LEWISTON — Niky Karamousadakis loves to cook, but the kitchen and the restaurant she created with her husband, Manolis, is now a source of nightmares.
On July 21, the 27-year-old mom was turning on her equipment at Niky's Restaurant in Lewiston when the gas oven failed to make its familiar ignition sound.
"I didn't hear the poof," she said. She bent down and opened a door beneath the oven.
A flame erupted from the oven.
"I burned my face, my lips and my eyebrows," she said. Second and third-degree burns seemed to cover her upper body. Her neck and her chest were burned. Her left arm up, thrown up to shield her eyes, took the worst of it. And though her eyelids were burned, her eyes were preserved.
"I can't think of anything worse to endure," Karamousadakis said at her home in Lewiston, where she is resting with her two children.
Today, her voice sounds unharmed. Her wounds are healing. Doctors tell her her face will be unscarred, if extra-sensitive to light.
But it's a day-by-day recovery.
Her left hand may suffer permanent nerve damage, she said. There is still physical therapy to tolerate, burn treatments to endure and counseling to talk through the searing memory of her experience.
It came at a particularly tough time for Karamousadakis, who had opened her restaurant at 30 Lowell St. last December. She specialized in preparing her own Greek recipes. Much of the interior work on the restaurant was done by her husband, Manolis.
"I felt like we were just getting our feet under us," she said. When she had her accident, the restaurant closed its doors. It hasn't reopened.
"Part of me feels like I'm letting my customers down," she said. People have left messages on her phone and Facebook wondering where she's gone. She doesn't have the strength to cook, yet. She doesn't have the strength yet hold her youngest child, who is almost 1 year old.
"I love to cook," she said. "But I can't yet."
"It's hard for me to walk back into that restaurant," she said. "I've been in there once and I had nightmares for a week and a half."
Part of that memory is of almost unendurable pain.
Immediately after the fire, her first instinct was to get to water.
She ran to the bathroom, saw her face beginning to swell and called 9-1-1. It wasn't easy, though. Painful blisters were appearing.
"My hand began to bubble," she said. She had to use the voice control on her phone to dial.
An ambulance took her to Central Maine Medical Center within moments. Minutes later, a helicopter flew her to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Karamousadakis spent nine days there. There will be more operations and more costs.
Some people are helping.
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lewiston is collecting monetary donations for the family, the Rev. Ted Toppses said Tuesday. People are encouraged to drop off their donations at the church and specify them for Niky.
And a group of local women are organizing a three-hour-long Zumba benefit scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, at Hot Stuff Tanning & Wellness Center on the Manley Road in Auburn. The cost to join the benefit is $15. There will also be raffles and donated items to buy.
Lana Gould, who owns the tanning and wellness center, said she had to help.
"I know what's like to put yourself into your business," Gould said.