Archive for August 21st, 2012

21
Aug
12

Calais Story

This month I have another guest burn survivor writing for the blog. Calais is one of the burn survivors who is featured in Trial By Fire: Lives Reforged. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her and her parents. She is a lovely , talented and bright young lady who exudes confidence. She is a great roll model for all young women.

Before I delve into the story of my injury, I should perhaps begin with a bit of biographical background. I grew up striving to be the perfect child in every way: school, sports, behavior. Not only did I have to have straight-A’s, but even a 100% in a class wasn’t acceptable to me if bonus points had been available. I was THAT kid. On top of self-imposed academic pressure, my mother was a model. Wanting to be her mini-me, I followed in her footsteps and modeled from the time I was a baby. It wasn’t something I aimed to make a career out of, but I knew I would need the extra savings to be able to afford whatever Ivy League school I hoped to attend.

 

What most people didn’t know at the time is that I had been depressed since I started middle school. After putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect, I felt like a failure in every way. I woke up every morning in high school, looked in the mirror, and couldn’t help but mutter “I am so ugly”. Of course, looking back at pictures of myself from before, I can’t help but want to smack myself for being so blind. But what is also blatantly obvious to me now is the pain and sadness behind my eyes in those photos.

 

My junior year chemistry teacher – my favorite teacher – had three sons. The eldest was in my class and the youngest (11 years old at the time) was one I had seen several times since she also happened to be my basketball coach. He was a very sweet, fun kid who loved science. He would sometimes be around in class when we performed experiments, even being brave enough to perform some of the things that freaked me out to do – like dropping a lit match down a long tube where a very small amount of flammable gas was to see it go “poof”. His mom even allowed him to do mine for me.

On Monday, January 23rd, 2006 I had chemistry class right after lunch. It was a class I loved and that came pretty easily to me. I had seen the youngest son that past Friday after class because he was home sick from school. So I wasn’t really surprised to see him again that day because I figured he was still sick. He was fine, he said, and told me he was playing hookey to see the demonstration his mom was doing that day. The theory behind the experiment is that different chemical salts, due to their structures, burn at different light frequencies, therefore appearing as different colored flames. At the beginning of class, she and the young son together set up the dishes of a clear liquid with the chemical salts on her desk at the front of the classroom, uncovered.

 

About forty minutes into class, the teacher said it was time for the demonstration. I pulled my friend and deskmate, Cecilia, up to the front with me. The teacher performed it at her desk instead of in either of the two chemical hoods available in the classroom. None of us wore our safety gear: “When I do demonstrations, it’s not necessary,” she had told us before. One by one, her youngest son dropped a lit match into each of the seven dishes from left to right. The lights were off, and in front of us was the coolest show of the seven ROYGBIV flames. After a minute or so, the red flame on the left began to diminish. The young son said, “Madre, the red one is going out.” She dismissed him, saying something along the lines of “It’s too dangerous”. After a little more time passed he repeated his request. This time she reached into the sink on her desk and pulled out a gallon-sized jug full of that same clear liquid from before. None of us knew what it was at the time. As she uncapped it she said, “I better be careful or the bottle will explode.”

Something wasn’t right. Every fiber of my being buzzed with fear, and in that split second of time as she began to pour I threw my hands in front of my face. WHOOSH!

 

It turns out that clear liquid was methanol.

 

It exploded into an orange fireball that hit me head-on. I fell over onto the ground and kept thinking, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m on fire. Oh my god.” I immediately started rolling from side to side trying to put it out. It wouldn’t stop burning. I heard all of the students screaming as I felt my hair singe to my scalp and smelled the most horrendous, indescribable smell of burning hair and flesh. I decided that the flames weren’t going out because I was on a linoleum floor, and that I needed a blanket to smother it. But I had no idea where the fire blanket was, and I couldn’t stand up because my polyester uniform skirt had melted into the ground. So I pulled myself across the floor to the doorway leading out to the hall where it was carpeted – perhaps carpet would work? By the time I reached the door, the room was silent. All I could hear was the sound of the flames still burning and the fire alarm. The methanol had gone down my throat, so when I finally tried to scream for help, not even a whisper came out.

 

I had no concept of time, and for all I knew it had been 10/30/60/120 seconds of being on fire. I looked up at the door and saw the fire extinguisher next to it on the wall, but I couldn’t reach it. It was then that I figured no one was going to help me, and I was going to die. Just as I started to pray that I would die as quickly as possible, I heard “Oh my god!” I looked up and saw my favorite janitorial staff member in the doorway. He grabbed the fire extinguisher, put me out, and dragged me into the hallway as he continued to put out the other flames in the classroom.

What happened after is a blur. I remember every detail, and yet it all seemed to happen at once. I was sitting with Cecilia and another student that was burned (transported and then later released from the hospital that day), and I remember repeatedly asking, “Do I look okay? Do I look okay?” I kept imagining I looked like a monster – perhaps my face was melted off or my nose was missing. The teacher came around the corner and told me I would be okay, and then darted off with her youngest son, who had also been seriously injured. Out of nowhere a biology teacher/football coach came, scooped me up, and sprinted down the stairs to the ambulances. I shared an ambulance ride with the teacher and the youngest son. During the ride to the hospital the teacher clutched her burned hand, in shock and unresponsive to her son’s cries, before fainting. I inwardly rolled my eyes. I did my best to calm her son down as he kept saying “Are we going to die?! We’re going to die!”

 

I won’t go into the details of the hospital stay. Anyone with any experience with burns already knows the story – dressing changes, the scrub room, surgeries, illnesses, infections….all in an endless cycle. Once released, I immediately went back to the world of academia. I was tutored by a couple of my teachers to finish what I had missed that second half of the year in time to take the Advanced Placement exams for college credit. I was tutored that summer in the chemistry I had missed because I planned on taking AP Chemistry the following year. I may have been missing quite a few layers of skin and dignity, but I was still THAT kid.

Before all of this had happened, my family was dealing with some serious financial uncertainty. While I was still hospitalized, we were already receiving bills from collections. We had what was supposed to be incredible health insurance, but they said to my father “We do not cover ‘catastrophic’ claims”. They also said 1) that the school’s insurance company is responsible for paying – which makes sense, right?; and 2) to get a lawyer. The problem was that the school’s insurance company said, “Well, she was so negligent, and it is in our contract with the school that we are not responsible for covering something that is caused by a teacher’s negligence”. So without letting me be aware of any extra stress going on, my parents found an attorney.

 

Despite what I know many of the students and teachers later thought of us, my family does not like to sue. We really, reallydid not want it to get to that point. But we unfortunately had no other options because we simply could not afford to pay for my present or future care. For this and many other reasons, my senior year was a living hell. I was already so angry not just by what happened, but that my favorite teacher never came to visit me in the hospital when she was just doors away with her own son. When I returned to school, I found out that the teachers had been instructed in faculty meetings to tell students when they asked questions that it was an “unfortunate, unpreventable accident”. So when I tried to tell some of my friends what happened, they didn’t want to hear it. After all, she was still on campus – what I was saying happened couldn’t possibly be true if she was still there…right? Those other students that were in the classroom at the time simply said it was a mistake that she made, but she shouldn’t be punished for it.

I felt so isolated and alone that I began to act out and push away anyone who even tried to befriend me. Cecilia and I were in and out of classes for doctors’ appointments and physical therapy, but no one understood that. Other students labeled us as disruptive in class, entitled, and just plain mean. I honestly can’t remember much of my senior year because I blocked out most of it, but I’m sure those students weren’t TOTALLY wrong. But I can say we never felt entitled to anything. It was made very clear by the headmaster where we stood on the list of priorities at that school, especially when people would do things like cutting out articles about the lawsuit and hanging them up outside of the classroom where it happened.

 

I truly felt like my pain would never end – my injury was all I was and would ever be seen as. It may surprise some, but the loss of beauty was probably one of the first things I was able to get past. I was angry with myself for taking for granted how beautiful I truly was before, but my anger at the injustice of the whole situation easily overwhelmed the rest. After I graduated, I was fortunately able to attend the yearly Angel Faces retreat before heading off to college. There’s no other way to put it except that it saved me. Up until that point it never even occurred to me that my life didn’t have to be defined by my injury. That piece of wisdom alone worked wonders.

 

It took a couple more years to really grow into my new skin, so to speak, but I am now happier than I have ever been. It has been a while since I have felt even the slightest anger at the school or teacher – it has been even longer since I have had dreams of punching or yelling at her for such negligence. The “big picture” perspective my experience has given me on life is invaluable, and I would not change what happened to me even if I could. It has given me the chance to let the smaller things go, while being able to value what is truly important.

happened to me even if I could. It has given me the chance to let the smaller things go, while being able to value what is truly important.

 

I am still far from perfect or “cured” of ever being sad or angry again. I’m human, and there’s no such thing as having a life full of rainbows and sunshine. As much as we’d like to think that nothing bad would ever happen to us again because we’ve gone through so much trauma already, it’s just not true. We have to live life one day at a time, and enjoy the happier times as they come so we can better cope with the hard times.

Be prepared in the back of our minds for the worst, but focus on and hope for and believe in the best.




Beyond Recognition

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

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