Vakia Armstrong Upshaw says that as long as she lives, she will never forget the screams of her 8-year-old daughter.
"It is a mother's worse nightmare," the New Castle resident said. "She was screaming from pain and there was nothing I could do. I couldn't even hold her to comfort her."
Valencia Upshaw was burned in a bizarre incident on April 18 involving her hair and a pan of hot water.
Valencia, a competitive cheerleader and gymnast, had gone to the home of a local hairdresser to have her hair braided. The process involved putting hot boiling water into a cup, one that Vakia said was new to Valencia and her. Vakia was told that the process would take 5-6 hours and she could pick her daughter up afterward.
"All the other times, she had gotten two or three braids at a time done," said Vakia, who declined to name the hairdresser. "This time it sounded like it was more and the boiling water was used.
"She leaned back toward the stove and when she leaned back, the boiling pot of water moved and was dumped on her back. I had no idea anything like this could happen."
The started the worst nightmare of Vakia's lifetime.
"I got a phone call at home saying that Valencia had gotten burned," Vakia said. "I raced to Jameson Hospital. Valencia is an only child for my husband and me. She is my whole world. It seemed like forever to get there.
"I felt like I was going to lose my mind when I walked into that room," she added. "Valencia was actually very calm even though she had second- and third-degree burns over most of her back, but they had sedated her to help with the pain.
"She loves Jesus with all of her heart and knows when it's time to turn to him and the first words I heard come out of her mouth were, 'help me Jesus.' "
Valencia was flown by medical helicopter to UPMC Mercy Trauma and Burn Center in Pittsburgh with Vakia and her husband of 21 years receiving ground transport.
That's when the real pain — and the screams — started.
"In Pittsburgh, they had to take off all the burnt skin," she said. "She just screamed and cried. I've never heard screams like that. I felt so helpless. We were all just sobbing."
The bandages on Valencia's back had to be changed every day and the hospital did everything it could to help with the pain.
"They put a PICC line (a thin, soft, long tube that is inserted for intravenous access) in her arm so they could put her to sleep every morning when they changed the bandages. There was no way she could go through that pain day after day."
Valencia had surgery on April 27. Surgeons took skin grafts from several other places on her body, including the sides of her hips, and attached it to her back.
"We were told that she might need 2-3 surgeries, but her doctors told us what she had may be enough," Vakia said. "But they also said that her back probably won't heal completely until she is about 16."
"Doctors said that Valencia is one of the strongest patients they have ever treated," she added. "Once they got the initial pain under control, she was all determination."
The second-grader at the New Castle Christian Academy not only excels in competitive cheerleading and gymnastics, but dance and karate as well. She has been a part of undefeated teams at Natalie's Cheer & Tumble that won four cheerleading competitions, and also takes dance at Jennifer Leigh's Dance Gallery.
"One of the first things Valencia said to me was, 'can I still cheer and dance?'" Vakia said. "And I told her of course she can.' "
Vakia said that her daughter's spirit is filled with generosity, an instinct she got from her mother, who for many years has made it a mission to give back to the New Castle community, especially children. She also subscribes to teachings at the family's church, Prevailing Word World Outreach Center.
"Valencia is a very outgoing young lady and she has made me stop on the street to feed people," Vakia said. "She saw a lady standing in front of a restaurant when we were on vacation and she begged me to pull over. I said why and Valencia said, 'she needs our help.' She blessed her with her own money to eat. The lady took the money and went right into the restaurant and asked Valencia, 'how did you know I was hungry?' and Valencia said, 'God put it on my heart to be a blessing to you.'
"She won't think twice to take her own money she has saved and buy someone's groceries. She just seems to have a sense to know when someone is truly in need and she's rarely wrong."
David Young Sr., co-pastor of Prevailing Word along with wife, Diane, concurs that Valencia is something special. He and pastor Alonzo Waters of Victory Christian Center have been extremely supportive, according to Vakia.
"Valencia is full of life and so sweet," Young said. "She will stop over our house and do cartwheels for us. She has been like a daughter to us and has just been a tremendous blessing."
Young said that since their interaction had to be by phone due to coronavirus, he would have someone put a phone up to her ear and pray over her while she was in Pittsburgh.
Young and Valencia certainly can relate to each other in another way now. Young was badly burned himself at the age of 2 1/2 when he put toilet paper inside a space heater in the family's bathroom and it caught fire, catching the top of his pajamas with it. He suffered severe burns under the web of his left arm and had to have skin grafts taken from his leg and stomach. He underwent numerous surgeries until he was 13, leaving visible injuries.
"In addition to the physical part, I know how traumatic this is mentally and emotionally," he said. "But this little girl has the character to be able to get through it."
On that end, Vakia said her daughter will need some help.
"I'm seeing some mood swings already, but we were told that was to be expected," she said. "Even tying her shoe is painful for her. I'm watching her very, very closely."
Vakia said that Valencia will start occupational therapy next week and will begin counseling afterward.
The family has already amassed over $50,000 in medical bills and Valencia has no insurance.
A GoFundMe to help with expenses has been set up at gofundme.com/f/c7m77-it-takes-a-village, or by searching "Fundraiser by Larria And Venetia Armstrong: It Takes A Village."
"It's so hard for me to take from other people," Vakia said. "I'm used to being the giver and I would rather have it that way.
"But I am so grateful for every blessing and the biggest one of all is that my daughter is going to be OK."