Location: Tennessee

Date Of Injury: July 20, 2010

I am 17 years old, from Memphis, Tennessee, and I am a burn survivor.

On the morning of July 20, 2010, my life changed forever.  I received 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 53% of my body in a blaze that destroyed our home and nearly claimed my life.  I don’t remember much about the events following the fire, only flashes of memory of the ambulance ride, the hospital, then nothing.

When I awoke it was to the sound of my mother’s voice, telling me everything was going to be okay.  There was a jet waiting to airlift me to Shriners Hospital for Children, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Why so far away from home?  Well, the physicians at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in my hometown of Memphis had given me a 50/50 chance of survival.  They also informed my mother that there was a place that I could go that specializes in Pediatrics and burns, and that at this place, I would receive some of the best care in the world.  So, it was at this little hospital that I received the first of many lifesaving surgeries, and where my long road to recovery began.

The road to recovery was indeed long; it was also rough and full of obstacles.  Nearly one full month of my two month stay at Shriners was spent on the acute floor, where I had to relearn how to do everything I once knew how to do.  My days were spent re-learning to how to sit up and stand unassisted, learning how to walk again, and how to bathe and dress myself.  I had to be taught how to use my fingers and hands all over again, my digits stiff and clumsy while attempting to hold a spoon or fork to feed myself, button buttons, zip zippers, and tie bowties in anticipation of the day I would finally able to bend over and reach my Converse again. What should have been simple tasks, such as turning over in bed or going to the restroom, suddenly were mighty feats, leaving me drained, tired, frustrated, and angry. Pain, despite the numerous medications I was on, was a constant companion. 

My situation not only affected me, however. My entire family suffered because of the fire.  I can only imagine how exhausted my mom must have been, going from my hospital room to my older brother’s hospital room across the hall. (My brother received 1st and 2nd degree burns over 18% of his body during the fire.)  Furthermore, she had to be away from my younger brother and sister, who were just 4 and 2 at the time, only being able to see them once during the entire hospital stay. 

Our family had never been separated before, but now, there were thousands of miles between us.  I felt guilty and blamed myself for what happened, and the loneliest, scariest times were when I was in my hospital room alone at night after my mom had gone back to the Family Care Unit to sleep.  There was nothing and no one to distract me from everything that was wrong.

I suffered from terrors at night and nightmares during the day, believing I saw things that it seemed no one else could see.  My mom said she believes it was just my mind and body’s way of processing its way through and past a very traumatic event.  She comforted me, and believed in me when one of the physicians referred to my behavior as a “psychotic break.” 

Being on enough medications to literally put “four grown men on the floor,” as one of my nurses confided to me, there were many days that I simply didn’t know where I was.  Thankfully, my mom kept a daily diary for me and took pictures to chronicle my journey for when I was ready to revisit it, though I remember being furious with her at the time for doing so.

Despite the daily struggle to recover and heal, Shriners was actually a safe haven for us.  The care we received was excellent, and when I was able and encouraged to leave my room, I made fast friends with the other kids in the hospital.  Inside those walls, we were protected from the stares, whispers, and judgments of the world.  All of our needs were met, and our fears were soothed by caring, attentive nurses and doctors.  When I was finally discharged from the hospital to return home, it was bittersweet. Leaving there was like leaving family.

When we returned to Memphis, however, reality hit hard.  We had no home of our own to return to, and everything we owned had been destroyed.  We stayed with family, and that provided some comfort, but the safe haven I had known at the hospital was gone.  I found myself being openly stared at, pointed at, and asked rude and humiliating questions—by adults at that. Even my cousins gawked at me with pity and disgust, something that nearly sent me over the deep end. 

Depression, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, persistent pain, and recurring nightmares invaded with a vengeance.  I found myself thinking that this “new life” was just too hard for me, and I decided that I did not want it anymore.  I prayed to God every night, begging Him not to wake me up… but He did.

It seems as if it took a long, long time, but with the help, encouragement, and love of my mom, family members, and friends, I began to recover mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, just as my body healed and regenerated physically. I finally was able to recognize the girl staring back at me from the mirror, and I was exultant! 

I was given new and exciting opportunities to attend burn camps and retreats in different states where I could connect with other kids like myself that had traveled different roads, but ultimately had the same story—survivors of burn injuries.  From Camp Ytiliba in Cincinnati to Great Lakes Burn Camp in Michigan to Angel Faces Retreat in California and New Hampshire, I have made new friends, cultivated life-long relationships, and been inspired by warriors like me and the people who care enough to show us that life does not end with a big burn injury… it begins!

Now, at the age of 17, I am nearing the end of a journey that began for me at the age of 12.  After more than 5 years of treatment and therapy spanning two cities (Cincinnati and most recently, St. Louis), I have finally received permission to contact the hospital on “as needed” basis.  The long months of traveling back and forth to Cincinnati, an 8-hour drive each way, every 2 weeks for treatment, evaluation, and surgeries, has finally come to an end. 

I have enough braces in the attic to start my own prosthetics shop.  I have scars and grafts over most of my body.  But, the nightmares are gone.  My smile has returned and heart is full and thankful.  I am a miracle, a phoenix, and force to be reckoned with!  I can honestly say, now, that I wouldn’t trade what happened for the world, the moon, and the stars, even if I had the chance.  My scars and my experiences help make me who I am and will guide me forward to who I hope to become someday, passing on the blessing of another chance at life, as was done for me by so many.  My scars are my story, and they are what make me alluring, captivating, and beautiful.

alexandra lenore, Burn Survivor