Burn survivors share their tales of recovery

Meeting: World Burn Congress draws about 700 people to Baltimore from across the country.

August 27, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

DeAnna Felix can divide her life into two distinct parts: before she was burned and after.

The outgoing 23-year-old from Frederick County was burned on her face, neck and arms in 2003 when a bartender in a Salisbury restaurant tried to make a flaming drink by lighting up the rum he was pouring into a glass. The bottle exploded, shot flames across the bar at Felix and changed her life forever.

"The fact is, I'll never look the same as I did before, but that's OK," said Felix, one of dozens of burn survivors who spoke at the World Burn Congress this week at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. The conference attracted about 700 people from across the country and was organized by the Phoenix Society, a Michigan-based group that helps burn survivors.

Medical advances have made treatment of burns more effective over the years, but what happens after is still hard for many victims.

"The best thing that comes out of this is the interaction, the social mixing of the people who've gone through some of the same things," said Frank McGonagle, 74, a member of the Phoenix Society's board who was severely burned in 1966 when his car was rear-ended in Massachusetts.

The event is a necessity, organizers say, because of the long-term nature of serious burns.

"When someone is involved in a major burn injury, their life changes forever. They have to deal with the fact that their bodies are different, the fact that they have scars," said Dr. Robert J. Spence, Felix's doctor and director of the Center for Burn Reconstruction at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Spence and others who work with burn patients prefer the term "survivors" to victims. "Surviving implies that you're moving on with your life," he said.

Survival prospects for the 45,000 Americans hospitalized each year with serious burns have improved significantly, thanks to new antibiotic creams, surgical advances and the proliferation of specialized burn centers such as Bayview's.

Into the 1960s, up to 40 percent of hospitalized burn patients died of their injuries. Fewer than 5 percent die today, according to Spence and others.

But that means more survivors must often undergo a dozen or more operations and months of painful treatment and therapy. They also have to live with rope-like scars that might cover faces, hands or much or their bodies - disfigurement that makes survivors afraid to leave their homes.

Many are self-conscious about their scars, no matter how small or how well they can be hidden. "One of the biggest things to overcome is people staring at you," said McGonagle, who was burned over 30 percent of his body.

While some people might stare out of cruelty, McGonagle said, others just don't seem to know any better. "If nothing else, it can be something done out of curiosity, a natural response of looking at people who are different from you," he said.

The conference helps survivors cope with the staring, along with other emotional and psychological scars.

"A lot of people who are burned end up asking themselves, `Why me?'" McGonagle said. "But the point is, no one goes through this alone."

Felix's response is to tell people about her injuries when they ask. But they seldom do.

"I get my fair shares of stares, but mostly now I just tend to block it out," she said. "If I thought about it every time somebody looked at me twice, I'd go crazy."

Felix was working as a waitress April 23, 2003, when a bartender tried to ignite a stream of rum with a lighter as he poured it from the bottle. That was the mistake - the safe way is to light up the liquor only after it's in the glass.

The bottle exploded and sent flames shooting across the bar, where they caused first-, second- and third-degree burns on her face, neck, arms and chest. Another waitress standing nearby suffered minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.

Felix was conscious as she was rushed to Peninsula General Hospital, where doctors knocked her out with sedatives. She was eventually transferred to the regional burn center at Bayview.

"I was really, really mad, I remember that," she said. "If there was one time in my life when I felt like I had a right to be mad, I feel like it was then."

It took weeks before she could look in a mirror - and then only after several visits and talks with family, friends and therapists.

In one sense, she was lucky: The damage from the surface-level burns on her face meant it could be repaired. "If the burns on my face had been worse, I don't know how I would've handled it, I really don't," she said.

But it was a long road back. She had four months of treatment and therapy at Bayview. She spent months on OxyContin, a prescription painkiller that she finally was able to stop taking.

She has undergone a half-dozen surgeries, and her face has been restored with new skin, so that at first glance there are few traces of burns.

"The most important thing to me was to get back to a normal life. I didn't want to live my life any differently than what it was like before," she said

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