SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — For 23-year-old Alexis Hernández, leaving Puerto Rico in January 2019 to study medicine in Mexico was the culmination of a lifelong dream. For as long as he can remember, the young man from the coastal town of Camuy aspired to be a doctor.
"I always felt a call to serve others," he said. "And medicine has a big impact on the quality of life of people."
Hernández arrived at Guadalajara, the ornate capital of the western state of Jalisco, to familiarize himself with the city and prepare for the academic year. Other students from the island were living in his building and also attending the university, so he quickly felt like part of a community.
But hours before his first classes began, Hernández almost died in an explosion that left him with second- and third-degree burns over 70% of his body, and a medical debt of nearly $2 million that he said has even made him question whether he should have survived. Now he is waging a campaign with the help of Puerto Rican lawmakers to get his debt canceled.
In his new apartment, after saying farewell to his parents, Hernández turned on the water boiler to take a shower. The heating system blew up, engulfing him and his apartment in a violent blaze.
"The pain I felt was indescribable," he wrote on his Facebook page, where he regularly chronicles his recuperation. "I don't know how, but I said that everything would be fine (I was not wrong). I wanted to turn off that pain, even if it cost me my life."
Doctors managed to stabilize Hernández at a Mexican hospital and then transferred him to the U.S. Army's Institute of Surgical Research, a military facility in San Antonio, Texas, that specializes in treating burn victims.
Hernández spent 20 days in a coma and about two months in the intensive care unit. He then began the rehabilitation process to learn how to live independently again.
"The burns were so painful that I couldn't walk, I couldn't do anything. I had to relearn how to do everything," he told the Miami Herald.
Even his daily routine of taking showers and getting dressings changed was torturous, he said. Some of his days at the facility were so busy with procedures, tests, and therapy, he said, that he would rise from bed at 6 a.m. and go to sleep at 2 a.m.