When I was twenty-seven years old, I was in a fire. I was severely burned and spent six weeks in the hospital. I had five years of plastic surgery, seven years of litigation. I went into shock. It took twenty years to gain any semblance of emotional stability. Now seventy-nine, I’ve survived several things since the fire—the loss of both my parents, my brother’s death, divorce, a stroke, a heart attack I stand before you today to say that I have a life beyond my wildest dreams.
Today, I’m grateful for the fire. It brought me to my knees and forced me to ask for help from many people, especially a plastic surgeon, psychiatrist and spiritual advisor. What got me through all of this? Two things were key. First, a realistic acceptance of the hand that life had dealt me day-by-day. And second, the wisdom to ask for help and choose the next right thing.
A bit more about my background. I went to school, college and got married. I gave birth to my now adult son, got divorced from his father and then the fire happened. I was at a small dinner party, wearing a colorful long-sleeved jewel neck line dress. I sat to the right of the host of the party. He used a chafing dish to prepare the meal. The flame went out under the chafing dish, my dress absorbed the evaporated fumes and when he reignited the flame I caught on fire. My face, neck, hands and arms suffered first, second- and third-degree burns. I was scared. It felt to me like the room was on fire. There seemed to be total confusion. I couldn’t see anything. I struggled, tried to drop to my knees. The guests overcame my struggles, beat me out with a throw rug, and called an ambulance.
I passed out when I lay down in the ambulance. They took me to the nearest local small hospital. I don’t remember very much of my stay there. My mother and sister were notified. They came to the hospital. The nurses wrapped my face, hands and chest in bandages with tiny slits for my eyes. I asked my sister if I was going to live. I was really bewildered, unable to see or feel anything. With a quivering chin and tears pouring down her cheeks she assured me I was going to live.
When my sister arrived at the hospital, the nurses had removed the bandages. Her comment was that I looked like big black Buddha; my head was very swollen and charred of course if not blackened from the silver nitrate used to treat burns in those days. My sister covered up everything in the room that was the least bit reflective so I couldn’t see what I looked like.
The first task was removing the charred skin. My doctor sent me to physical therapy where we could soak off the charred skin in a whirlpool tub to prevent infection. During that first hospitalization, which lasted about six weeks, my plastic surgeon took a piece of skin from my backside, being careful to avoid the bikini line, and used it to patch up the deepest burns on my neck, chest, and hand.
If you want to kiss my ass, it is on my neck, my chest, my arm and there is a piece right here. The doctor applied a 5-inch graft to my neck. My neck was the most severely burned because of the double thickness of the dress neckline. I couldn’t move so that the graft would take hold. No one had ordered a private overnight nurse. My sister sat in an armchair by my side all night to insure I not dislodge the 5-inch graft. My right wrist was severely burned. My wrist hurt a lot. I developed a technique to deal with the pain. I told myself, my wrist hurts very much. My eye-lashes are fine. So are my toenails. The technique distracted me from the pain on my wrist.
I remember lying in bed, feeling terrible, depressed. I felt abandoned, physically unable to get up and walk around, despondent. It seemed unfair that I be deprived of a normal life. I quickly realized my recovery was dependent on my relationships with the nurses. I wanted them to make my needs a high priority. I showed concern about them and their lives. My sister was amazed how I was able to get past my own discomfort and project myself into someone else’s life. I’ve since learned the line, “tell me more.” I wanted the distraction of someone else’s life. I tried to visualize what moving around in a normal life would feel like.
This skill showed itself in another way. Coming down from physical therapy I met another burn patient. I was unable to cheer him up with my usual pretty smile and had the moving experience of digging deep inside myself to think of something cheerful to say. This was the “silver lining” to all of this. For the first time in my life I had to draw on my inner resources and develop personal traits I hadn’t thought of nor had I needed to access.
Finally, I was discharged, sent home to return to my job, take care of my frightened 5-year old son and supposedly live a normal life. That was good and bad. I wanted to pretend that nothing had happened, that my son and I could just return to our normal life.
However, reality was the skin on my face was tender and pink. It was newly exposed flesh. A few layers had been removed. Likewise, the skin on my shoulders was raw. I refused to go anywhere without applying eye shadow and mascara. I eventually acquired a wig. My hair was discolored by the silver nitrate used to treat the burns.
Given my physical change, I was sensitive and self-conscious about my appearance. I didn’t go out in public that much. I had been hospitalized for 6 weeks and it was a shock to my system to be home, not to mention out on the street or with people who didn’t know me, didn’t know what had happened to me.
We progressed along with five years of plastic surgery. I went in and out of the hospital dependent on the recovery time of each operation. My brother came and stayed with my son when I needed to go in the hospital. Joe Bazooka bubble gum got us through many a hard time. We developed the joke, “when in trouble, blow a bubble.” We had a good time teasing each other, trying to upstage each other’s jokes and laughing. My chin was webbed to my breastplate. The plastic surgeon had studied my family’s profile and rebuilt my jaw line so I will look like a member of the family. I would never have double chins and today I look possibly 15 years younger than I actually am. I remember being absolutely thrilled with my new jaw line. He said being in a fire is equivalent to a couple of face-lifts. My last plastic surgery operation was a chemical dermabrasion on my neck. I had moved, and didn’t have health insurance. We did the operation on an outpatient basis. My doctor kicked the table on which I was lying and said, “Next time we’ll do you in a telephone booth.” After so many operations, I’d gotten very blasé about surgery.
The state of shock was a blessing because it protected me from the reality of the situation until it became bearable. I felt like I could do anything I wanted. People had behaved in an unacceptable way towards me. I could fight back. The more bizarre I behaved the better. By being outspoken, rude, and arrogant I offended people. That was my way I thought of fighting back at a world that had hurt me. But eventually I evolved and grew to a place of peace. My spiritual advisor taught me so much about interpersonal relationships which also helped me get through it all. I learned rather than being angry to nod my head and smile and have “no opinion on other peoples opinions.” My advisor taught me mindfulness meditation.
Through all of this, as I said, earlier, I was in shock and did not gain emotional stability for twenty years. I therefore sought the services of a psychiatrist. I feel there is always a new mountain to climb so I am committed to seeking forms of professional emotional and spiritual guidance. Due to my own determined personality and optimism, I benefited from many self-improvement courses. These all helped with self-confidence, clear-thinking and effective behavior. I felt vulnerable, like a blank slate that could be rewritten.
In recent years, I not only survived the fire, but also back surgery, a stroke, a severe case of pneumonia and a silent heart attack. Rather than being resentful, however, I am grateful. I have the love of my husband of thirty years, my (now adult) son, the love of my sister, brother, extended family and of many, many friends far and wide. I couldn’t ask for more.
Margo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She committed to helping people who are struggling with their issues.