On the 2 March 2012 we were in Arniston for a friend’s 40th birthday. At the party, in completely bizarre circumstances, I caught alight. This was written two weeks after the incident.
Realizing that you are on fire evokes different reactions and feelings, depending on the person. Mine was anger and helplessness. Anger; because I immediately felt it such a completely unnecessary accident. A friend had had a similar one in December and I knew there would be something ahead I hadn’t factored on. The helplessness came from realizing I couldn’t douse the flames on my own. I wanted to smother myself against the bright orange dress, but realized it would also go up in flames, so I had to turn and say: “Please help me”.
It didn’t seem as if anyone knew what to do, everyone was in a state of panic, so I tried to take charge. I called for honey, I remembered reading somewhere it has antibacterial properties. I kept screaming for someone to call Murray. If they don’t know what to do then phone someone who does. I remember seeing the skin on my wrist/lower arm hang like a thin peel of something, thin grey and the arm was bright pink. I chose then not to look at myself anymore. But, it was so sore, so very very sore. A burning pain that wouldn’t stop. The only way I could deal with the pain was by pushing a hard, bellowing sound through my clenched teeth. My lips had been burnt. I was being gently ushered to the shower. I was so afraid of the water adding to the pain, but I couldn’t tell. All the while everyone in hysterics in the background and Jafta at my arm, not leaving me.
Out of the shower and a cool compress . Burnshield from a first-aid kit and put on my cheek, trying to cover my mouth and neck. Followed by running across the field to the hotel next door to exhaust their supply for my hand and arm. By this time an ambulance had been called, not yet arrived. I had a thought of incredulity that I have caused the need for one.
We started the drive to Bredasdorp, to the clinic. I would tense my body as hard as I could and breathe out hard, through that clenched bellow. Probably did it continuously. In the clinic I got a morphine shot to the leg, but it felt like an age before it kicked in. More Burnshield with shocked, sympathetic gazes. Stabilized and off to Hermanus where it was even more; touching up between my fingers before being clingwrapped and bandaged. I was mummified with Jafta next to me on the lazy-boy from hell.
Saturday morning was about avoiding sleep. I’d been given more morphine and was exceedingly nauseous – kept on vomiting through the tiny gap they’d left for my mouth. When I closed my eyes I would fall into a kaleidoscope of glittery, arachnoid dreams that I couldn’t tell if they lasted seconds or minutes.
Somewhere in the bustle Sarah arrived, bringing pyjamas and a last minute t-shirt for Jafta (the bag of clothes Llew had packed for him forgotten in Hout Bay). It would have been most odd to have to drive to Cape Town in my party clothes from the night before. Eventually the politics of hospital administration was sorted and we ambulanced our way across the peninsula to Cape Town.
I find the calmness of hospital staff, when faced with extreme pain and broken bits, quite amazing. In the emergency room at Vincent Pallotti they unwound me, cut off the clingfilm and gently peeled off the Burnshield – I didn’t feel a thing – and the prognosis was great, only first and second degree burns. At a point we’re all in the little screened off cubicle; ma, Jafta, Llew and me cocooned in fresh white – I think pa had gone to get coffee – when I notice the rather odd t-shirt Jafta’s wearing. All stretched at the neck, too short in the waist, making him look like a bit of a rent boy. “Rather inappropriate clothing to wear around a burn victim” I muffle. The logo on the chest is an old South African classic; Lion Safety Matches. Thank goodness morphine gives a sense of humour, even if only to the one who receives it.
From then on it became routine and time; into theatre that night and every third day since, to have the skin scraped and dressings changed. Two weeks later my face is reasonably clear. Apart from the telltale bright pink new skin, there are no other marks. In this pink I can see how the flame curled up around my neck and across my cheek to my mouth and chin.
Yesterday ma and I spend the afternoon cutting the pattern off my bat shirt I was wearing at the time, to make new ones. The shirt also tells the story. Apart from the right sleeve which is very obviously damaged with burn holes and later cut to put the Burnshield on, you have to look closely to see and feel how the fire moved across me. But even then, if I hadn’t had my sleeves pushed up, my arm would have been protected. At no point did the fire get through the fabric. The cuff had holes through one layer, but not both, and you can feel a hardness in the fabric where the flame jumped from the collar to my neck. Although the front of the shirt was on fire, all you see a faint discolouration here and there as the fire ran up. I was so lucky.
Pain. Apart from that initial insane time before the first morphine kicked in, I have not experienced pain beyond a drip being inserted. This is testament to the incredible care I have received from all involved. At some point I may be exposed to something a bit more raw when I don’t have to go to theatre and they treat me under local anaesthetic, but perhaps that’s also just part of the process. This is the journey, not the destination.
Life is full of strange and surreal things, including getting burnt. Burning is one of the most cleansing processes we have available to us, more powerful than chemicals or any other substance we have. In metaphysics it is used to let go of emotional baggage. I’ve had accidents and operations before, but oddly this one has been the easiest process of recovery for me so far, if there is such a thing. I was able to articulate it in the first week; I wanted to take the pain out of my mom’s eyes. The difference here is that it’s all on the outside. I haven’t seen myself broken so my mind I’m not. This was easier to deal with than surgery that cuts into your body. Now that the dressing is off my face and neck, apart from the temporary loss of use of my right hand, my head is clear and I’m mobile. This is about time, slowing down and giving my body the space to heal. And allowing the thoughts and emotions to come and go as they please. Quite nice to be this open to change.
Cotton and lycra don’t burn and melt the way polyester does. Cotton is naturally flame retardant and lycra is rubber based, so it will smoulder unless the temperature is high enough.
When someone has been burnt, you immediately move them under cool running water for at least 10-20min. This stops the burn process and cools the burn down. Even though you can’t see it, if the initial burn is bad enough, it will continue to burn into you and worsen, unless stopped. Burnshield is a product containing tea tree oils and chemicals that help to cool the burn, as well as keeping the area sterile. Infection in burns is a greater killer than the burn itself. You can use honey on burn wounds if you have nothing else, however it’s less messy and far more effective to use Burnshield.
The regular scraping of burn wounds prevents the formation of keloid. It’s a painful process, but essential to prevent scarring and keep full use of your limbs and digits. I’ll wear a pressure garment on my hand for the next 6 months or so, along with odd little silicone pads here and there on spots to help prevent keloid build up in the long term. Apparently it will take up to 18 months to heal completely.
It was a complete freak accident. We were sitting at a long table and a fondue pot on the other side of the table wouldn’t light. Next to me someone was leaning over the table and pouring meths into the pot on the far side – another on the other side lighting it. As it lit, the flame jumped onto his hand and he pulled away sharply creating a backdraft. At the same time the person next to me pulled away and probably spilt meths on me. This was enough for the flame to jump across the table and onto me. I can be angry about it, but it was a complete accident and I’d prefer not to have to lose a friendship I rather like. And the anger wouldn’t be authentic. I managed to get rid of it all during that drive to Bredasdorp.
To Sue for keeping a clear head and getting me into the shower
For Brad and his first-aid kit
The cousin who smothered me
Alistair, the ambulance assistant from Hermanus to Cape Town, who ensured I was secure and could sleep
Dr. Struwig and his team for excellent care
To all the people who cared for me, operated on me, brought me food and pyjamas, sent flowers, made me laugh, visited, called or just held me in their thoughts.
This has been a rather excessive exercise to find out how loved I am. Thank you for everything (including Cholmondley).
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