DON’T HIDE! – HEAD UP AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS – My name is Buffy Sherreitt and I recently celebrated my 36th birthday on Aug. 13th 2009. In 1978, I celebrated my fifth birthday in the old burn unit in VGH.
On the morning of June 15th, 1978, my life was to change in ways I could never have imagined. My parents had both worked late the night before, and were sleeping in. My 13-year-old sister Karla and my 7-year-old brother Ira had gotten up early, and were ready to leave for school just after 8 o’clock.
I remember walking down the stairs just as they were going out the door. “Aren’t you making me breakfast?” I asked. “No time, we’re late!” they yelled back. As I watched them walking past our kitchen window on their way to the school just across the street, I remember thinking, “OK then, I’ll make my own breakfast.”
For some reason, I decided I would make some Quaker Instant Porridge. I put some water in the kettle, set it on the front element but I was too small to turn it on. I got a chair up to the front of the stove, climbed up and reached over to turn the dial up to High.
Once the kettle was boiling, I moved it over to the side element and then got back on my chair to turn the red-hot element to Off. I guess I forgot I was only four and felt much older because I was wearing my big sister’s nightgown which hung down to the floor on me. I remember gathering the nightgown up in my left hand as I climbed on the chair again and leaned over the glowing element to reach the control dial. “Don’t drop the nightgown!” I thought to myself. I knew I was doing something that I probably shouldn’t.
As I stepped back down on the chair, I put out my left hand for balance and dropped the bottom of the nightgown right on the burner. That’s when everything went wrong. Instant flames. “MUM, DAD” I screamed. In probably 30 seconds, Dad was there, tore off his house-coat and wrapped me up in it, rolling me on the floor. Once the flames were out, I remember being in Mum’s arms as Dad sped us to the hospital.
Apparently we made the trip from 132nd Street to Surrey Memorial Hospital on 96th Street in barely five minutes, which probably means we ran red-lights and broke the speed limit! I remember overhearing a discussion about having to shave off my beautiful, long blonde hair and saying “No, No, No…” but apparently they didn’t listen to me. Later that day, after I was transferred to the Vancouver General Burn Unit, I remember being wheeled past my family and saying “Hi Grandma!”
My team of doctors then decided I would be put into an induced coma for ten days. Because my situation was so serious, I had a constant vigil nurse. When I finally woke up, I said to the on-duty nurse, “I think I burnt myself. Next time I’ll try to make toast!”
The nurse then called my mother and my grandma answered. They feared bad news. The nurse got my Mum on the phone and told her, “Someone wants to talk to you.” Mum thought my Doctor was going to give her the bad news. “Hi Mum, where are you?” I asked. She screamed and the race was on to visit me.
The next while is just a foggy blur consisting of several burn baths, the worst pain ever! I would get picked up in a kind of sling by a crane and lowered down into a big metal tub, where I was totally submersed. Then the staff scrubbed off all my old, dead skin. A total burn bath is something I wish nobody ever had to go through.
I knew I was getting better when I told my Dad I wanted a piano. The next day he showed up with a kid-size white baby grand. I was beyond happy!
Throughout July, the grafting process began. Because of the threat of infection, my movement was restricted via a roller-bed. The first move was to remove my feeding tube. I hated that.
By now, I was starting to get pumped up for my fifth birthday on August, 13th. The nurses prepared the big party room down the hall with balloons and my Uncle Barry still remembers how he drove all night long with the rest of my Dad’s band from Prince George, just to be there at 2:00 o’clock, Sunday afternoon. He even wrote me a poem which I have framed on my apartment wall. I’ll include it at the end of my story.
As I continued to improve, I set some goals for myself. I wanted a promotion from my boring, private room to a four-bed unit down the hall where there would be more “Action.” After all, now that I was five, I needed to know exactly what was going on!
Other goals were to stand-up, learn to walk, and wear my own clothes. One of my favorite pictures from back then has me in my red over-alls, red Peanut Tee-shirt and red and white slippers. Did I mention my favorite color is red? It still is.
Because nothing could be allowed to touch me, I lived in a tent-awning contraption, but at least now I was in a ward with people coming and going so I knew “who’s who in the zoo!” At this time I remember having awkward casts on for weeks when various grafts were done. When they would cut the plaster off I was always nervous about the blade cutting into my tummy. The machine was so loud to my five year old ears!
In pictures of those days, I looked like the Michilan Man, with my white bandages from head to toe, up to my chin. After being in bed for months, I now needed lots of physio as I learned to walk again. It was a huge adjustment to being upright for the first time.
I now discovered the all-time favorite place to be in my world. I even began taking my meals at the intersection in front of the nurse’s station and the elevator. From here I had a birds-eye view of who’s coming in and who’s going out…the crossroads of the action. The nurses basically allowed me to have my run of the place.
After six months, I developed a new perspective. While I saw everyone who came and left through the door, I now wanted to venture out to the other side of that door. I wanted to go home for Christmas. Without saying, it was my best one ever. I was spoiled rotten.
Fast forward to my Big Day Number Three. For my first day of school, I wore a full face mask and body pressure garment. It was a little hard at the beginning as some of the boys said mean things, but I guess they had never been exposed to someone like me and didn’t know how to react. But things got considerably better as they got to know me. Eventually I made lots of friends and people began to look past the bandages and were able to see me for who I really was.
As I grew, everything needed constant re-doing. This meant in and out of the hospital on a yearly basis for what I call my “maintenance and up-keep” surgeries. When I turned nine, I took ballet lessons and this was the best thing I ever did. It taught me proper posture, to keep my head up instead of down, which in turn gave me self-esteem and showed me the benefits of discipline, flexibility and having a good work ethic.
Because of the economic situation my family was in and because ballet school was so expensive, to get a rate reduction, I worked at the school. For several years I cleaned the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, washed floors, cleaned bathrooms and vacuumed the waiting area.
Only once did I ever cheat and sweep stuff under the big rug, and when caught by the owner it taught me a very good lesson…don’t be lazy, do the work! I was eventually hired on to teach ballet by that very same person.
Through my late teens and early twenties, I was employed around the Lower Mainland in several retail positions. As we used to say in one of them, “We’re living the Sport Chek Dream.”
Eventually I was allowed to follow my real dream of becoming a make-up artist.
In Grade Seven, when I was twelve, my big sister Karla had given me my first make-up palette. I was completely mesmerized by the magic transformations I could achieve. My mum even let me practice on her.
As my career progressed, this opened up a whole new world to me, allowing me to travel and work in Paris, Strasbourg, Milan, Toronto, Montreal and many others places.
I firmly believe that I would not be the happy person I am today without the daily, unwavering support of my mother who tells me every day that I am beautiful and can do anything I set my mind to. The rest of my family has also been incredibly supportive.
When I was still fairly new in ballet class, the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company announced they were holding auditions for the Nutcracker Suite to be held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. My ballet teacher at the time told everyone in our group about the auditions except me. When my friends told me, I asked my teacher, “Why?”. “Your scars, dear.” she said. “What about them?” I asked. She told me that if I was going to try out anyway, at least I should wear a body leotard.
Instead I wore my favourite spaghetti straps, nailed the audition, got the position and danced for the two-week run as lead soldier, leading the crew out onto the stage every night for our encore bows. I guess the moral is…don’t hide when you’ve nothing to be ashamed of.
Today, I work as a make-up assistant for CTV and recently had the thrill of being involved with the 2010 Winter Olympics, making the medal winning athletes look good on their podium moments. All in all, with the good things I have in my life today, I consider myself a very lucky girl!
I would like to end my story with a poem that was written by my treasured Uncle Barry:
BUFFY’S FIFTH BIRTHDAY POEM
This is a story ‘bout my friend named Buffy,
Famous in Surrey as the neighbourhood tuffy,
Long blonde hair and big blue eyes
With a smile too big for a person her size.
Now a few months back ‘round the start of summer,
Bufferoonie got into a bit of a bummer,
Karla and Ira had split for class,
Dad was in the bedroom, patting Mom’s…cake.
Buff, like namesake, Ms. Saint Marie,
Has a mind of her own, both funny and free,
She heard a big rumble deep down in her belly,
That drowned out “Sesame Street” on the telly.
Into the kitchen young Buffy did bound,
Quite the little fox in her long nightgown,
Checking out her limited choice of snacks,
Grocery shopping, Mom’s been lax.
Buff thought maybe she’d boil some water,
But knew she’d need the stove on hotter.
She climbed a chair so she could reach,
But things got hotter than “Pacheena Beach.”
So today Buffalo woman just turned five,
And knows we love her under all this jive.
Next time she feels like having a roast,
Maybe she’d better just settle for toast!