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.
Posted by BillieJohn at 7:00 AM