Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch – Horrendous Fires, Part 5: Triumph Over Tragedy

In October 2008 my daughter Andrea (a burn survivor) and I attended the 20th annual World Burn Congress (WBC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ever since her burn accident in July 2000, which nearly took her life, we’d wanted to attend one of these gatherings—and in 2008 some good friends helped make it possible.

Andrea at the 2008 World Burn Congress

The WBC is run by the Phoenix Society, an organization that was begun more than 30 years ago by Alan Breslau. He was severely burned in a plane crash some years earlier, and he started this group as a way to help other burn survivors cope with their challenges and move on with their lives. The name of the organization is taken from the mythical bird that was consumed by fire and rose again from the ashes.

Andrea and me at the 2008 World Burn Congress

The WBC in North Carolina four years ago was an exhilarating and humbling experience for Andrea and me. We met other burn survivors and their families, and we were inspired by them and helped inspire some of the newer survivors. There’s nothing more gratifying than being able to help someone else get through the tough times. We help ourselves the most when we are able to help another person.

Andrea and I both wanted to attend the WBC again, but the time and expense involved were big stumbling blocks. Earlier this summer we realized that maybe it was time to go again—this time it would be Andrea and her daughter, Emily, who attended. We felt that this experience would be very beneficial for young Emily. Em was just 2½ years old when her mama was burned, and she probably has subtle issues she may not even be aware of, stemming from that summer long ago when her mama disappeared for 2 months to fight for her life in the burn ICU in Salt Lake City. Now, at age 14, Em was old enough mentally and emotionally to benefit from what she would encounter at the WBC, and it would be a wonderful thing for her and her mom to experience together.

We borrowed the money for registration fees, plane tickets, and a hotel room and made arrangements for Em to miss a week of school. On Monday, September 10, Andrea and Em drove to Boise, stopping at the Halstead fire camp near Stanley to say hello to friends in the fire crews (Andrea had become well-acquainted with them when they helped on the fire that burned her), and where a documentary film maker wanted to interview Em regarding her feelings about attending the WBC. He wanted a before-and-after “take” on her impressions.

Emily and Andrea stopped at the Halstead fire camp on their way to to the WBC

Andrea and Em then flew from Boise (via Phoenix, Arizona—how fitting!) to Milwaukee, where the WBC was held this year. It was a fantastic 4 ½ days of meeting burn survivors and a variety of support people, such as firefighters and medical professionals involved in burn care. There were more than 800 people there from seven countries. Featured speakers included Kyle Maynard, who crawled up on the stage to give his talk. He was born with arms that end at the elbows and legs that end near his knees. The theme of his presentation was that there are no excuses for not succeeding in life. No matter how challenging your disabilities or difficulties, everyone has the ability to overcome these challenges. He told about his own life, working hard to become one of the top wrestlers in the nation and breaking world records in weight-lifting.

 Andrea and Emily with friends at the WBC

Another speaker was Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist, who spoke about the importance of self-compassion—treating ourselves kindly rather than continually judging and criticizing ourselves. Understanding and accepting our own imperfections help us deal with life’s struggles, be more optimistic, and be happy with our own lives. Dr. Neff is the mother featured in the documentary and best-selling book The Horse Boy, which tells of her family’s experience with autism.

One of the other speakers was Bill Ester, whom Andrea and I had met at the 2008 WBC. He was a pianist and mountain climber before his accident many years ago — when he was a part-time truck driver and 8500 gallons of gasoline blew up and completely engulfed him in flames. As part of his determination to overcome his handicaps, he concentrated on the passions in his life, making up his mind to play piano and climb mountains again. The doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to do those things, but after more than two years of surgeries, therapy, and hard work (which included physical and mental anguish beyond description) he started climbing mountains and playing piano. His other passion is helping burn survivors turn setbacks into strengths, rekindle their passions, and find a purpose for their existence.

Andrea and Emily totally immersed themselves in this wonderful experience. They spent the first evening participating in the Walk of Remembrance to honor friends and loved ones who have died from burn injuries. This is a sobering time, remembering friends that have been lost. This was also a time for participants to contemplate their own personal losses, as a starting point in reconnecting with life and continuing to heal. Emily is a very shy teenager, but upon meeting burn survivors in her age group, she quickly realized that her own insecurities were insignificant in comparison to what they were going through. She readily bonded with several new friends—and helped some “come out of their shells”—and she joyfully interacted with some of the more outgoing ones. At the talent show one evening, for instance, one of her new friends—who likes to sing—talked Em into going up on stage with her to sing a song they both knew. Em sings in the school chorus at home but has never been brave enough to sing by herself in front of people. That night at the WBC she was out there singing in front of 800 people, partly as an encouragement to her new friend!

Emily and one of the young burn survivors she befriended at the WBC

Andrea and Em came home totally exhausted, having had practically no sleep for five days because they were too busy visiting with dozens of new friends. They plan to keep in touch with most of them, and they hope to find a way to go to the 25th annual WBC next year, in Rhode Island.

Andrea, Em, and several friends waiting for the airport shuttle
on the final day of the WBC, reluctant to say goodbye and head for home

This experience for our family, being able to send Andrea and Em to the WBC, was a fitting finale to our summer of fire and tragedy in the western United States. It was a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to overcome the most horrendous challenges that life puts in our path.

Read Part 1: A Personal Journey
Read Part 2: The 2003 Fire
Read Part 3: Early Summer 2012
Read Part 4: Enduring the Smoke

More about the book, and our lives since, can be found at www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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