5 Things I Learned as the Child of a Burn Survivor
by Niki Acton
The summer before my mom was supposed to start college, she was electrocuted while working at the local yacht club. After a hard year of recovery, she went to school with a new goal: to become a burn nurse. By the time I was born, she was working as a nurse in the burn unit that had treated her. I learned her story in bits and pieces throughout my childhood, but even though her scars are long-healed, her burn injury has given her a unique perspective on the world.
Here are five lessons my mom taught me:
It never occurred to me that my mom’s scars might bother her. When I was a kid, I just thought they were cool. I liked that her four-fingered hand fit better in mine, and I thought the rippled texture of her skin grafts was pretty. My childish innocence had something to do with this, but most of it was a result of my mom’s grace. During the summer, she wore shorts and bathing suits without a second thought. She never said anything negative about her scars. I learned in adolescence that her seemingly effortless confidence was the result of a long journey. She told me about the first years after her burn injury and the stares that I had never noticed. When I was dealing with my messy transformation into adulthood -- gangly limbs, stubborn acne, and persistently frizzy hair -- my mother led by example. She taught me to love my body with all of its glorious imperfections.
2. My Sense of Humor
When my mom was trying to teach me to count to 10, we ran into a problem: I have 10 fingers, but she only has nine.“I have an idea,” she said. For the first five numbers, we progressed normally, one finger at a time. When we reached the second hand, she stuck her tongue right in the gap where her fifth finger used to be, and onward we counted to 10. As I was growing up, her motto seemed to be “Why be uncomfortable when you can be silly instead?” As I’ve faced challenges in my own life, I keep coming back to this attitude. My mom taught me that with a sense of humor and a dash of imagination, I can conquer anything.
When someone’s differences are visible, people have a lot of questions. As a kid, I watched my mom field those questions from my friends and strangers alike with dignity and kindness. Now I know that it took her a long time and a lot of courage to learn how to address people’s curiosity with patience. It’s not always easy to talk about our differences, but my mom taught me that we all have what it takes as long as we can be brave. (Learn how to navigate questions and other life strategies with Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving After a Burn Injury.)
This one isn’t as exciting, but I learned about fire safety and burn prevention from a very young age. Stop, drop, and roll? I’m your girl. No water on an oil fire? You got it. Don’t run near the campfire? Yes ma’am. As I’ve gotten older and the stakes have gotten higher, I’ve always been prepared with the knowledge to keep myself safe. When I moved into my first apartment, I knew that I needed interconnected smoke alarms -- or better yet, fire sprinklers. My first Christmas tree stayed well-hydrated and was immediately removed from the premises when it started to dry out. My elementary school friends may have thought of me as a bit of a buzzkill, but my mom taught me something very important: it’s easier to prevent a burn than to deal with its aftermath. (Here are some resources to keep you and your family safe.)
Because of my mom’s job, I grew up surrounded by burn survivors. I lost my first tooth at a children’s burn camp, went to Phoenix World Burn Congress every year, and learned how to do my make-up from the woman who developed the Phoenix Society’s Image Enhancement Program. From a young age, I learned that each of us walks a different path, and that I would be a better person if I listened to those who were different from me. These days, I’m a writer. I like to think that my passion for telling stories has been shaped by the lessons I learned from my mother and the burn community.
When I was a kid, I was much more interested in my mom’s ability to make me an awesome Halloween costume and whether or not she was going to insist I unload the dishwasher. But as I look back, I can see all the ways being a burn survivor made her a great mom -- and all the ways being the daughter of a burn survivor has made me a better person.