinced a helicopter pilot at McGuire and a desk sergeant in the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department to help him and his son.
Later that night, five NYPD officers formed a circle with their police cruisers and used their headlights to shine a star pattern on the Sheep Meadow in Park Slope’s Prospect Park. The pilot landed the helicopter in the middle of the star, and then lifted Josh, his mother, and his father into the sky.
“For such a devastating injury, we were very realistic about what to expect,” said Dr. Pruitt. Upon examining Josh, Pruitt determined that the boy was burned over 17 percent of his body, with third- degree burns covering more than half of the affected area, mostly his face. Dr. Pruitt said his chief goal was to save the boy’s sight. But he knew right away that this objective was hopeless. “The globes had been irreparably injured,” he said. Josh underwent endless operations. Skin was taken from one of his legs and grafted to his face. Dead tissue was cut away, a hugely painful process, again and again.
Isabella Miele, then and now an artist, explored San Antonio during the few moments she spent away from the hospital. She walked along the river that bisects the city and discovered a food market on a dusty plaza. But it was hard to escape what had brought her to the city: “I’m looking at the sky, and here are these clouds, and I’m crying in the middle of the street, thinking, Josh is never going to see clouds.”
When Josh’s brother saw him for the first time, about six weeks after he’d been burned, the younger Jean worried that he might collapse. Josh sounded the same, had the voice of the same little boy who missed his big brother, but his appearance was radically changed. Many of his features were gone, and what remained was roughly scarred.
Josh learned to use a cane and spent time at the Industrial Home for the Blind in nearby Brooklyn Heights. His father built a bunk bed that was part jungle gym so Josh could climb and stretch his scarred underarms.
His mother had her own approach to Josh’s rehabilitation. “There were many times when I put him in less-than-acceptable situations,” she said. “I’d let him touch things in museums. I would let him climb on things that people don’t ordinarily climb on. He would say, ‘Mom, is this really all right?’ and I’d say, ‘It’s OK. Do it.’ ”
In 1975, the elder Jean and Isabella separated. After their father moved out, Julia and Josh found themselves alone a lot. They listened to talking books for hours on the jungle-gym bunk bed. They fought and argued as any siblings do. They played outside with friends from across the street.
The two of them would roam around Park Slope, two little children, nine and five, running errands, shopping—and more often than not someone would comment loudly on Josh’s appearance. Or would ask Julia, within earshot of her little brother, what had happened to him. Or a child would scream: “Mommy, Mommy! A monster! A monster!”
The rude comments and questions made Julia angry. Once, after Josh had undergone an operation to restore his upper lip, he had to wear a gauze bandage for weeks, and his mother drew a mustache on it. The next time someone on Seventh Avenue asked Julia what had happened to Josh, she snapped, “He had a mustache transplant.” Josh’s brother had a different way of dealing with the looks and questions: He got into fistfight after fistfight.
Josh attended Public School 102 in Bay Ridge, where he learned to read Braille. When his mother moved with a new companion to Rockland County, New York, Julia and Josh went with her. Josh’s operations continued, including a failed cornea transplant.
When Josh was either 11 or 12, he learned that doctors were planning to stitch one of his arms to his burned nose. The surgeons hoped that the live tissue in the arm would trigger regrowth of blood vessels and tissue in the nose. Josh put a stop to it. He had had enough. He told his family he was always going to look different—why go through all this pain just to look a little less different?