For the 11th day, the vigil and the parade of visitors continued Thursday at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx where Betty Shabazz, the critically burned widow of Malcolm X, is fighting for her life.
Her struggle is becoming a story not only of medical technology but also of the human sprit. Everyone from former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch to Coretta Scott King to poet Maya Angelou has visited the hospital where Shabazz, a 61-year-old college administrator, has undergone five operations to remove tissue charred in a fire that authorities say was set deliberately by her 12-year-old grandson.
On Thursday, scores of people rolled up their sleeves to give blood in her name in the basement of the Carver Federal Savings Bank in Harlem.
“She is a strong black woman who has gone through a lot of adversity and tried to raise a family - someone I feel proud of,” said Laurence Holland, a real estate appraiser, as antiseptic was painted on his arm prior to the needle.
“She was in trouble. She was a person I needed to help,” added Elizabeth Maurice, 28, a cold compress on her forehead to help with some dizziness after giving blood.
“The support has been incredible,” said Eleanor Tatum, a friend, who organized the blood drive.
“I gave blood on Monday,” said Thomas L. Clark Jr., president and chief executive officer of the bank.”… I have known her for about 10 years, and her late husband was my hero. This is bringing people of all races and nationalities together doing something meaningful.”
Authorities have charged Shabazz’s grandson with juvenile delinquency for allegedly setting the blaze. Shabazz’s nightgown caught fire when she tried to extinguish the flames. A statement issued Thursday by the Jacobi Medical Center said Shabazz was in extremely critical condition. The hospital said 85 percent of her entire skin surface had been removed and replaced.
“I am sure she has already forgiven (the grandson),” said Shabazz’s good friend Basil Paterson.
“You will hear nothing but glowing remarks about her,” he said. “Betty is one of the most down-to-earth people you will ever meet. She has been a mother, a friend, an active person in the community. She is very strong. You have seen people’s response to her.”
Shabazz has been heavily sedated, and it is unclear if she fully realizes the outpouring of support she has received.
Thirty-two years have passed since bullets felled Malcolm X on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, suddenly turning his wife, pregnant with twins, into a widow. She was sitting with their four little daughters, and some of the children were splattered with their father’s blood.
A week before, their house was firebombed.
Malcolm X had feuded with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, before the fatal attack, and was called a traitor by Louis Farrakhan, now the group’s leader.
But if her husband was a controversial figure, Betty Shabazz’s courage in the face of tragedy has brought forth a deep reservoir of admiration.
Shabazz refused to buckle after her husband’s death (three men with links to the National of Islam were convicted in the slaying). She returned to school, became a registered nurse, earned a master’s degree in public health administration, then completed her Ph.D in education from the University of Massachusetts.
She headed the office of institutional advancement at Medgar Evers College when she was burned earlier this month in her Yonkers apartment in what prosecutors charge was a gasoline-fed fire set by her emotionally troubled grandson, who resented being sent to live with his grandmother.
The grandson is the son of Qubilah Shabazz, who was the focus of the most recent family angst. Last year federal prosecutors said Qubilah conspired to kill Farrakhan, apparently in revenge for her father’s slaying. She maintained her innocence. Last month charges were dropped after she signed court papers accepting responsibility for her conduct and agreed to undergo drug treatment.
Burn care is a complex area of medicine, and the challenges Betty Shabazz and her physicians face are daunting.
“The initial injury causes tremendous stress on the body,” said Dr. Roger W. Yurt, director of the burn unit at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. “The metabolism of the body doubles. The heart function has to double. The kidney function has to double. The nutritional needs of a patient can increase up to 200 percent of normal.”
Atop of what can be tremendous swelling because of a local inflammatory response, stress of the injury can compromise the body’s immune system, causing patients to be susceptible to infections.
“Initially, patients can require huge amounts of fluids to resuscitate them from shock,” said Dr. Yurt. ” … The objective is to replace the skin function as soon as you possibly can. The main thing is to get more skin on to keep her from getting an infection.”