By: Bernie Calkins
It was to be another routine chore with the same results I had had going back 37 years. I bent over the brush pile, clicked the lighter, but this time an unseen vapor on a windless day concocted a 20 foot fireball that threw me back to the ground. I emerged from the inferno 9 seconds later smitten with shock that it had all gone wrong, gratitude to the Lord for giving me the strength to get up and out of the flames, and smitten with fear as I saw most of the skin on both legs below the knees falling off. Lesson: No matter how many times you have done this with no incident, NEVER use gasoline or other accelerant on a fire!
By the time I arrived at the Burn Clinic in Iowa City, my body had gone into shock. My legs had sustained 3rd and 4th degree burns, with 2nd degree burns on my face, neck, ears, right arm and shoulder. My initial skin graft surgery was cancelled three times as my body was too weak.On one of the days that I was waiting, a long-haired survivor walked into my room. His face and arms were extensively disfigured from his own fiery encounter. I immediately felt some of the pain he must bear every time he walks into a room from the weight of rude stares and juvenile snickers. Yet he came here of his own volition into the room of a stranger to offer hope, encouragement and advice, with a joyful strength I had to admire. In the morphine haze, I was unable to remember his name, but I took the “gift” he gave into the operating room, and through excruciating treatments and therapy. I still cherish it today. God often brings people into our lives who have or who are suffering more than we are, yet they have a cheerful, gracious attitude that just inspires one to know that if they made it through like that, so can we!
Summer used to be my favorite season. I loved to wear short shorts and be outside, and I tanned once a week to help maintain my skin tone. The fire changed all of that. Along with dealing with lifetime lymphedema in my legs, when the lymph nodes are damaged and thus, cannot drain Lymphatic fluid, I have to be very careful with sun exposure. The burns on my face, neck and right arm used to be the color of beets. While the scars are quite visible on my neck, graciously my face healed to look almost normal. However, I was sternly warned that I now had to wear sunscreen every day for the rest of my life and limit sun exposure or the red beet color would return and would be permanent. This June we had a family vacation planned to Aruba. Would I be able to safely enjoy being in the equatorial sun? Thankfully, clothing technology has come a long way. I was able to find many offerings available online for UV protective shirts, pants, swim shirts, scuba pants and sun hats that would keep my skin covered and protected. These garments and fresh sunscreen every hour kept me from being burned and let me enjoy my time in the sun with my family.
God has been so good to me! Daily I am grateful that, with some adjustments, I am able to enjoy my life, knowing that things could have been so much worse. I am involved in a Burn Survivors Peer Support Group where I can offer, as well as receive helpful insights and understanding. Like the young man who visited me, I have also made visits to the Burn Center, with the knowledge that we have a CALLING to be a light of encouragement to those around us whose lives we are blessed to touch. We who have "gone through the fire" have the opportunity to share a deeper perception and empathy with others who are dealing with scars and pain on a daily basis, whether it be physical or emotional.