Focusing On The Future – On Thursday, June 11, 2009 when I arrived home from work to find my roommate prepping dinner but hadn’t started the BBQ so I offered to get it started. Steaks and a beer were going to be the perfect way to relax in a beautiful warm Kamloops evening!
Our landlord had left an old rusty charcoal bbq that I had cleaned up a few days prior. I lit the charcoal using lighter fluid as I usually did, noticing that I had emptied the container and would have to pick some more up on my way home the following evening.
About five to ten minutes later, I went outside to check if the bbq was hot enough to start cooking the steaks. Unfortunately the charcoal hadn’t caught fire and the bbq was almost cold to the touch again. Annoyed, and not wanting to delay dinner I saw the little gas can that I had filled up a few days ago when mowing the lawn.
I reached out my hand to drizzle a little bit of the gas around the edges, and since I was pretty confident that all the embers were out, I glanced over at the cat inspecting the back yard, called to him to get his attention so he wouldn’t hop the fence, and then casually tossed the rest of the container of gas onto the heap of charcoal.
Suddenly I was engulfed in a huge ball of fire. It happened so quickly, but I can still vividly recall the flames rolling towards me. My hair was long, and it instantly caught fire. The heat combined with the sound of hair burning made me start pounding at the fire with my hands. Instinctively I ran into the back door, I don’t remember screaming outside, but once inside my friend heard me yelling and he burst through the door into the entrance way/laundry room. At this point I was trying to get the laundry room sink running. Looking up I could see myself on fire in the mirror over the sink, and as I tried to turn the faucet I watched the skin on my hands slip off and peel away like a rubber glove.
My friend grabbed me and we fell to the floor…rolling around and beating out the fire on my hands and head. It felt like an eternity as every time he put out a spot and went to the next he first spot would flare up again.
Once the flames were out I started going into shock and my body had begun shaking uncontrollably. The neighbours had called 911 and it seemed like forever, but I finally heard the sirens. When the firefighters arrived they started pouring saline solution over my face, neck and hands. It was instant relief – but only as long as there was a constant stream of saline. The ambulance arrived shortly after; and as the paramedics and firefighters stood around discussing how they would get me moved up onto the stretcher, I stood up and went and sat down on the stretcher for them.
When they got me into the ambulance, they gave me a shot to help with the pain…but I kept telling them it wasn’t enough and they needed to give me more. I was still pretty coherent when I got into the hospital, they asked me all the usual questions; age/date of birth etc. and then asked me if they could cut off my shirt and bra. I don’t remember much after that, but was told that they gave me general anesthesia and intubated me because they had given me as much morphine as they could, and I still wouldn’t go to sleep. I was MedEvac’ed to Vancouver General Hospital that night to the ICU unit.
The doctors told my family that I probably wouldn’t wake up for a few days as they wanted to keep me sedated because of the pain, but being the stubborn person that I am, I woke up early the next morning.
It was a really strange experience, because even though it felt like a dream, I knew exactly what had happened and where I was. I couldn’t talk because of the breathing tubes, so I managed to write a few words into the air to the ICU nurse, and she assured me that my family was on the way. They would only allow one person at a time into my room, but my brothers and nephew along with a few friends spent many hours waiting to see me.
The following days are a really big blur, I remember feeling like I wasn’t getting any sleep, although I’m sure that’s really all I did. I really wanted water, and kept asking what my face was going to look like. I very badly wanted access to my iPhone, but neglected to factor in that I could barely see from under the bandages, much less use my hands that completely bandaged at that point.
I went into surgery for skin grafting to my neck and right hand on a Monday and woke up as soon as I got back to the room and called my brother as I wanted someone to know I had made it through the surgery!
My dad and sister flew in to see me and were such a support. My sister went in with me to the ‘burn shower’ and held my hand and helped me make the decision to cut off the rest of my badly burned hair. She is my hero!
My 80-year-old Dad sat with me for several hours one day as they removed the 150+ staples from the grafting in my hand. I had most of the use of my left hand back at that point and I was surprised I didn’t squeeze his hand right off. The grafting on my hand and neck were 100% successful so no further surgeries or staple removals were needed!
A week after I arrived at the hospital I was told that the place I was currently living in had just sold and I had to be out by the end of the following month. This was the first time I cried. It finally just seemed too much to deal with at the time. I had my friends and family running back and forth to the hospital fax machine, contacting my bank and realtor to get the documents in order for me to purchase the condo I had looked at earlier on the day of my accident. I couldn’t sign the first set of paperwork that came through…as I couldn’t hold a pen. So my favorite occupational therapist designed a pen that I could hold with my bandages on and still sign the paperwork.
I was released on Friday June 26th, two weeks after arriving there. This was my first time out in public with my scarf and hat in the middle of summer. The months after my return home were much harder than I anticipated. All the love and support I had in the hospital was suddenly very far away, and I was faced with moving and settling into a new home while still on some very heavy pain meds and unable to use my hands. I had only lived in Kamloops for 7 months at this time, so outside of my work colleagues, I had very little support. My boyfriend at the time stayed with me out of a sense of obligation, but the scarring and lack of hair that made me feel ugly and insecure, were also an issue for him.
I was off work for 5 weeks and then begged my employer to at least let me start working again from home for a couple hours a day. I was so happy to be back at work and feeling useful again.
The next six months were a blur, and the next thing I really recall of that year was my father being diagnosed with cancer in December. It was now my turn to sit at his hospital bedside and hold his hand as he fought for his life.
The loss of my hair was a significant struggle for me. We always want to believe that we are loved for who we are inside, not what we look like…but losing something that has always identified you, as YOU…is very hard. The scarring on my face was minimal to begin with, but after about three weeks the scars began to grow around my lips and my smile began to become crooked. I was really concerned about this and I had many painful shots of codeine to try and reduce the scar tissue build-up in my face.
I am extremely lucky and for the most part my treatments worked and I have very little scarring on my face. Most of the people around me continuously told me I was still beautiful and they didn’t notice the scarring, but my boyfriend at the time had some serious hang-ups about physical appearances. The day that he shuddered and pulled back at my touch was when I finally admitted our relationship was over and I needed to move on.
Within weeks of being single, I was laughing again, beginning to love being alive, and most of all beginning to accept and be grateful for my changed and scarred body. I was finally allowing myself to focus on the future instead of having a constant reminder of the past.
I now gauge whom I allow to be my friends and associates by the amount of joy, honesty, acceptance and lack of judgment they bring into my life. I want to learn something amazing about life from each person I come into contact with. I want to know what struggles and challenges have made them who they are today. I find myself very curious about other people’s physical scars…really wanting to know their story and how they overcame or are still overcoming their scars and disabilities.
I feel humbled by my fellow burn survivors who have dealt with much more pain and scarring then I have. It takes an inner strength like none other to go through what you have gone through. Now we all look to the future!