Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Steps on the Road to Recovery

After her burn injuries, the medical team at the burn center started Andrea’s physical therapy even before she was out of intensive care—moving her arms, legs, fingers, trying to regain range of motion. Physical therapy is one of the most painful aspects of the recovery process, to minimize future disability. The grafted skin tends to shrink, and any formation of scar tissue also contracts, hindering mobility. The limbs must be forced to move, regaining range of motion little by little—a very painful process.
After nearly 6 weeks in the burn center, Andrea was finally able to get up and starting to walk. She was having intensive physical therapy several times a day by the time Lynn and I took little Emily to Salt Lake to visit mommy. Em was fascinated by the therapy exercises, especially the pulleys that Andrea used for stretching her arms and regaining shoulder motion. Em tried those, herself. And when the therapist helped Andrea walk down the hall, Em helped—holding Andrea’s hand to steady her on the other side.
Not long after that, Andrea was discharged from the hospital as an outpatient, but had to stay several more weeks in Salt Lake before coming home. She and Lynn stayed at the home of my cousin Ned Moser. Their days were full, and exhausting; Lynn was her “nurse”, doing bandage changes and scrubs, taking her to physical therapy every day, and back to the burn center for assessment of wound healing.
During that time, Emily and I continued to “hold the fort” at home. She went outside with me to do chores, except the times I quietly sneaked out very early to do the morning feeding before she woke up. On days I needed to ride range and move cattle, Emily stayed with friends and neighbors. Our son Michael, and daughter-in-law Carolyn and I did the range riding, often with the help of their two children. Little Heather was 9 that summer, and Nick was 7—and they were already good riders. Carolyn, Heather, Nick and I made some long hard rides moving cattle when Michael was busy haying.
It took several days to find and gather all the cattle on the middle range pasture and move them to the high range. On the fourth day, Carolyn, the kids and I rode for 9 hours to find and gather some of the last groups of cattle. At one point Nick and Heather took a bunch of cows more than a mile around the mountain all by themselves while Carolyn and I went over another hill to gather some others. We were very proud of our two young cowboys.

We also fixed fences. There were several places where trees had blown down and smashed the fence flat. We spliced the broken wires and put branches and small logs in the worst holes to make a temporary “fence” until someone had time to pack a chain saw in there to cut the trees off the fence and fix it properly.
It was a hot, dry summer and several springs and water troughs quit working. We had to continually check water sources and make some repairs, and sometimes move the cattle to different areas where there was more water.
Often the whole valley was filled with smoke from all the forest fires in our area. The Clear Creek fire burned more than 200,000 acres that summer and was uncontrolled until rain and cool weather put it out that fall. Wind currents brought ashes that drifted down and covered everything. Some mornings you could actually feel the heat from the fire—brought on a hot wind—like standing next to a campfire.
Emily and I were counting the days until Andrea and Grandpa could come home. We made a calendar and put it low on the wall where Em could mark off each day. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t just mark them off all at once! As the Big Day (September 2) approached, she helped me clean house and put up “Welcome Home” banners that friends made. We cooked a big, fancy dinner to celebrate. A special blessing was rain, the night before Lynn and Andrea drove home from Salt Lake. It cleared all the smoke from the air and left everything smelling fresh and new.
When Em and I went running outside to greet Andrea and Grandpa, the first thing Andrea did after she painfully got out of the car was to pick up Emily and hug her. Her goal—all through the 3 weeks of physical therapy as an outpatient—was to be able to pick up her child when she got home. And she did, very briefly, with her strongest (left) arm. Her right arm was more severely damaged and not yet strong enough.
For the first few weeks at home, Andrea and Em stayed at our house so we could assist with her daily wound care/scrub and bandage changes, and Lynn drove her to town for physical therapy 6 days a week. There were still many challenges to face, including a later regrafting of the skin over one elbow, but being home was a huge step in the journey.
NOTE: Fast forward 9 years and 3 months, to the present. “Recovery” is a relative term, for serious burn injuries, and is never complete. Andrea is now facing additional surgery to cut and release several contractions on her right hand and arm. The grafted skin has been pulling her little finger off to the side and impairing the use of her hand. Contractions on her upper arm are pulling her shoulder and spine, pulling her back out of line. She knew she’d have to eventually have surgery to correct this situation but has been putting it off, dreading more graft surgery and not wanting to be laid up for the amount of time it takes for healing (with her arm immobilized for awhile). But now the impairments have reached the point that she has no choice and must have them resolved. Her surgery is scheduled for December 15 in the burn center in Salt Lake, and she’ll probably remain there for about 5 days after the surgery. Her kids will be staying here on the ranch with Grandma and Grandpa. Please keep Andrea in your prayers as she goes through this stage of her journey.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Surviving the Aftermath

A person never knows what’s around the next corner, in this journey of life. It’s a good thing our family didn’t have a clue about what was about to happen to us in July of 2000—our daughter’s severe burn injury--or we wouldn’t have been able to face it.
During that spring and early summer we were doing typical ranch tasks, taking care of the cattle, branding the calves and giving them their vaccinations, then turning the cows and calves out for summer pasture in the mountains. One of my main summer jobs was riding daily to check on the cattle—making sure they were staying in the right areas, checking gates to make sure they were shut, checking the water troughs and fences. Daughter Andrea often rode with me. She and I were often putting miles on young horses that needed training and experience. If there were any problems out there, the two of us could handle it—moving cattle, fixing a section of fence the elk tore down, patching a water trough or cleaning out a spring box to get more water coming into a trough.

That spring Andrea also helped Lynn with some tractor work. She and her baby girl spent many hours riding in the tractor to harrow the fields. Little Emily enjoyed going along with mom in the cab of the big tractor, in her car seat. She had her bottle for snacks and if she got tired, the motion and noise of the tractor lulled her to sleep.
Andrea and I were riding range the day before the accident. Andrea was riding her mare Breezy, helping me find and round up 5 cows and their bull calves to bring home. We had a really nice ride in which I had a good visit with my daughter. It was a bit challenging to find and gather those 5 pairs and get them home from the mountains—because the cows didn’t want to come down from the range, but a very successful roundup thanks to our good horses.

Then the night of July 5 we were plunged into that dark abyss, when Andrea was burned. She began the biggest challenge of her young life—to stay alive. One of my biggest hurdles to face was all the “what ifs…” What would I do if she perished? My daughter was in many ways my best friend. Not only did I love her as a mother loves a daughter, but she was also good help and a true partner in our ranch work. She was my partner in working with the cattle and training young horses (and my whole life style would be devastatingly changed if she was no longer here). She was also a wonderful companion; we had such good times together while calving, working cattle, training horses.

That summer was a blur of despair and hope, with Lynn spending most of the time in the burn ICU with Andrea, and me staying home taking care of Em and trying to keep the ranch going. Emily, at 2 years old, couldn’t understand why mommy wasn’t here, or where she was. We tried to explain about mommy’s “owies” and bandages. We gave her a doll to bandage and put stickers on the doll. Em also put stickers all over herself, to be bandaged like mommy.

Em helped me do chores, trundling along with me while I fed the horses, and the bulls in the corral. She especially enjoyed going with me to feed the mare and foal, out in the pasture. While I fed the mare hay, Emily picked grass and weeds to stick through gate to “feed” the baby horse. The foal would always come up to the gate and dutifully nibble whatever Emily offered.

We had a lot of help and support from friends and neighbors that summer, and cards and letters from many people we didn’t’ even know—people who had heard about the accident. Some sent donations to help with Andrea’s medical expenses. Em quietly played in the livingroom or watched children’s programs on TV while I wrote thank you notes to answer every card, letter, and gift of help. We used a photo of Andrea and Emily on the thank you notes—a nice picture that had been taken just a month before the accident.

After several weeks, when Andrea was no longer in such critical condition, we were finally able to take Emily to Salt Lake for a visit--to see her mom in the burn center. This was a major turning point for little Em because she was able to see and hug Andrea and knew that her mommy still existed. It was easier for her after that—talking to mommy on the phone, hearing Andrea’s voice. Em and grandma managed to mark time a lot better and “hold the fort” at home until mommy could come back to us.

More details about those challenging weeks can be found in my book Beyond the Flames. In future blogs I’ll give more frequent updates on “life after the burn” and how things are going now with our family.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Introducing Myself – Why I wrote BEYOND THE FLAMES

As a child I always wanted a horse. My parents lived in a small rural Idaho town, and got a horse for me when I was 9 years old. The next year we acquired a cabin on several acres, and spent a couple summers there; then my parents began purchasing the neighboring ranch. From that point on, I grew up with horses and cattle--and for a long time these wonderful animals were the main focus of my life. I married a rancher in 1966 and we began raising our own herd of hardy, crossbred beef cattle that could thrive on rugged mountain pastures. We also raised a few horses, since taking care of our cattle required many hours on horseback.
The ranch was a wonderful place to raise children, as well. Our son and daughter grew up working with us—tagging along to ride range in summer or to feed cows in winter. They learned to ride on a gentle old mare named Khamette. She was the first horse I’d raised myself, when I was a young teenager. In her teen years she helped raise my children. Each of them in turn learned to ride her, at first being led from my own horse (when they were too small to control a horse by themselves) as we traveled many miles and hours checking cattle, fences and water troughs on the range, or moving and gathering cattle. Khamette could walk, trot or gallop right beside my horse, or drop back and follow if we had to traverse a narrow trail through the brush. The kid held the reins and gained confidence, but mom had the lead rope and the old mare worked in unison with my horse. As the kids got older, they each graduated to riding their own horses.
In winter they learned to drive the old jeep to help their daddy feed cows. While still very young, they stood on the seat to steer. Unable to reach the brakes, they could stop the outfit by turning off the key, if necessary. When they got big enough to reach the pedals, some of their starts and stops were abrupt; daddy had to learn to fall off the load of hay gracefully and try to land on his feet if his young driver popped the clutch!
Our son and daughter enjoyed working on the ranch and were excellent help as they grew up, learning to run the machinery (our son Michael started baling hay when he was 9 years old) and help with the cattle. Andrea became very good at helping me train the young horses we raised; we rode almost daily to check our cattle. “Sagebrush 101” was the best training ground for green horses.
Ranching is a wonderful way of life, but a difficult way to make a living. I helped make ends meet by writing. It was my “off farm job” that I could do at home at odd hours when I wasn’t being midwife to 170 cows during calving season or riding range in summer. I’d been writing stories and articles since high school, selling them to children’s magazines and then to horse and livestock publications. I wrote my first book (A Horse in Your Life; A Guide for the New Owner) when I was still in college. By the time our kids were growing up and ready to go to college, I’d sold more than 7000 articles and published 10 books.
Our son married Carolyn, whom he met at college. After a few years with good jobs in Boise, they both wanted to get back to the land (she was raised on a farm near Arco, Idaho), especially after their two children Heather and Nick arrived (born in 1991 and 1993); they didn’t want to raise their kids in the city. After leasing a couple different ranches in south central Idaho, they moved back to our place and we built them a home on part of our upper place. They use it as a base of operations for the several ranches they’re leasing nearby. We sold them several groups of cows over the years, to help them get started, and now they’re running 400 cows.
Our daughter married Jim, and they lived in a mobile home on our lower place, helping us with our cattle. Their first child, Emily, was born in 1998. Andrea and Jim had a small herd of cows of their own, here on the ranch, and worked part time for us with some other jobs on the side. My husband Lynn and I were delighted to have all our family close by, and were enjoying our grandkids. Then in the blink of an eye, our lives were forever changed.
Andrea suffered a terrible burn accident the night of July 5, 2000, while trying to help a friend control an out-of-control range fire—one of the first of many terrible fires that swept the West during that hot, dry summer. The wind changed and brought the fire over them while they were trying to make a fire line. Andrea ran through a wall of 20-foot high flames to get out of the fire, and then had to make it another quarter mile down the mountain. Only a series of miracles helped her survive,
including the incredible timing and teamwork of our local volunteer firemen, search and rescue unit and EMTs, to get Andrea and her friend to our little hospital 12 miles away, to be life-flighted to the Intermountain Burn Center at Salt Lake City, Utah.
She clung to life by sheer determination for many days, unwilling to give up because there was still so much she wanted to live for, and she didn’t want to leave 2 year old Emily without a mama. With severe burns over more than half her body, it was a tough fight, and many times her life hung by a thread. Family members took turns driving the 380 miles to Salt Lake, to have one of us always there at her bedside. We were as devastated emotionally as she was physically, and our lives went on “hold” as we tried to help her hang onto life.
This “detour” affected us profoundly—the ones who stayed with Andrea in the burn ICU to lend their strength for her to hang onto, and the ones who stayed home at the ranch to try to keep things going (thank God for neighbors who helped with the haying) and to take care of little Emily. Our experience that summer changed our lives, but ultimately blessed us. This was the beginning of a pilgrimage that taught us more about love, patience, caring and sharing, humility and compassion.
We eventually learned that God can create good from even the most terrible things imaginable. The community spirit here in our rural area was astounding, and the circle of support widened to include people we didn’t know—who helped us in countless ways and kept us in their prayers. It’s humbling to discover how much people care and are willing to help another human being, making us realize we are truly one big family. We continue to correspond (more than 9 years later) with people whose paths crossed ours that summer, many whom we’ve still never met. Some of the greatest encouragement came from other burn survivors and their families. This is a part of life we’d never known—with a depth of sharing and caring that’s both humbling and elating as we discovered a strong network of support. Anyone who goes through this kind of experience, either as a patient or a family member, will never be the same.
Eventually I realized I had to write a book about this, and share our story—in hopes it might be a way to encourage and inspire other people going through extreme trauma. This could be a way to “pay it forward” and help others, since there is no way we can ever totally thank the many people who helped us. So, a year after Andrea’s accident I finally got up the courage to start writing the book. It took another year to write it, and track down the many people (more than 100 of them) I wanted to interview, to capture their memories and details. It was amazing to me, how clearly some of them remembered those details, so long after the fact.
Then, it took another year to find a publisher, since the one who does my horse and cattle books was not interested in this topic. I sent queries and sample chapters to dozens of publishers. Some felt that a book like this would have a limited audience, while others felt they couldn’t do justice to it because it deserved a large audience than they could give it! It was a frustrating challenge, but one thing we’d learned from our epic journey through the burn center was to never give up. I am grateful to Billie Johnson (Oak Tree Press) for believing in this book and publishing it. It is my hope that our story—BEYOND THE FLAMES; A FAMILY TOUCHED BY FIRE-- will be of help to others who find themselves suddenly thrust into terrifying, life-changing circumstances.
Meanwhile, life has continued on, here at the ranch, though with some changes. In future blogs I’ll tell you more about our family and what we’ve been doing.