Now and then, like anyone else puttering around the kitchen, Bonnie Bowes might accidentally touch a too-hot pan.
Instinctive recoil, then math: How many times would she have to multiply that flash of pain — how many thousands of times — to begin to understand her daughter’s suffering?
Such an equation is impossible, she knows. But the other calculation on her mind remains maddeningly straightforward.
“The most he could get is 12 years,” Bowes said of the man who, investigators say, doused her daughter with gasoline and set her ablaze.
The attack on Judy Malinowski took place in August — more than 200 days ago — and Malinowski, a 32-year-old mother of two and former Miss New Albany, has been in the hospital ever since. Her nurses at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center can’t recall any other patient who has survived as long with burns so severe.
Bowes knows that people wonder whether Malinowski would have told doctors that day to keep trying, to find ways to get air into her lungs and medication into her charred body. Ninety percent of it was covered in third- and fourth-degree burns.
“Would she want to be like this? Would she want to go on?” Bowes said. “She would.”
Bowes has deep faith and a certainty that God is working through the medical professionals who have, against long odds, kept Malinowski alive as she finally started to breathe on her own, mouth words and take a few steps.
“She’d want to stay to help someone — anyone,” Bowes said. “Do you want to know why she was Miss New Albany? Because she was the sweetest kid there was. She had the nicest personality.”
Already, her family believes, Malinowski’s ordeal has brought forth lessons on love and strength, violence and justice, burn-care protocols and, perhaps most important, the unyielding will of a mother who wants to go home to her children.
Horrified witnesses called Gahanna police a little after 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2, to report that a woman was on fire behind the Speedway gas station near a neighboring bank branch at Agler and Stygler roads. One caller said that the assailant appeared to have ignited her and then tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher.
Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Warren Edwards has said that Malinowski and the suspect — identified as her ex-boyfriend, Michael W. Slager — had been arguing in the bank parking lot and that Slager admitted pouring gasoline on Malinowski.
But the 40-year-old Gahanna man denies purposely starting the fire, said his attorney, Robert Krapenc.
According to Slager, Krapenc said, Malinowski splashed a drink on him, and he splashed gas on her from a container he had in his vehicle. “Things calmed down. She pulled out a cigarette, and he went to light it,” Krapenc said. “It’s horrible. Regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental, the bottom line is, she’s still suffering through it.”
Slager’s trial on charges of aggravated arson, felonious assault and possession of criminal tools is scheduled to begin next month.
If he’s convicted, the sentences for arson and assault likely would be merged, Edwards said. Ohio law doesn’t allow a judge to tack years onto a felonious-assault sentence in the event of gruesome injuries.
“If I thought I could get an ounce more out if it,” Edwards said of the 12-year maximum, “I would.”
Malinowski, a divorced mother of two and a cancer survivor, had struggled with an opioid addiction, Bowes said. She seemed to be doing well in the months before she met Slager on Facebook. “She thought she could help him,” Bowes said. “She felt sorry for him.”
But Malinowski soon would tell her family that she feared Slager, whose extensive criminal history includes convictions for sexual battery and menacing by stalking. “We even hid her in hotels,” Bowes said, but he always seemed to find her.
“He had the ‘If I can’t have her, no one will,’ ‘’ Bowes said. “That’s a real syndrome.”
Malinowski has so far endured more than 20 surgeries and procedures, numerous infections and fevers, plus hundreds of burn- and skin graft-dressing changes. Little remains of her left hand and most of her hair is gone. Her ears fell off in the hospital bed.
Sometimes treatments are so agonizing that veteran nurses K Ashworth and Stayce Besst fight their own tears. They work quickly, apologize, look for signs of their patient’s determination or — no one could blame her — resignation.
“You can see her gritting her teeth,” Ashworth said. “She tells me it’s OK.”
Burn patients who make it this far often seem to draw from a wellspring of love, the nurses say, and Malinowski has book-end reservoirs: her parents, who visit every day, and her daughters, Kaylyn, 11, and Madison, 8.
“I strongly believe in the maternal instinct,” Besst said.
Although Malinowski still cannot speak clearly, she and her mother have their own language. “She knows what Judy wants before we do,” Ashworth said.
Bowes takes pride in the role her daughter has played in improving care for other critically burned patients. Caregivers have learned, for example, that their caloric needs are likely even higher than thought, Ashworth said. “You and I need 1,200 or 1,300. She needs like 5,000.”
Malinowski’s case also prompted the burn unit to standardize a color-coded body diagram to track multiple dressings and grafts.
She has made clear she wants to tell her story, and she hopes that it can help other women recognize the danger of abusive relationships, Bowes said. “The public needs to know what he did. If it saves one other girl, thank God.”
As the time between infections and other crises widens, Malinowski’s family and caregivers allow themselves to glimpse further into the future. It’s uncertain, of course, and everyone talks in terms of long roads, steep hills and fields of land mines.
She faces years of reconstructive surgeries and therapies and profound discomfort. The psychological toll, too, will be immense.
But Malinowski’s strong heart, relative youth and determination have greatly improved her chances, said OSU burn surgeon Dr. J. Kevin Bailey. “We always want to use guarded language,” he said. But for now, “Our expectation is that she’ll do fine.”
Bowes has been a “fierce” member of the care team, Bailey said with a smile.
A doctor who warned her that allowing Malinowski to be resuscitated would lead to unimaginable hardship was right. But neither has it ever felt wrong, the mother said, to give her daughter every opportunity to live.
“I see an angel in the bed because she’s beautiful to me,” Bowes said. “She’s here.”
It’s been gut-wrenching for Malinowski’s siblings, 27-year-old Danielle Gorman and 11-year-old Patrick Bowes, to see her. Patrick, who has Down syndrome, prays for her before he eats.
Please, God, make my sissy better.
One of the hardest decisions so far was to let Malinowski’s children come to the hospital. Kaylyn and Madison cling to each other now, Bowes said. On the day she was burned, Malinowski had just called her mom to say she was coming to pick them up.
“Thirty-one minutes later, the next call is from OSU’s trauma unit,” Bowes said.
Besst carefully prepared Kaylyn and Madison, whose photo she sees every day on Malinowski’s bedside table. Your mom doesn’t look the same, she explained. “But you’re still going to see your mommy.”
Indifferent to any pain, Malinowski reached for her girls.
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