Cooking oil bursts into flame at around 370 degrees celcius. In fahrenheit, that’s roughly 700. When human flesh is exposed to those temperatures, it bubbles and has a scent a lot like pork.
I smelled absolutely delicious.
There were chips cooking in the frying pan, in a few centimetres of oil. The kitchen door was closed. Erin and I had stepped out of the kitchen for a bit, and got distracted chatting. Erin heard a noise and opened the kitchen door. Inside everything was orange and black. Flames were licking at the ceiling and the cabinets were starting to catch ablaze.
I don’t like talking about the next part because what I did was embarrassingly stupid, and because what I did I cannot really believe. I put a tea-towel over the frying pan handle (because I thought that would be hot!) and then picked up the frying pan, and yelled to Erin to open all the doors and get out of the way. Then I slowly (and quite calmly) walked through the house holding the frying pan steady so as not to spill the boiling and burning oil. As I walked, the oxygen fed the fire, fanning flames that ran up my arm and toward my face. I kept walking towards the door. I was committed. I couldn’t stop.
In an emergency, you will be amazed what you can do. I never noticed until nurses in the hospital told me, but the flames were so close to my eyes that I burned off most of my eyelashes.
In the days, weeks, and months after the kitchen fire in which I received full-thickness burns to my right hand, there were plenty of medical professionals telling me which opioids to take, and by which route to take them. The doses and the timings were tougher for me to keep track of when I was released between operations and after my final procedure. I once sailed laughably close to an accidental overdose by confusing the schedule of one drug for another, and took 8 times the dose in a day as I should have. There are entire months I do not remember.
I went through physical therapy over the course of a year, slowly getting back reasonable use of my right hand. Eventually the acute pain dissipated to manageable amounts, and I stopped taking four different types of painkillers a day and just got back to two (but one is a really good one).
The skin they took from my leg to cover over the delicious-smelling burns? Well it grafted perfectly and to look at me now you’d never know that I originally was told to expect to lose my hand from the wrist. It doesn’t look like it should hurt.
But it does. And nobody can tell me if it’s ever going to end.
The fire was three years ago next week. I am angry about it every hour of every single day.
You ever get into a hot shower after an extremely cold swim? Your nerves all scream in unison because they don’t know which sensation to process. Are you scalding yourself, or are you freezing? That sensation is called thermal allodynia. Extensively damaged by fire, the nerves under my skin grafts do something similar to that all the time. It’s a constant high grade sensation that I expend a great deal of energy trying to ignore. Any time I am doing anything at all, that screaming noise is the baseline. It’s as though, just for me, life has created a radio station blaring static that only I can hear.
It never stops, this blinding noise.
The four things nobody tells you about chronic neuropathic pain.
Well, nobody tells you anything. I had great care throughout my surgical treatment, but there was never any follow-up care with pain management, and I could never find anything at all about similar injuries through my searches on the internet. So because everyone loves a listicle, here are four things I learned. I hope this helps someone who is doing the same frantic web searches that I have fruitlessly done these past few years.
1: People will think you’re crazy.
When you have visible signs of injury, or you’re within a few months of when the trauma took place, people will understand that you’re in pain, and that that can have effects on your mood. People will be very accommodating in the early days. But after 6 months, after a year, it starts to seem like you’re malingering at best, and faking at worst. You can’t blame people for thinking that. They could never understand. Try not to be angry at them; it doesn’t help anyone.
2: You will think you’re crazy.
After a while, this starts to get to you. You won’t sleep, you won’t function properly while you are awake, and you’ll forget things you shouldn’t forget.
You will question whether you are in fact making it up, just like people suspect. These will be dangerously low times. Try to keep your chin up when you can. Get a referral to a mental health specialist who can help with grief and loss.
3: The drugs work. Except when they don’t.
Thankfully, there are drugs now that can help. I was very lucky that a medication was listed on the PBS for my condition a month after the doctors realised it might help me. And it does help. It squelches some of the noise, giving you back more of your ability to function. But it can make you moody, and it can also make you feel suicidal. This is not the best side effect when you’re already feeling low, so keep an eye out for yourself, and don’t ever alter your medication without speaking with your doctor.
4: You’ll miss the sympathy you once despised.
When you’re first injured people crowd you and try to help. You are no longer able-bodied, and the help and the sympathy you receive serve to remind you that you’re no longer able to get by without assistance. You come to hate it when people offer you help. Fuck those guys, you can do it yourself.
And you do eventually work out how to get through the day without people’s help. Of course people then forget that you’re struggling, because you don’t show them what’s going on beneath the surface. But sometimes, it would just be nice to answer the question of “So, how are you?” with the truth, which is “Not well at all. I could do with a shoulder and an ear.”
Bonus! 5: You’ll get through it
This is the new normal, and while it often sucks, you’ll adapt. You’ll work out how to make changes your life and make the most of times when you’re strongest. You’ll learn to route around the times when you’re not as robust. Make peace with the things you can no longer do, and savour the things that you can.
The key thing to remember is that you’re not broken. You’re changed.