I Am a Burn Victim (This is Not a Metaphor)
by Noise Pollution
This morning (if you can call eleven A.M. morning) I woke up, dragged myself out of bed, and took my usual shower. Usually, that’s a pretty meaningless event, but on occasion, it reminds me of something that I don’t have in common with a lot of people.
I have scars. They’re not fading white lines in places from being cut, they’re not slightly off-color patches of skin from touching a hot frying pan, and I’m not even trying to trick you by turning this around and saying they’re “mental scars.” These scars are grotesque, and difficult for most people to look at. They aren’t just reminders of something that happened, they’re distinct enough to set me apart from the norm.
I am a burn victim.
At the age of three, when I was obviously too young to think critically, I got myself into an accident. I had found and poured gasoline onto the ground and was playing in it, as if it were water. I was in a very small room in the house, and right next to a seemingly sizable water-heater. I don’t know exactly what happened to start the fire; maybe some hot water leaked out and was hot enough to light the gas. Maybe a spark flew off of the pilot light, landing on the puddle I had created. Maybe it wasn’t the liquid gasoline itself that lit, but the fumes. I don’t know. I do know what happened afterwards.
It’s my first memory. It is completely solid in my mind, and if I make an effort to remember the event, I can see it as if I was there right now. I remember a whole lot of pain. I remember the childish thought processes going through my head, trying to find some way to stop the pain. There were clothes in the corner of the room; when the sidewalk outside was too hot to walk on, stepping on something soft made the pain go away. The clothes, however, had already caught fire. There was nowhere in this tiny room to hide from the horrible sensation I felt.
I was screaming. I was bawling. I remember trying the door, but I was so young and in such a panic that I couldn’t even manage to turn the doorknob. It felt like I was in there for an eternity, when in reality, it was seconds at most. The last part of that memory I have is of me pounding my fists on the door, screaming for my mother.
After that, all I have are distorted bits and pieces of memories from the hospital stay, and the story from my mom.
My mom rushed into the burning room and pulled me out of it. She ran out of the house, scooping up my infant brother on the way out. She took us next door, crying her eyes out, asking to use the phone to dial 911. The neighbor obviously obliged. By that point, I was in shock. Apparently, I was very excited that our neighbors had cable, and asked to watch cartoons while standing on bloody, barely recognizable legs. I can’t imagine that person ever forgot that image.
I have a brief flash of a memory at this point of being on an ambulance. I remember asking if I was on a firetruck. I mean, I was three, I loved firetrucks. The paramedics told me that I was, and then I drifted out of consciousness. I was in critical condition. The paramedics weren’t sure if I was even going to live, let alone be able to live a normal life ever again. I’m sure that broke my mom’s heart. Thinking about her receiving that information almost makes me shake as much as remembering what happened to me.
I had third-degree burns on 17% of my body. The doctor we were originally with told my mom to skip the much-needed skingraft operation due to the pain it would cause. The reality of the situation was that my family was extremely poor, and we didn’t have insurance. My mom didn’t work, and my dad was a fucking janitor. The doctor knew we couldn’t pay for the procedure, and rather than help the suffering three-year-old child in front of him, he chose the more frugal approach of letting third-degree burns heal naturally. That’s fucking crazy. Apparently, becoming a doctor and watching people die on a regular basis can make you pretty cynical.
We tried this approach of “natural healing” for weeks. I had to sleep on my stomach, and spent most of every day either crying, or trying not to cry. My mother describes me at this time as the saddest she’d ever seen someone, and I was three. I still have bits and pieces of the recovery process in my memory and I know how much it hurt. It hurt so, so much. It hurt so much I couldn’t bare it. I didn’t have the will to live.
Finally, during a regular checkup, the fiscally-conservative doctor happened to be out, and someone else was there to take his place. I don’t believe in miracles, but if this chance thing hadn’t happened, I have no idea where I’d be today. The doctor saw my wounds, and was pissed. He was furious that I had been living this long without skingrafts. He said the procedure needed to be done as soon as possible. It was the only way I was going to get better. He did not mince his words. He was even frustrated with my mother for clinging to the other doctor’s claim that it would bring me pain.
I was sent over to a burn center, where they put me to sleep, cut the skin off of my thighs, and applied it to the areas that needed it. I don’t really know the specifics of how the operation worked. Apparently they took the healthy skin and turned it into some sort of netting that was grafted onto the burned skin. I know that nowadays, they are able to use significantly less skin for this process than they did when I was burned, but for me, they took a strip of skin as long as and as wide as my thigh from each leg. That left scars, too.
According to my mother, after the treatment, I really did start to feel better. The first time she saw me smile since the accident was several days after the operation. I still remember hard things, though. I remember having my wounds cleaned. The cleaning was like a reoccurring nightmare. It was something that had to be done on a regular basis, but it was horrific. I remember screaming and bawling during the process. I don’t know if they numbed me or not, I have no idea how that process works, but I remember it hurt so fucking bad either way.
After that, I had to spend a long time in physical therapy. I had to get walking again. My mom tells this story like the proudest parent ever, but I’m not as diligent now as I was then. Apparently, taking the walks caused me a huge amount of pain. I refused several times, saying, “It’s too hard.” A nurse then told me, “I know it’s hard, but it’s not too hard.” I apparently took that advice to heart, and when my mom told me she wished it wasn’t so hard, I told her the same line. I guess hearing that out of a wounded three-year-old’s mouth had a pretty lasting impact on my mom, as she cries every time she tells that part of the story.
Eventually, there came a time when I was done. I was actually healed. I was actually better. I wasn’t going to die, and the pain was gone. I got to live a “normal” life. All that remained of that event were the scars, the bankruptcy my parents had to file, and the divorce my parents got.
I have horrible scarring on my right foot, my thighs, and my “lower back.” Yeah, by that I mean my ass. I was sitting in the puddle of gas when it caught fire, after all. The scars aren’t like other scars. They’re gnarled in places, like a tree trunk. There’s places where you can see the shape of the netting from the operation, and if I scratch, it’s like running my nails across a surface with letters engraved in it. The nails get caught on the skin just enough to remind me that it’s not smooth, like it should be. Like it is for everyone else.
Most days, I don’t even think about what happened, but every now and then, I’ll see my skin and remember.
I’m shaking at the moment. It’s a pretty terrible memory, and when I close my eyes, I can still feel my childish screams clawing at my throat, and the flames licking at my feet. I still see the bright red room, and the door that wouldn’t let me escape it. I feel the fear I felt back then.
But I’m not afraid. Not right now. I just remember what it was like to be afraid back then, and it makes me shake.