On his way to and from his family's Tahoe Parkhome in the early 1990s, Evan Duran watched as a magnificent building began to rise from the ground on Stockton Boulevard and X Street.
"I passed by it every day, but there was no sign," he said. "I had no idea what it was."
It was Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, which eventually would house the largest pediatric burn center on the West Coast.
Lezlie Sterling / firstname.lastname@example.org
Little more than a year after the hospital opened in April 1997, the classic Mercury Cougar that Duran was driving burst into flames after a drunken driver struck it on the Capital City Freeway. Duran, a newly minted graduate of Sacramento Charter High School, was on fire.
Two weeks later he woke from a medically induced coma in the intensive care unit at Shriners, heavily sedated with third-degree burns searing his face, back and arms.
"Where am I?" he asked his mother, Chris.
Nurses took him out to the hospital balcony, where he could see the top of Sacramento High's gym. It would be months before Duran realized how lucky he was to have landed in the building he had watched take shape.
On Thursday, 14 years to the day after the accident that nearly killed him, Duran returned to Shriners to see the doctors, nurses and other caretakers who "made me whole again," he said. The occasion was a gathering of a group of high schoolers from across America who are interested in practicing medicine.
The students, members of the National Youth Leadership Forum, seemed riveted as Duran told his story.
Tall and lanky with an engaging manner, he still bears thick scars that are a daily reminder of his ordeal. "See these?" Duran said, pulling at his ears. "These had to be completely redone." He showed off his surgically reconstructed right hand, and his heavily scarred arm.
The crash and its aftermath changed him in more subtle ways as well, Duran told the group.
Before his accident, "I didn't care about anybody but myself," he said. "I had no ambitions, no goals. I was very happy to be a skateboarder and a snowboarder who worked busing tables. I had always hated school and had no interest in college. I was 18, and I just wanted to be free."
He spent six months at Shriners, undergoing a series of excruciating treatments and surgeries to repair burned tendons, skin and muscle.
"I hated the therapists at times," he said. "Everything hurts so much."
But after awhile, he said, he began to get better and realize that the Shriners specialists "only wanted the best for me, wanted me not just to survive but to thrive and do whatever I wanted to do in life."
Staffers took care of his family, too. "They kept me together, honestly," Chris Duran said.
After his release, Duran returned to the hospital numerous times for follow-up treatment. He still views his former caretakers as friends and surrogate family.
Remarkably, the Duran family never got a bill for his state-of-the-art treatment. Shriners still provides care to children up to the age of 18 regardless of a family's ability to pay, but bills insurance companies for treatment of patients who have coverage.
The hospital, which celebrates its 15th birthday this year, specializes in orthopedics, burns, spinal cord injury and plastic surgery to repair cleft palates. Its doctors are considered among the best in the world.
It is now the busiest pediatric burn center in California and "perhaps the United States," said Shirley Thomas, manager of the hospital's ICU. It gets patients from across the globe, drawing most heavily from the western United States and Mexico.
Three years ago, the hospital treated a dozen Mexican children who became trapped in a day care center that went up in flames, said Thomas. More than 40 youngsters died in that tragedy.
Thomas' own son, Cory Bunse, received treatment at Shriners after he suffered a paralyzing spinal injury in an accident on his dirt bike.
The hospital features a school, a gym and a library. It offers counseling to siblings and parents of patients.
"For me, after awhile," Duran recalled, "it felt like home."
Now 32, Duran is attending Sacramento City College, pursuing a dream of working as a professional photographer. He is the photo editor of the college newspaper, the Express. He speaks about his experience as a burn patient to anyone who wants to listen, and volunteers at events for youngsters who have suffered traumatizing injuries, "kids like me," he said.
"Maybe I could be a photography teacher," he mused Thursday with a smile. "Maybe I could even work here at Shriners as a photographer."
"That would be perfect for me."