Post courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser
Location: Prattville, AL
Date Of Injury: 2003
Ashley Smith is your normal 14-year-old. A tomboy who likes playing pickup football games at Marbury Middle School. Kentucky Fried Chicken is her favorite meal. She likes going ice skating with her friends.
Math and English are her favorite subjects. She likes watching Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and Lifetime on TV and hanging out and “being lazy.”
She has also survived 28 surgeries in her young life to repair injuries she received in a horrific act at the hands of her mother.
When Ashley was 14 months old, Melissa Wright placed her in an oven set on broil.
Evidence in the case showed the oven’s temperature had been set on 600 degrees.
The act took place at the family’s home near Millbrook, on a street named Harm’s Way.
Ashley received third-degree burns, and started on a path of surgery after surgery for a span of 10 years. Wright pleaded guilty on Aug. 21, 2003 to attempted murder charges and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
At the time, the story received national media attention. Ashley wants people to know she’s more than the “Girl in the Oven.”
“I’m still me, I’m still Ashley,” she said, tossing her long blonde hair back while showing an expression of grit and determination. “I’m not shy about it. Most of my friends know what happened. When I was little, if somebody asked me what happened I told them my house caught on fire. Now I just tell them.”
Thankfully Ashley has no memory of the event. But she does have memories of the surgeries, the first one being when she was about 3 years old.
Doctors put tissue expanders in her back. Devices that are filled with saline, the expanders did just what their name implies, they stretched the skin. Surgery after surgery after surgery the devices were removed, her healthy skin was stretched and then more tissue expanders were put in place for the next round.
All of this was done to remove the scarring on her back and allow healthy skin to grow. The technique was successful.
The only scar that remains now is a small line on her back that the family jokingly calls “The Zipper.” The surgeries are over.
Rhonda Zaffina is Ashley’s aunt and legal guardian. Ashley calls her “Mom.”
Ashley was a “handful” after the surgeries at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.
“She has a very high tolerance for pain,” Zaffina said. “She was 2 when we were up there and she got out of the bed after the surgery and started running down the halls. We had to tie her in bed to keep her in bed.”
Through it all Ashley had the same nurses in the burn unit.
“I love my nurses, they are like another family for me,” she said. “We still go up there to see them. I can remember being little after a surgery. Mom would be asleep in my room and I would climb out of the bed and sneak out.
“I’d go to the nurse’s station and we would watch TV or play games, play cards. Mom didn’t like that too much.”
Ashley also has fond memories of Camp Conquest, a summer camp program for pediatric burn patients. Held at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin, the camp gives kids the opportunity to be kids.
“It’s good to meet other people who have been through what you’ve been through,” she said.
Ashley first went to the camp when she was 7. Now she’s training to be a counselor. Even at the camp she didn’t let her injuries hold her back.
“When I had the tissue expanders in I wasn’t supposed to go tubing,” Ashley said. “I did it anyway.”
For most people who have been through what Ashley has been through, the last place they want to be is in a hospital. Not for Ashley, her dream is to be a surgeon, at Children’s Hospital of all places.
“I want to specialize in plastic surgery, reconstruction,” she said. “I want to help people. I want to be like the people who helped me.”
Ashley doesn’t have a relationship with her mother, Zaffina said matter-of-factly.
“We didn’t raise Ashley to be a victim, we raised her to be a survivor,” she said. “When she was about 4 we started telling her what happened in age specific terms. We never kept anything from her. Melissa is ‘Melissa’. Ashley has always known what happened.”
Ashley decided to come forward recently after hearing an advertisement in the local district attorney’s race. Casey Biggs, who is challenging incumbent Randall Houston, ran a spot making it appear Wright may be getting out of jail soon. She is up for parole next year, court records show.
“I didn’t like that,” Ashley said, pursing her lips.
So Ashley took part in her own commercial, telling her side and endorsing Houston.
Aside from any political bump his campaign may receive, Houston is “amazed” at the progress Ashley has made.
“When Ashley was very young, she grew up in my office,” Houston said. “She was constantly in and out as the case worked its way through the courts. She was very much a broken child. She didn’t want to be around strangers and she didn’t trust anyone.
“To see her now is just… it’s … I can’t describe how happy it makes us. This is an example of how a loving, supporting family can make all the difference in the life of a child. The young woman she has become, the adult she will become, is just a testament to her bravery and the love and support of her family.”
That’s the key in all of this, family, Ashley said.
“I’m so thankful for my adopted family, I’m so thankful for my mom,” she said. “That’s what let me make it. My family.”
She has guts, this one. And she has advice for anyone who may be facing a difficult road.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” she said, her voice taking on a steely tone. “You can’t quit, you can’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
“If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.”