After the Fire: One Year On

One year ago today, I blew myself up in a bonfire-gone-wrong, resulting in second and third degree burns that chewed up more than a quarter of my skin and earned me a two week stay in a burn-cum-trauma unit that kicked off the start of a healing process that continues today.

The physical recovery had included twice-daily debridement. Whilst in the burn unit, this was done by a pair of nurses; once home, I did this myself for an additional two months or so. This process involved essentially scraping all of the skin off of my legs from the knees down and the top of my left arm from triceps to fingers.

The first 6 weeks was aided with hardcore pain medicines. After this time, I was informed by the doctors and nurses that I was now addicted to opioids and they were cutting me off. I then had to face the daily debridements with full faculties. Good times. It’s difficult to think of something analogous to this, but I’ll take a stab.

Imagine if the only way you could recover from an injury was to punch yourself in the face over and over for a good half and hour, twice a day, for weeks. After a while, you kind of get used to it and convince yourself it’s something you can get a handle on. And then you’re handed a baseball bat and told to replace your punches with whacks from that. It’s kind of like that.

I had to do physical therapy each day for months as the burns wrapped around both ankles, a knee, and my left wrist and elbow. The doctors were concerned that the scarring would cause reduced range-of-motion at these joints, so I was given a set of exercises to do.

The physical therapy started in the first few days in the burn unit. My physical therapist was great at her job but lacked some empathy: the sessions were pure torture. I had to first just get to the point where I could stand, which was a lot more difficult than it sounds: the blood rushing into my legs and feet was pure physical agony, giving the sensation that my skin was going to split apart; the pressure was intense.

Once I could handle standing for a bit, I had to get used to walking again. Each day I would walk a little further, and eventually I had to show the doctors and nurses I could walk up and down stairs before I could go home. It took months of these little exercises before I was strong enough to walk around, and in the initial weeks this was only possible with the aid of a walker and then crutches.

Thankfully, the physical recovery is now limited to just wearing compression stockings on both legs from the knees down for 23-hours a day. I will need to do this for another 3 months. All told it will be a solid 15 months of discomfort to physically recover from about 15-seconds of stupidity.

The real downside, though, is that is just the physical side of things. As truly horrendous as all of that was, and as annoying as having to still wear these stockings is (particularly whilst in India, where I live and work), it pales in comparison to the psychological trauma that’s been an intrinsic part of this from day one as well.

The first few days were really awful. I’d have panic attacks and emotional breakdowns in the burn unit as I cycled through the hypotheticals: What if one of my nieces or nephews was injured as well? What would it have done to my family if I’d’ve been more seriously injured or even killed?

Once those became just careless whispers in the back of the mind, the nightmares started. They manifest in many ways, but all feature fire in some respect. Usually these are along the tried-and-true nightmare variety of not being able to run fast enough to escape being consumed in fire, only to a much worse degree than reality. These persist to this day.

What’s also quite astonishing is to realize just how often fire, or rather people immolating, is depicted on television and in movies. I try watching these scenes in an effort to overcome the fear that they imbue, but it’s often a failed effort. My heart goes out to anyone that has ever suffered a gunshot as they must not be able to watch anything!

In the grand scheme of things, a year is not so long. For me, it’s less than 3% of my total time on Earth so far. I guess this is where relativity becomes poignant on a personal level. Those weeks in the burn unit, and the several months of initial physical recovery thereafter, felt like decades.

I am inordinately lucky to have had incredible healthcare available to me, and an overwhelmingly supportive family and group of close friends to help me through what was easily the most painful experience of my life. The staff at the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, NY saved my life, and their care was so extraordinary that my physical scarring will be quite minimal when it is all said and done. Unfortunately, there are so many in this world whose fate in similar instances will mean a death sentence or a life much more challenging than it need be.

Ultimately, all of what happened to me was my own responsibility. I am no more a victim in this story as anyone who tempts fate and falls short is. The point of writing this is manifold: as a warning to those like me to spend a little more time thinking through doing something stupid before actually doing it, to encourage people to support charitable causes that help those less fortunate avail medical care, to illustrate how a momentary lapse of reason can have long-term implications, and in hopes of catharsis or purgation for these demons that haunt my dreams.

Life is many things; it can be wonderful and painful, inspirational and depressing, beautiful and heinous. The paradoxes abound, but one universal truth is that life is short, and our own actions can make it far shorter if we let them. One big learning for me from this incident is to cherish what I have, most importantly the people who make my own world go ‘round.

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