Soaring Above Rock Bottom
When Alexi Pyles was six months old, she received second and third degree burns on her neck and chest. Hoping that someone would provide her with treatment, her birth parents abandoned her at an orphanage in Xiamen, China.
In 1996, Cathy Pyles traveled to China to adopt Alexi. In the United States, she fought for Alexi to receive long-overdue treatment for her scars. When one surgeon refused to operate on Alexi’s burns, claiming they were ‘just cosmetics,’ Cathy reached out to the Children’s Burn Foundation. With their support, Alexi completed her treatment at Sherman Oaks Hospital.
Last year, Alexi graduated with a major in Psychology and a minor in Visual Arts from Bethany College in West Virginia. Despite Alexi’s high hopes for college, her years there were the hardest of her life.
Below, Alexi shares her story and the lessons she’s learned.
Soaring Above Rock Bottom
by Alexi Pyles
When I started school at Bethany College, I didn’t expect anything bad to happen. This was supposed to be the time of my life. My goals for college were to complete classes, go to swim practices, and make friends. Pretty simple, right? But with swim practices and classes from 6:00 a.m. through dinner, I was left with little time to eat, study, and sleep. I was exhausted.
The emotional strain of being a burn survivor pushed me over the edge.
During my freshman year, I was the first person to break an individual record at Bethany College in the 100 meter butterfly. A senior, who hoped to break the record herself, was jealous of my success and started spiteful rumors about me that spread through the sororities on campus.
I worked my butt off for that accomplishment, but to everyone else I was just the undeserving Asian swimmer with burns who stole a sorority girl’s swim record.
My peers said that my scars tarnished my physical beauty and even my mental strength. They invited me to Greek parties out of pity -- or as a set-up to call me names for talking to a guy who happened to say hello. Even my roommates wouldn’t hold a friendly conversation with me. Soon, I was embarrassed to show my face. I ate alone in a corner of the cafeteria and never came out of my room.
I survived four years of college, graduated, and came home to California.
Eventually, I realized that I had experienced trauma they couldn’t understand. Most of these traditionally beautiful women had no scars, designer clothes, cars, and countless other things provided by their parents -- but their luxurious lives didn’t give them maturity.
I finally accepted that you can’t change other people. If I wanted things to be different, it would have to be on me. It took a while to recover from my depression, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences. Now, I work as a barista, USAG-Certified Gymnastics coach, tumbling coach, and ambassador for MRI/Prolab. I’m in a happy relationship with a man who accepts everything that’s happened to me and motivates me to be the best I can be.
They say that once you hit rock bottom, the only place left to go is up. College was rock bottom, and today I’m soaring above.
Unfortunately, Alexi Pyles isn’t the only burn survivor to encounter bullying. To support students from elementary school through college, the Phoenix Society offers the following resources:
- Phoenix Education Grant: a scholarship for burn survivors pursuing their dreams through postsecondary education.
- The Journey Back: Returning to School After a Burn Injury: a program for parents and teachers assisting a child returning to school after a burn injury or traumatic loss.
- Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving After Burn Injury: a set of tools to handle teasing and bullying, navigate questions, and build confidence.
- Phoenix UBelong: a four-day program at Phoenix World Burn Congress that allows participants to connect with other members of the burn community while furthering their personal recovery.