In this 1977 photo provided by Albany Medical Center, nurse Susan Berger cuddles infant Amanda Scarpinati, who had been severely burned by a steam vaporizer at home, in the pediatric unit. (Carl Howard/Albany Medical Center via AP)
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — For 38 years, a few black-and-white photographs of a nurse cradling a baby provided comfort to a woman who suffered terrible burns and endured years of playground taunts and painful surgeries thereafter. For all that time, until Tuesday, she dreamed of meeting her again.
The photos show Amanda Scarpinati at just 3 months old, her head thickly wrapped in gauze, resting calmly in the nurse's arms. Shot for the Albany Medical Center's 1977 annual report, the images have a beatific, "Madonna and Child" quality.
As a baby, she had rolled off a couch onto a boiling steam vaporizer. Melted mentholated ointment scalded her skin. The burns would require many reconstructive surgeries over the years.
The photos helped.
"Growing up as a child, disfigured by the burns, I was bullied and picked on, tormented," she said. "I'd look at those pictures and talk to her, even though I didn't know who she was. I took comfort looking at this woman who seemed so sincere, caring for me."
Scarpinati now lives Athens, 25 miles south of Albany, and works as a human resources manager. All her life, she wanted to thank the nurse who showed her such loving care, but she didn't even know her name.
She tried to find out 20 years ago, without success. The pictures were taken by photographer Carl Howard, but his subjects weren't identified.
At a friend's urging, she tried again this month, posting the photos on Facebook and pleading for help.
"Within 12 hours, it had gone viral with 5,000 shares across the country," said Scarpinati.
She had her answer within a day: The fresh-faced young nurse with the long wavy hair was Susan Berger, then 21. Angela Leary, a fellow nurse at the medical center back then, recognized her and sent Scarpinati a message, saying Berger "was as sweet and caring as she looks in this picture."
Preserved by the photos, their encounters in the pediatric recovery room turned out to have a lasting impact on both their lives.
"I remember her," Berger said before they met face to face on Tuesday. "She was very peaceful. Usually when babies come out of surgery, they're sleeping or crying. She was just so calm and trusting. It was amazing."
Berger had been fresh out of college, and baby Amanda was one of her first patients. Now she's nearing the end of her career, overseeing the health center at Cazenovia College in New York's Finger Lakes region.
Both women were thrilled to see each other again Tuesday, sobbing and embracing as cameras clicked all around them in a medical center conference room.
"Oh my God, you're real! Thank you!" Scarpinati said.
"Thank YOU!" Berger responded.
If any scars remain, Scarpinati doesn't show them, from her long dark hair to the butterfly tattoo just above her ankle. Berger also seems youthful and upbeat, with shoulder-length blonde hair, slightly shorter than how she wore it in 1977.
"I'm over the moon to meet Sue ... I never thought this day would come," Scarpinati said.
Berger said she feels even more blessed.
"I don't know how many nurses would be lucky enough to have something like this happen, to have someone remember you all that time," Berger said. "I feel privileged to be the one to represent all the nurses who cared for her over the years."
Someone asked if their reunion might be the start of a lifelong friendship.
Scarpinati had a quick answer to that: "It already has been a lifelong friendship. She just didn't know."
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