Archive for June, 2012


Riks Story

Since I am taking a break from the blog to focus on writing my book,I’ve decided to publish stories from other burn survivors.The following is the story of a burn survivor who lives in New Zealand….Enjoy…John


by Rik.

My Story as a Burn survivor began in 1980, how I came to be burned doesn’t seem as important now, as how I learned to deal with it and how I continue to do so.

However, I was admitted to a burn unit in the UK, where I was working at the time. I was 22 years old. On admission, my injuries were assessed as 45% full thickness or third degree burn, with some second degree and superficial burns. Unfortunately the genital region was also affected, and it wasn’t until some time later I regain full function, and the area still looks different to the pre burned area.

My grandmother was living in the UK at the time, and I asked before I became too ill, she not be notified, as the shock would have been too much, as she was in her 80s. My mother was notified in New Zealand, and she was shocked and alarmed when she received the call from the hospital.

For a few days, I felt ok, as if nothing had happened, but I believe from reading of other cases, this is common with survivors of serious burns, and I even tried to get up to go to work. Unfortunately, this did not last and after a few days I was put into an induced coma, and remained in one for the best part of two months. I believe burn treatments have changed over the years and it’s managed differently now.

I don’t remember very much of the next two months, only fragments. The terrible pain, hallucinations and delirium, and drifting in and out of consciousness. One burn survivor described it as being scraped with a wire brush 24 hours a day and this is exactly as I remember it. I guess it was tough having no real family support for some time, really being largely on my own, in a strange environment. After a few weeks my condition deteriorated and my mother was asked to come from NZ, a massive undertaking for her considering the distance and expense involved.

For a while, my condition was very bad, with mainly infections, but eventually I started to improve, the progress wasn’t rapid but a daily improvement every day. I was still having operations, but I started gaining weight daily – a good sign, as my weight had plummeted. As my physical health started to improve, so did my mental health, and the realization of my surroundings and circumstances. I did lapse into depression at times, because the whole ordeal was overwhelming.

As I had improved well, I was transferred to a general surgical ward for the next month, as this was a chance to be with others, as there were probably about 20 men in the ward, from all over , even a Nigerian man who had been given a completely new nose, as he had lost his in an accident. The downside of being there was there were mirrors. In the burn unit there were no mirrors, but unfortunately one day curiosity got the better of me and I had to look in the mirror. I wish I hadn’t. The image I had of myself was the image I had before I got burned. In the burn unit I had been told – “you look good”, but when I looked in the mirror for the first time, I looked anything but. It was a shock – no hair, scabs, and big areas of scarring on my face. It was a real setback.

Toward the end of the month, the hospital had decided I was well enough to be discharged, as the beds were required for more urgent admissions. This left another dilemma – the journey back to New Zealand with my mother. At the time, although I was better I still wasn’t in really good shape – problems with walking, severe itching. However, the flight was arranged and my mother and I. left from Heathrow airport to fly back to New Zealand – a 24 hour flight without stops. The flight was very uncomfortable due to the severe itching, but we landed back in New Zealand in Sept. 1980.

When I came off the plane, I was shattered– in a wheelchair, no hair, burned areas on face, body still healing up, – and psychologically shattered as well – no money, no job. I had developed “dropped foot” a condition if a person lies in bed too long without walking – it affects the tendons, and it takes several months to walk properly again, with a splint. After a few days at home, I was readmitted to hospital –in Auckland, NZ, Unfortunately, the hospital decided I may have brought back an infection from overseas so I was put into isolation for the next two months.

It was an unhappy time, being in isolation, tremendous itching and depression probably from the lack of others to talk to. It was also the early days of wearing pressure garments, and the hospital seemed to have a rigid insistence on me wearing one – It seemed like torture. I wore this skintight garment, only to have it pulled off me daily for baths, and scabs would form which would be ripped off as well. I told the hospital I did not want to wear one, and they stopped trying to put one on me. The depression got worse and I was treated with different types of drugs, even those used for schizophrenia, but they didn’t work because it was just depression. This went on for about two months with no progress being made and eventually my Mother made an appointment with the chief surgeon and I was allowed home. Some years later, I found out some of the medical staff had been in favour of sending me to a psychiatric facility, instead of going home but luckily my mother won out.

After release from hospital, I went to a rehab unit where I underwent physical therapy to give me more extension under my arms, as I could not lift them above my head well, and learning how to walk well again. As well as this, we made and constructed items – woodworking. After three months my time at the unit came to an end and it was time to look at the future, although I did further exercises at the Y.M.C.A. With very obvious facial scarring and without having had reconstructive surgery my chances of employment seemed dim, and unfortunately or fortunately after a few rejections, I decided I wasn’t ready. Instead I found work at a facility for the disabled doing mainly light factory work, although the pay was minimal.

I continued to work there for four years, and did get the chance to have further surgery, which made improvements. Eventually I left the facility and went to work in a shop, although the hours were very long, standing all day and very tiring. I had been prescribed tranquillizers to deal with anxiety after my injuries =PTSD and I started using them regularly to get through. This became a pattern for at least the next ten years.

Moving into the 1990s, it really was a decade I would prefer to forget completely, I can’t remember anything good about the entire ten years. It really was a decade of struggle. In the early 1990s I lost my job, and became unemployed. This was to really form the pattern of the next ten years – unemployment, depression, menial work, giving up the work, unemployed and continuing on. One good aspect of not being in regular work was I could finally get some counseling, which led to being able to come off the tranquillizers over several months under medical supervision, although unfortunately alcohol did become a substitute for a time. I was glad when the 1990s finished.

In 2000, things started to pick up. As I was still classified as disabled through a combination of depression and burns, I was offered a place on a Government funded computer and business administration course. I developed an interest in computing and took two courses which I completed. After that, I decided to continue with further education and with help from my mother, who now had a more comfortable lifestyle through shares and investing wisely on the advice of an accountant who knew business and became a friend, I was able to embark on a Certificate of Business at a College. I completed that over 18 months, and although it was tough going I got through.

After leaving the College I decided I really didn’t want to have a career in business, so I had to find another option, as the College was only geared to Business. I opted to go to another University and do an Arts Degree in Social Science which I completed over six years part time. I was always a long held ambition of mine to achieve a degree, but through circumstance previously it wasn’t possible. Unfortunately over the years I had started to experience health problems again related to burns, which were due to the amount of weight I’d put on over the years, which made the scarring around my stomach very tight.

From 2008 to 2011, I underwent another four operations which have corrected the problems, and I also graduated from University in 2011. Since then I have returned to work, although mainly part time working in the care giving field with clients, mainly older men who live in the community. Unfortunately, the employment situation in New Zealand isn’t good at the moment, so it isn’t possible to get exactly the work you want, however I enjoy dealing with clients, and prefer it to many other types of work. I’ve resumed my interest in music as a guitar player and bassist. Playing with local musicians and writing and recording songs which I have been submitting to song contests, so hopefully I will have some luck with one of them. I’d played before I got burned but lost interest for a long time.

These are just some final thoughts. As I look back over the last 32 years, I certainly would not want to repeat a lot of them. During the first ten years after my injuries, I struggled often with two dominant thoughts and emotions: guilt and loss. The sense of guilt was enormous, and I blamed myself maybe wrongly for all I’d put my small family through – the terrible worry, the expense of having to be there and pay airfares, luckily the United Kingdom had or still has a system in which if an individual works In that country and pays tax, then they covered in their comprehensive health system. I would have hated to think what would have happened if this wasn’t the case. The sense of loss surrounded my physical loss. Although children are thought to be badly affected by burns, which they are through school, an adult burn survivor goes through a different trauma, as they have had their old body longer, and when it is destroyed it takes longer to come to terms with, especially if you liked the way your old body looked. Both these strong thoughts/emotions of guilt and loss led to my dependence on tranquillizers as a means to block out. Physical acceptance is certainly a very gradual process.

As I move through middle age, what the remainder of my life holds – I don’t know, but hopefully it will be easier, stable but rewarding in its own way. There have been books which have given me strength over the years – books by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.Scott Peck and Susan Jeffers and others and well as a book I managed to find called: “Journeys through Hell – Stories of burn survivors’ reconstruction of self and identity” by Dennis J. Stouffer. – a great book for burn survivors.

Beyond Recognition

An intimate view of a burn survivor's life and recovery


June 2012

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