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Tuesday, 24 May 2011 23:52

Looking Good, Feeling Great

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Last Saturday evening, dressed up to the nines and head held high, I went out for dinner with my friends in a trendy part of Vancouver, and didn’t get noticed once. I was elated. Yes, I was happy not to be glanced at, stared at, or leered at, because that is my every day reality as a facial burn survivor, and for once, I got my anonymity back, and for once, I did not have to explain what had happened to me to anyone. I could just be me: Karen. 

Marc had rented out a trailer for the winter in the interior of British Columbia, and that’s where we were staying at the moment that would change our lives forever. It was freezing in there, and I especially felt it as I had just arrived from Brazil, where I was teaching English. So Marc made sure the wood stove was always going. The plan was to spend just a few days there, and then we would fly off to spend Christmas in Quebec, where I’d meet his family for the first time. Marc didn’t want to leave the trailer unheated, so he decided it would be best to light the propane furnace. He had gotten the OK from the landlady, and lit it - not knowing that the trailer was dangerously riddled with leaks (as an old propane stove had been removed by a previous tenant) and had not been capped off properly. We sat around watching the sitcom “Friends” and reminiscing about our days in Thailand, unaware that propane gas was trickling into the trailer. Half an hour later, I decided to go outside for a cigarette. I opened the door and as the air from outside mixed with the leaking propane gas, there was a bang, and I was engulfed in flames.
The next few moments are lost, but apparently Marc ran through the fire and pushed me out of the door. The next thing I remember is putting my face in the frost-covered grass, trying to put the flames out, and screaming for help. The next-door neighbor came to our aid, and took us into his house. He put us in the shower, and I remember looking in the mirror, seeing greyish skin hanging off my face and hands. I could smell our burning hair and flesh. But at least I couldn’t feel any pain. I had gone into shock.
The ambulance arrived after what seemed like an eternity, and we were both rushed to the hospital. I was somehow able to give someone my father’s phone number in England. I remember a nurse taking the nail polish off my toenails. And then all went black.
We were flown to Vancouver General Hospital. I have no memory of that, or being admitted into the Intensive Care Unit. All I remember from that time are my hallucinations. They gave me high doses of morphine and other medication to dull the pain. But the hallucinations were both horrendous and bizarre. I could not tell what was real and what was imagined. These hallucinations remain with me today, as vivid as they were in those first traumatic weeks.

Even though I was not conscious, I knew that I was seriously injured, and that my life was teetering on the balance. The hospital chaplain visited me on at least two occasions to read me my last rites. I had a near-death experience. I saw the bright white light that people talk about. I realized I was dying, and as a last ditch effort, tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but kept getting stuck at “Give us this day our daily bread.” Maybe that did the trick, because I was told that it wasn’t my time, and to go back. I suddenly got an incredible sense of well-being, and knew that I was going to live. I also knew that when I would eventually die, there would be nothing to fear. I remember telling everyone that would listen that I had spoken to Jesus, and I know I wasn’t hallucinating that because it’s in my medical records.
When I woke up after being in ICU for a couple of weeks, my hands were wrapped in big bandages, as they had already been grafted. The surgeons had taken skin from my legs, and had put it through a special mesh to stretch it out and place it on my hands. This meant, of course, that I could do nothing for myself.
And then there was my face. All of it was burnt, except for around my eyes (thank God for my glasses!), and I needed to have skin grafts. The big question the doctors had was from where would they get the skin? Leg skin has a completely different texture than facial skin, and it would look really odd on my face. In the end, it was decided that they would take it from my scalp. This does not mean that I am completely bald now. In fact, I have almost all of my hair. The doctors have the technical know-how to remove just the top layer of skin from a head, without taking the hair follicles, so the hair grows back.
In all, 15 percent of my body got second and third degree burns. It doesn’t really sound like a lot, but the areas were cosmetically and functionally important, namely my face and hands, as well as a thick strip across my back.
I stayed in the hospital for nearly three months. My father was my helper. He would feed me, wipe away the blood that would trickle down my neck, read ‘get well wishes’ to me, and hold the phone for me. He was there when I was told that I had a superbug, which resulted in my grafts being rejected and my second degree burns converting to third.
I struggled with the superbug for several weeks in isolation, but eventually an antibiotic-of-last-resort was successful in ridding my body of it, and my grafts finally took. It was a very happy occasion, as was the first time I walked. I felt like the Queen of England walking around the Burn Unit, waving to everyone, so proud of myself for taking those first shaky steps.
My travel insurance hadn’t covered even a fraction of my stay on the Burn Unit, and I had racked up quite a bill. Even though I felt I needed to be with Marc (as he was the only person who could truly understand what I was going through), as a British person without sufficient medical insurance, I had no choice but to go back to my country of birth. With a heavy heart, I returned to England.
My days were spent going from town to town, from one appointment to the other. I had physiotherapy and occupational therapy appointments. I had to see a plastic surgeon every week. I was fitted with special garments to put pressure on my scars, so that they would flatten out, and these had to be constantly adjusted, and worn for 23.5 hours a day, seven days a week, for two years.

I also had to wear a hard plastic mask for the same reason, also day and night – but this I had to wear for three years – even on the day that I wed Marc. Can you imagine the kind of reactions I would get, walking around town looking like that? Kids stared, of course, and asked questions. I didn’t mind that so much. What upset me most was when adults would point, gasp in horror, or amazingly laugh at me! I was often treated like a freak, and people would speak to me slowly and simply as if I were mentally-challenged. Some people thought I had a contagious skin disease and would keep me at arm’s length. It was hard, especially losing my anonymity – not being able to walk down the street unnoticed, and everyone knowing my business. At first it would upset me terribly, and I would either react angrily or give them a dirty look, or even see if I could outstare them. Eventually I came to learn that I could not really change what people thought of me. It was only how I reacted back to their stares that I had control over. By the end of the three-year period, I would hardly notice it when people would look at me. I would just go about my life, and try to convince myself that I blended into the crowds. Sunglasses helped too. They were something I could hide behind when I felt the need for some privacy. Fortunately now, after many years of surgery, and with the aid of camouflage makeup, I can go about my life without too many questions and too many negative reactions. Last Saturday evening was particularly sweet for me, because I was not seen as a burn survivor, or someone with bad scars over her face and hands. I was just another woman, out for the night with her friends.
I needed more reconstructive surgery over the following years, and was lucky to be in the hands of a highly-skilled and compassionate plastic surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital, Dr. Charles Snelling. The skin had contracted around my mouth, and left grooves, and really thick lips, and my nostrils were arched. On these occasions, the skin couldn’t be taken from my scalp, so Dr. Snelling took skin from my inner arms, and put it on my chin, and then removed some cartilage from my ear and attached it to my nose. To avoid scarring, all of the layers of skin were removed from my arms, so there are parts of my face that have arm hair, and get goose bumps when it’s cold. I also have wicked biceps now, as all the fat was taken away!
Life has been a struggle since the accident. It’s taken me a long time to stop seeing my life in two halves: before and after the accident. But I think I am there now. It has been a battle, but I think I have finally won. I can now say with certainty that I am happy with the way my life has turned out. After the accident, I got my Master’s degree, and continued to teach English to international students. I have published many articles in my field, and have recently edited the book “Mini-Reflections” by Ann Coombs, which was written to help burn and trauma survivors like me to get through those challenging times in our lives. I have a beautiful son, who is undoubtedly the best thing that has ever happened to me. After many years of searching, I have found my place here in Vancouver. I love my life here. I love my friends, the hiking that I do, and the volunteer work that I have been involved with at the BC Professional Firefighters’ Burn Fund. This year I became a representative of “The Future is Mine,” which is a world-first program for adult burn survivors in British Columbia. As a BC rep, I am the contact point for this program for a large number of burn survivors in the Lower Mainland. The “Future is Mine” program provides a wide range of resources to burn survivors, including a resource book full of ideas, advice, and inspiration. There is also a very powerful and motivating DVD in which burn survivors share their stories. Every month we have teleclasses in which burn survivors from all over the province can get together and talk about the issues that concern them. I love this part, because I do believe that it is only other burn survivors who can really truly understand what we have been through. We can talk to each other with a level of understanding that we cannot get elsewhere. Now we need never feel alone on this seemingly endless journey.
The reason why I felt so good last Saturday evening was because I had spent the day surrounded by strong and inspiring and courageous and beautiful women who happened to be burn survivors, and were at our first annual “Looking Good, Feeling Great Day” spa day in Vancouver. It was a day in which female burn survivors could get together in a spa atmosphere, to be pampered, spoiled, and treated like special, but most importantly, normal women. Just because we have scars - some very noticeable - doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be as beautiful as we can be. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to go to a spa like other women. Just on this day, we could feel safe from prying eyes. Nobody stared at our scars, mouths agape. Nobody was shocked. Nobody tried to find out what had happened to us. We all knew what we had been through, we accepted it, and we just had a fun day being treated like queens, by the likes of Leilani (www.sweetleilani.com), who is a talented and compassionate cosmetic designer, and whose camouflage makeup I wear whenever I want to go out in public and not be noticed as someone with facial burns. It was a day of inspiration, of self-esteem boosting, and of realization that, while we may have scars, we are still incredibly beautiful, strong, and courageous women who want to celebrate the beauty of life just as much as anyone else.

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