PROVO Late on a hot afternoon, Brigham Young University students Jessica Free and Ashley Ludlow take turns feeding 9-year-old Marius Vasile Dasianu in a corner booth at the BYU Creamery on Ninth East.
In more ways than one, the trio have come a long way since they first met last January at St. Maria's Children's Hospital in Iasi, Romania. And, in more than one way, they still have a long way to go especially Marius.
"I'm just a little bit nervous," he says through a translator about an upcoming reconstructive surgery "to get fingers and eyes and nose and face."
Marius has been in the United States with Ludlow and Free, both 20, and their families since last month, but at times they wonder if the day they've planned and talked about for months is actually near.
"I'm still dreaming," Marius says.
Nothing in Marius' demeanor gives any indication he's the survivor of a terrible house fire that killed his parents and left him badly disfigured. The only reminders of that night are burn scars that cover his face and 75 percent of his body. He lost all his fingers and thumbs as a result of the blaze, but he still offers what's left of his hand for a friendly shake.
"Marius," he says, introducing himself.
To describe him is to describe any number of boys his age. He loves hamburgers and fries. He can be affectionate, yet playful, in the same breath, often telling Free and Ludlow, "I love you, stinker."
In November 2007, Marius woke in the middle of the night to find himself and his home engulfed in flames. He managed to escape through a bedroom window, but the blaze left him scarred with burns over most of his face and body. The fire also left him an orphan.
Doctors had to amputate Marius' fingers because of the severity of the burns, and they performed skin grafts. But the boy who once resembled Dennis the Menace minus the back-pocket slingshot remained severely disfigured. For months, he lay in St. Maria's Children's Hospital in Iasi, Romania, neglected except for his older brother Ionut Dasianu, who made the four-hour trip to visit when he could find time between burying their parents, rebuilding their home and earning a living.
Then enter Free, of Mesa, Ariz., and Ludlow, of San Diego, who came to Romania to complete internships for Brigham Young University's School of Family Life. The two students joined a group who threw a surprise birthday party for Marius Jan. 28. Both students said they were initially timid because of Marius' mangled outward features, but they soon saw past the scars.
"I remember seeing his face and being surprised," Free said. "These bright blue eyes were just staring out from a burned little face."
Shortly after their brief visit with Marius, the two young women enlisted the help of their families to bring Marius to the United States for reconstructive surgery. Shriners Hospital at Los Angeles accepted Marius for treatment and agreed to foot the cost of reconstructive surgeries and subsequent procedures until Marius is 18. They completed all the necessary paperwork to bring Marius and Ionut to the United States. The brothers arrived earlier this month.
For the past few weeks Marius has traveled the countryside with Ludlow and Free, visiting SeaWorld and Disneyland along the way. They met with doctors and discussed "game plans" for the first surgery, which will take place in mid-September.
For all that Ludlow and Free have done to help Marius, he's taught them something in return, Free said to stay strong.
One day, Marius was in a particularly rambunctious mood and pretended to eat his fingers and nose, then held up what's left of his hands asked with a chuckle, "Where did they go?" Free said she was impressed he could joke about such a tragic accident.
"All my little worries are nothing compared to him," she said.
It's this character that will have to sustain him during the next few years as doctors work to right the effects of that tragic November night. But Free said Marius is up to the task."He's such a trouper and a fighter," she said.
More information about Marius, the team that brought him to the U.S. and ways to contribute can be found at teammarius.org.