Life After The Burn

Some accident victims go home in a few days, maybe even a few hours. Years down the road, only a small, pale scar reminds them of the ordeal. For the really lucky ones, there’s no scar at all. While there was certainly pain and fear, the emotions are temporary and life doesn’t really change.

Many burn victims are not so lucky. Wearing the scars day in and day out, they must learn to live with their new bodies and the social pressures this body implies. Those who have been severely burned can face prejudice and rejection when they need support the most, and these reactions are both illogical and demeaning. Personality, passions, pet peeves – everything that made these people vibrantly unique are still there, but are thrown into the shadows by damaged skin.

The sad reality is burns will continue to occur and people will continue to survive them. So what happens after the burn? We need to foster greater understanding of burn recovery and how we, as family and friends, can help survivors once again have a thriving life.

Burns are a global public health problem, accounting for an estimated 195,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In honor of those who have passed, we must combat the stigma carried by those who live. Photo Credit: Flickr.

Combating Human Nature

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us judge people based on their appearance, if only for a second. Those judgments may be proved wrong, we may regret them in time, but the fact remains that it’s human nature to make them. Our eyes assess information in a flash, before our brains have a chance to refute it. A burn victim deals with these snap judgments every single day. Any disfigurement or disability caused by their burns can prompt shame and exclusion, reports the WHO. Awareness needs to be raised about life after the burn, and how we can support these individuals rather than tearing them down with ignorance, a shocked glance, or a cruel word.

The truth is, we could all become a burn victim. It’s not a disease some of us are more likely to catch. It’s usually an accident, as unforeseen as stubbing your toe.  Suddenly the grill flares up, hair catches fire, and we are on the other side of this story. Photo Credit: Corbis Images. 

Going Home

As medicines advance, the survival rates of burn victims have improved substantially. Yet, many still remain in the hospital for months, and it can become an insulated environment with a built-in support system, according to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. That type of understanding and protection can be scary to leave, and going home can be like a slap in the face, when the reality of disfigurement or disability finally hits. As family and friends, your support is pivotal to easing the transition.

First, it’s critical to understand the emotional upheaval going home represents. In the hospital, burn survivors could forget about their appearance, about how their life outside would change, as they focused solely on treatment. Sitting at home on their couch, surrounded by reminders of their old life, they are forced to process the looming future. Grief, post-traumatic stress, and anger can lead to months of sleeplessness and wishing, just wishing, there was a simple solution. Of course, there isn’t. But family and friends can be a world of help.

No one would call hospitals cozy, but for many in long-term recovery they symbolize routine and stability. Out of all injury types, burns account for the greatest length of hospital stay, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Photo Credit: Flickr.

Before leaving the hospital, talk about going home and any fears they have, says Phoenix. If your loved one seems to feel alone and trapped once home, gently encourage them to start doing their usual activities. The threat of staring eyes keeps many burn survivors inside, so resources such as Phoenix urge families to talk about staring and how most people are simply curious. A burn survivor will draw attention, you can’t change that, but helping them stand up to stares with confidence lets them discover a stranger cannot dictate their happiness or self-worth.

Burns are a common and potentially devastating cause of injury in childhood, third to motor vehicle accidents and drowning, according to NLM.  Photo Credit: Flickr.

Help Them Tell Their Story

They may need to tell their story time and again as they readjust to their world, notes Phoenix. Like many who journal or blog understand, the simple act of putting pain into words is healing. Meeting other survivors and being able to talk about the ordeal provides emotional relief, a much-needed community, and even a sense of purpose if they become involved in advancing the group’s efforts.

Some burn survivors attending these conferences were injured as infants, while some are just months into their recovery. Photo Credit: Flickr.

If someone close to you has been burned, help them seek out resources. Walking into a room with the expectation of sharing their story can be intimidating, but time and again it’s proven to be extremely rewarding.

This type of organized social interaction can help them overcome their fear of reaction, a hurdle they must jump to thrive in the world. There are conferences, organizations, centers, camps, and societies all developed to unite burn survivors and encourage them to find comfort in one another. Don’t let the extent or type of the burn dictate whether they seek out support. There is no “burned enough” requirement for these groups. Additionally, don’t let them compare themselves to others and wonder if they should be there – for once, the physical remnant of the accident is of no concern, it’s all about how they feel.

The Lost Childhood

The American Burn Association notes that children are especially vulnerable to being burned, and the recovery process for those who were burned at a young age can be particularly arduous, both physically and emotionally. As a parent, I know when our children suffer we want to absorb all their pain and carry the burden ourselves, especially if we feel guilty for the accident. What parents need to know is that focusing on the past keeps their children from a healthy future. Don’t let these pangs of regret keep you from talking about the accident with your child when they’re ready. They can face prejudice from many sides – strangers, friends, classmates – so what your child needs from you is unconditional love and support, and the knowledge that the lines of communication are open.

A scarred hand peeping out from his sweatshirt is enough to make kids ridicule him. For children like him, emotional and physical damage runs deep. Photo Credit: Flickr.

For a scarred child, the idea of going back to school can be terrifying. Friends may disappear when the child can no longer play like they used to, and classmates can taunt with wounding nicknames. “Crusty crab, burnt toast, snake skin, Freddy Krueger’s daughter, mutant, scarface” – these are just a few of the cruel names that haunt burn survivors for years, reports the Huffington Post. What kind of life is that, spending the golden years of youth alone in their bedroom with insults ringing in their ears? Already distraught by what they see in the mirror, such reactions only solidify unjustified shame. These challenges can follow them into adulthood, and maybe it’s not until years later that they even meet another burn survivor and begin to feel their attitude change as they realize others are just as traumatized.

So, burn foundations nationwide have created school reentry programs that aim to prepare and inform teachers and peers. As your child talks about their accident they can feel empowered and independent, and everyone can become more comfortable with the injury.

Toward the same purpose, teen burn survivors can attend burn camps. Teenagers rely heavily upon their peers for self-validation, so being supported by other young adults can help them deal with the emotional scars of excruciating staring and teasing.

Don’t let 20 years go by before your child gets a chance to reach a turning point, and truly cope with their accident. Talk about it now.

Burns are recognized as among the most painful and devastating injuries a person can survive. To heal, they need to address the trauma beneath the scars. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

From Victim To Survivor

With survival comes a need for support and information. Simply knowing they are not alone and there are people who care makes a difference, and makes their injuries less of a burden.

What must be remembered, amidst certain emotional exhaustion, is a survivor’s adaptation to their new life is heavily dependent upon the love and support you offer. Never let them give up hope.

Increasing the knowledge of burn recovery helps us better empower our loved ones, supporting their renewal and return to society. Listen to their story, help them find resources, and allow them to grieve for as long as they need. Voicing grief allows them to move beyond their losses and newly define themselves. A burn accident can be a double-edged sword, feeding mental devastation and physical disfigurement, but also becoming a unique time of rebirth for many. In a way one doesn’t expect, it becomes an opportunity to start over.

 

Selected Burn Survivor Resources in New Jersey and Pennsylvania:

Saint Barnabas Burn Foundation and Children’s Burn Camp
Saint Barnabas Medical Center
Livingston, NJ 07039

Atlantic Regional Firefighters Burn Foundation
Millburn, NJ 07041

Burn Foundation
Philadelphia, PA 19102

The Regional Burn Center and Burn Recovery Center
Lehigh Valley Hospital
Allentown, PA 18105

Stuart J. Hulnick Burn Center
St Christopher’s Hospital for Children
Philadelphia, PA   19134

Temple Burn Center
Temple University Hospital
Philadelphia, PA 19140

The Nathan Speare Regional Burn Treatment Center
Crozer-Chester Medical Center
Upland, PA 19013

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