Ann Kuebler will never forget the commuter who stared from his seat on the Washington Metro, then said to her, "I'd die if I
looked like you."
She'll always remember the woman who rushed up to her at the cab stand outside a local hospital and asked: "Were you on TV?" And the total stranger who approached her in the library with an article touting the balm from aloe plants. "This is really good for burns," the woman announced.
There was a time when she had to stop and think before venturing outside her home in Lutherville to run a simple errand. She would wonder if she were emotionally prepared to confront strangers or -- just as bad -- friends who had not seen her since Feb. 17, 1986, the day fire engulfed her bed, ignited her body and changed her life forever.
February marked the fifth anniversary of the fire that burned virtually all the skin off her face and ravaged her lower abdomen, thighs, hands and her right arm. Given little chance to survive, she did. Then, at age 34, she had to learn to live again.
She endured 30 or more operations (long ago, she stopped counting) in which a plastic surgeon moved sheets of skin around her body in jigsaw fashion -- stealing tissue from healthy areas to resurface the damaged places. Charred beyond recognition, her face regained much of its old contour and personality. Even so, she shows the unmistakable legacy of fire: faint, ropy scars, slightly bloated lips and a reconstructed nose that is somewhat pinched toward the tip.
Once Ann Kuebler had a face that could make heads turn in admiration. Overnight, she lost not only that but also her ability to navigate peacefully through stores and streets without inspiring a rude comment or an arresting stare. In effect, she became a walking illustration of the supreme value that society places on physical attractiveness -- and the supreme struggles faced by people who lose theirs.
"Within 24 hours, their lives are turned upside down, completelchanged," says Linda Rice, a psychologist with the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. "They have no preparation for it. Their sense of self in relation to the world is destroyed."
Ms. Kuebler's scars held up a mirror to people who saw her, reflecting their worst fears about mortality and their ability to cope with the tragedies of others.
"Sometimes, there are little minefields all over," she says. "I've seen people I've known intimately -- it's an emotional encounter, but nobody says anything. They have guilt for the way they feel, guilt for the way they don't feel about me.
"It's the shock of self-discovery."
Living with disfigurement forced her to reach deeper for inner strength than most people ever have to reach. But today -- thanks to the strength she found, plus the friendship of fellow burn survivors, her children and her surgeon -- she can say she hesitates little before walking out the door to confront whatever awaits her.
"I'm at the five-year mark," she told a half-dozen burn survivors who constitute a support group at Francis Scott Key. "You know there was a time when your life was gone. But you do attain small moments when you feel elated and you say, ain't it grand to be alive. With your eyes, your hands, whatever you have left.
"It does get better."
LOST MEMORIES Ms. Kuebler can't help but divide her life into two main chapters: before and after the fire. "Before," she worked nights in a Mount Vernon downtown tavern. The job provided a social circle of co-workers and patrons who would drop in for after-work drinks and chatter. The late hours left her free during the day to spend with her two boys and two girls, children with all-American looks whose athletic and academic achievements remain a continuing source of pride.
She was divorced and renting a third-floor apartment in Guilford. She was trying to give up alcohol but it was a struggle. And one night, at home alone, she settled into bed with a cigarette and a drink in hand.
"I don't know what happened," she says. "I was a recovering alcoholic and I was smoking in bed."
Six weeks later, she awoke at the Maryland Shock Trauma
Center, where she was being treated for third-degree burns -- the type that penetrate all skin layers. They covered 30 percent of her body's surface area. Fire had burned all the skin off her face and neck, obliterated her eyebrows and destroyed the cartilage of her nose -- leaving virtually no nose except the bone that forms the bridge at the very top.
A V-neck sweater made of flame-retardant material protected her chest, upper abdomen and left arm from serious injury. But fire burned her hands and her right forearm, which was exposed by the rolled-up sleeve of her sweater.
Doctors expected her to die, but not directly from the burns. Inhaled smoke caused her airways to swell to the point where she had trouble moving air in and out of her lungs -- setting up ideal conditions for a life-threatening bacterial infection.