Friday, May 14, 2010

Healing by Helping Others

May 14, 2010 – blog update

Every time Andrea went back to the burn center for checkups, she tried to see and encourage newer patients. She felt this was her most important goal—the encouragement she could give them. She told me, “You never know but what you might be able to help a patient hang on, to give them courage, and to let them know there IS life after a burn, and to not give up. That’s the important thing to me now, the help I can give someone else.”
For instance, when she went back for another checkup on May 15, 2002 she talked with 2 men who’d been badly burned. One was burned over more than 80 percent of his body when the propane truck he was driving wrecked—and he had been in the ICU for 100 days. The other man was a painter. He was burned over 60 percent of his body, after paint fumes exploded. He was still in the ICU but was out of bed and in a wheel chair and ready to start walking again.
“Andy, the painter, asked a lot of questions. His hands were grafted, like mine, and he wanted to know every detail about therapy—how many hours and days a week it would take. I explained that it depends partly on the individual. Not everyone needs the same stretching exercises, and some patients will do their home exercises while others don’t. It takes constant work. I told him how I had no mobility in one ankle and one hand when I left the burn center to come home, so he could see the improvement. A year ago I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to ride again. But in just over a year I’ve improved a lot farther than my doctors thought I would,” she said.
[Andrea has been riding quite a bit since her injuries, helping us move cattle. The accompanying photo was taken on one of those rides]
“You set little goals for yourself. I told them about Emmy coming to see me while I was still in the hospital. I was too weak to hold her, and I could hardly bear to have her sit on my lap because it hurt my legs so much. I told them that during my 3 weeks as an outpatient (before I got to come home) the thing I worked at most was to try to regain enough strength, in at least one arm, to be able to pick her up. When I got home, I was able to pick her up for a moment, with my left arm. I told them things like that. The biggest thing, since they both had hand problems, was to diligently work on their hand exercises,” explained Andrea.
Through all her trips to Salt Lake, she was also a great encouragement to families of burn patients, especially the mothers of two young men who had been severely burned when they fell into near-boiling water in one of the thermal pools in Yellowstone Park. They suffered 3rd degree burns on about 95 percent of their bodies, being totally immersed in the hot water except for their heads. They’d been brought to the ICU when Andrea was just starting her experience as an out-patient, while Lynn was taking her back to the burn center almost daily for wound care assessment.
Lynn said those mothers were frantic, just like we had been. “The shock of the accident, not knowing whether your child was going to live or die—they were desperate,” he told me on the phone. “Trying to help them was a help to Andrea and me. Our reaching out to them made us both stronger. She’d already been encouraging other burn victims in the ICU, but these 2 boys were suddenly there, with a lot more skin gone; they would have a longer road to travel. But the main difference at that point was that she was farther down the road and had gotten through some of the terrible challenges they still had to face. She was up walking around. This, in itself, gave those mothers hope—just to see Andrea and her stage of progress. She had survived. She’d walked out of the burn ICU. She’d gotten past critical. Their sons could, too.”
One of the nurses told me later that this was a great encouragement to those mothers—Andrea being able to tell them that “this is the hardest thing in your whole life, but you can do it!”
Lynn told me that this role of being the comforter, the inspirer, helped Andrea deal with her own injuries and pain. “It gave her an outlet and a purpose, and something positive to do. We both realized that this was what we had to do—to talk to those mothers and show them that someone had been through this, like them, and survived.”
This was the start of a new focus for all of us—for Andrea as a burn survivor, dedicating her efforts to helping others, and for us as parents, trying to encourage other parents. Burn survivors and their families inadvertently joint a unique group, a fraternity like no other. These ties become strong and deep. Whenever you meet someone who’s had a similar trauma, there’s an instant bond. All the other differences in our lives or personalities are insignificant; we share much more than we don’t. People we became close to in Salt Lake that summer, and the ones we continue to meet, are very dear to us. Though we come from different backgrounds and lead vastly different lives, we are like family, but with an empathy and understanding that families often do not have.
The social worker at the burn center told us later that the summer of 2000, when Andrea was there, was one of those special times when families bonded. There were so many severe burns there all at once, and those families bonded partly just because the length of stay for all of those patients was so long. We coped with our own struggles partly by helping the others who were struggling, too. When you become part of that kind of “family” you are always a part of it.
Another facet of our new purpose in trying to encourage other burn survivors and their families stemmed from our deep gratitude for Andrea’s survival. We felt so blessed, because we didn’t lose our daughter. In thanksgiving, we felt compelled to do something in return, and the natural outlet for this effort was to help the ones who, like us, had been suddenly plunged into a terrible unknown. We could gently encourage them, and show them the love and help that others had shown us. This is our way of “paying it forward”, in continual thankfulness for the help and love that sustained us when we didn’t have the strength to get through it on our own.

Some of our friends here at home who helped us in every way they could (including spending time in the ICU with Andrea when we couldn’t be there) were also part of the reason we endured. This kind of friendship is a true blessing. We owe a large debt of gratitude to Bob and Jane Minor [pictured here with Emily and baby Charlie a couple years after Andrea’s accident], who helped us get through that terrible summer.
The sharing of families in trauma is one of the best things we can do for one another, and it becomes a wonderful blessing. When Andrea suffered her burn accident we had very little knowledge or understanding about this kind of injury. We had nowhere to turn, and didn’t know what we’d have to face. So when someone comes along who’s been there, and is farther down the road, we gratefully grab their hands and follow. We met several people in the days and weeks after Andrea’s burn who made a huge difference in our ability to cope.
Then, being able to be there for someone else and to do the same thing for them, you feel really good about it. You realize you’ve passed through the valley of the shadow of death and have come out the other side. You can extend a hand to someone who is still struggling through the worst parts of the journey and you can tell them they will survive, they will endure.
The more that Lynn and Andrea and I interact with other burn survivors and their families, and learn about their trials, problems and accomplishments, the more we realize that every burn survivor is special. This kind of injury happens to all kinds of people, but it indelibly marks them with a unique kind of courage. They become special because they have survived, and they have endured the unendurable. These are very ordinary people who have been called to become extra-ordinary, overcoming incredible odds.
Even if their burn injuries are not immediately life threatening, the long painful recovery and the fortitude they must develop to withstand the painful rehabilitation is heroic. They must all dig deeper into themselves to find more strength than they ever thought they could possess. Andrea’s continuing journey, still dealing with the impairments and problems from an accident that happened nearly 10 years ago, is a celebration of the human spirit, of triumph over great odds. We continue to rejoice in her life.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

April 30 blog update –

During the Fall of 2001 Andrea continued to push herself physically, trying to regain strength and motion in her grafted limbs. She’d been an avid hunter before her accident, harvesting deer and elk for her family’s meat supply. She wanted to go hunting again. She loved hiking in the mountains; she and her dad had always enjoyed going hunting together. From the time she was a child, Andrea could mimic the sound of an elk calf or cow. When riding range in the summer to check on our cows, she and her horse were able to get very close to the elk, and one time she was in the middle of a group of cows with young calves, several of which came right up to her horse, out of curiosity. If she was hunting elk in the fall, a traveling herd of elk would always stop and listen when they heard her making the high-pitched eeeep-eeeep of an elk calf. After her burn injuries, however, with throat damage from the fire and from the ventilator tube, she was no longer able to make this sound.

She was able to get out in the hills several times during hunting season in 2001. Hiking was good physical therapy, helping her body get back into shape, and gradually forcing more movement in her knees and ankles in spite of the damaged tendons. After several unsuccessful hunts, she eventually got her elk, and then she spent parts of 4 days here at the ranch, cutting and wrapping the meat, with only a little help. She didn’t have much endurance yet, and was totally exhausted each day after a few hours cutting meat, but she didn’t want much help because she wanted to prove to herself that she could still do it.

The hunting was a milestone for her in regaining some of her abilities. It meant a lot to her, and to all of us, to see her excited and happy. And as she processed the meat at our kitchen table, it was a joy to me, seeing her working again so confidently. Her physical strength and dexterity were slowing increasing. It gave her hope that she might eventually be able to again do some of the things she loved. She realized it wouldn’t be easy, and that she’d have to find ways to compensate for some of her handicaps, but she was determined that those handicaps will never hold her back.

She came out to the ranch several times the next spring, to see the cows and help in small ways. She had some “favorite” cows that always enjoyed seeing her, and on several occasions she took Emily out in the field with her to look at the cows. Em was learning to be quiet around the cows, so as not to alarm them, especially when they had young calves.

Lynn and I had been amused at Emily the year before, when she was staying with us for a few days that spring while her mama went to Salt Lake for a check-up. Em rode with us in the feed truck each day when we fed hay to the cows. She wanted to pet a calf, but some of the mama cows are very protective, and most of the calves are skittish. One calf, however, named Roddenia, was a bold and curious heifer that often came right up to me whenever I walked through the cows and calves to check on them. I always look at every calf, to make sure none of the calves are sick. I thought Emily might actually be able to pet Roddenia.

So she and I quietly got out of the feed truck after Lynn fed the cows. While they were all busy eating their hay and not worrying much about their calves, we walked toward Roddenia, where she was playing with some of her little friends. We stopped, a safe distance away, before the other calves might become alarmed and run off. I told Emily to just stand quietly and not make a sound. I said, “These calves don’t know you, and they might be afraid of you.”

Roddenia became curious about this little person standing beside me, and came over to see us better. Emily reached out her hand to the approaching calf, and whispered, “Don’t be afraid. I’m Emily Daine.” I smiled and tried not to laugh out loud. Em took me literally; the calf was afraid because she didn’t know Emily, and now that Em had properly introduced herself, the calf would not be afraid! Indeed, Roddenia came boldly forward and sniffed, then licked, the 3-year-old child’s outstretched hand!

Emily got to see the cows and calves several times the next spring when Andrea came out to the ranch, and watched from the sidelines as we branded and vaccinated the calves. Andrea was regaining strength and was able to help us with that project.

As summer progressed, Andrea was also able to ride a few times with me again, riding Breezy to help me move cattle. She was glad to have a chance to see her horses—especially Snickers, her good old cowhorse. Even though she never rode Snickers again, that old mare still holds a special place in her heart, with lots of good memories from all the days of riding range and chasing cows. They’d been a good team, and Snickers had earned a well-deserved retirement.

A lot of things changed, for all of us, with Andrea’s burn injuries (since she could no longer help us full time on the ranch) but we feel blessed to still have her with us. Our priorities changed, as we realized that many of the little things we thought were important before, or worried about, are no big deal in the big picture scheme of things. The important things in life are love, family, compassion, and thankfulness for the blessings we often take for granted.