Comparing Trauma

By: Isabel Heine


It was my birthday and true to the identity crisis of this year’s New York spring, it was the day after a snowstorm and unseasonably cold. I had taken the day off from work to spend some time with my husband and enjoy a nice meal, and despite the surrounding circumstance – the celebration and less than desirable weather – I was determined to attend that evening’s Burn Survivor Support Group at Weill Cornell. Almost fifteen years ago, the NY-Presbyterian's Weill Cornell Burn Unit had saved my life after an apartment fire caused extensive burns to my body. Needless to say, it changed my life forever and knocked me off my axis for several years, but here I stand enjoying my birthday. Something had gone right and I owed it to others to share my experience.

My return to normal is in large part due to the efforts of Weill Cornell’s Burn Unit. The skill level and commitment of the clinicians is awe-inspiring and there is no place better to go in the immediate aftermath of a burn injury. But it is their dedication to your emotional wellbeing after discharge that truly saved my life.

While I was inpatient, another young woman (I will call her Kim) came to visit me in the hospital. Kim had read about my accident in the paper and thought that our circumstances had a lot in common. She shared her experience, which included pulling down her pants right there in the hospital room to show me the grafts on her legs. I quickly learned that you lose all sense of modesty after being poked and prodded for months; your body being used as a teaching tool. I also learned that Kim herself had been visited in the hospital by another young woman who had also experienced a burn injury. The hospital team observed this chain of paying it forward and decided to create a Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) chapter. Part of the Phoenix Society, the purpose of SOAR is to make sure no one recovers from a burn injury alone.

The trainees ranged greatly in the number of years since their trauma. There was the wife of a firefighter that died in 9/11. There were several, like me, that had been out 5+ years, and there were a few more who had suffered their injury only 1-2 years prior. I took note of everyone’s struggle and to be honest, it often felt like the "Agony Olympics." The winner was the one who had suffered more. There were plenty of statements like, “well my face is burned and you can hide yours so your life is easier than mine.” The recipients of messages like this looked crushed.

I cannot but see a connection with the present day political discourse. Everywhere you look in the media there is dialogue surrounding comparative suffering. Basically, we all want to know who had it worse and it is beginning to feel like everyone believes they themselves are the worst off. But what we should be focusing on should be how an individual deals with trauma.

Trauma is not the injury or the event; trauma is the all-encompassing experience. Questions like “what resources were available to you?” or “was there a personal loss?” need to be asked. I was blessed with an overwhelmingly positive support system. I received the best healthcare in the world for my injury. I did not lose a loved one in the fire. But I never know if the other burn survivor I am speaking to had the support of friends and family or the access to world class medicine. Did they lose a sibling? I also never know if I am the first person they are speaking to about their experience. It is for that reason that individuals should never compare their suffering. Scars are never only skin deep.

During my training as a SOAR peer supporter, I quickly realized that just because I suffered through trauma, it did not make me an expert in conversing with others about trauma. We all had a lot to learn from each other and from the experts at the Phoenix Society. By the time the training was over, I felt somewhat prepared, but incredibly anxious about being presented as some expert on the burn survivor experience. I knew not to compare war stories with those I was about to meet, but how ready was I to share my own story with complete strangers?

 *** What are your thoughts on comparing trauma? Do you agree? Why or why not? Comment below :)***


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