Written by Carey Cummins on November 25, 2019
I was 14 and thought I was invincible. On May 14, 1988, I found out I wasn’t. In a heartbeat, I went from a tired, but happy teenager who had spent the day at an amusement park with my friend, Emillie’s church youth group, to a terrified child trying to escape from a raging inferno.
A drunk driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 71 in rural Kentucky hit our church bus head on. The bus’s gas tank ruptured, and the bus burst into flames. Thick, toxic black smoke filled the bus. The front exit was blocked by flames. Panicked, screaming teenagers filled the aisles. I was in the front row on the right side. The only viable way out was the back door exit. It was a miracle I made it there by climbing over seats that were melting beneath my hands. Everyone else sitting in my row died. Twenty-seven people lost their lives as a result of the crash (including my friend, Emillie, who invited me on the trip). The accident is still the worst drunk driving crash in U.S. history, and I am the most severely injured survivor.
I sustained 3rd degree burns over 55% of my body. My lower right leg and foot were burned 4th degree (to the bone), so it was amputated below the knee. I was in the University of Louisville’s hospital burn unit over 2 months. I faced years of recovery, including countless surgeries, physical therapy, and multiple hospitalizations.
Walking came to represent freedom and independence because it was so difficult for me to achieve. I spent my entire freshman year of high school on crutches. It took me over a year to learn to walk with a prosthesis. When I strolled into class my first day as a high school sophomore sporting my new prosthesis, my classmates cheered.
Fast forward ten years - I decided to become a registered nurse because I was inspired by the wonderful nurses who cared for me after I was injured. One constant in my life is my continuing struggle with walking. I periodically experience skin breakdowns on my amputated leg because it is all fragile grafted skin and cannot wear my prosthesis for days or sometimes weeks at a time.
As a way to give back and help raise awareness about the impact of drunk driving, I helped co-produce a documentary about the bus crash (http://theimpactmovie.com). It’s shown in all middle schools throughout Kentucky and to DUI offenders. I’m also an active member of my local burn support group in Norfolk, VA called Tidewater Burn & Trauma Survivors.
However, none of those things would have happened if not for me searching for burn survivors on the internet during the summer of 1996 (pre-Google!). Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors popped up and I wrote down their number. The next day I called and spoke with the friendliest lady with the cutest accent I had ever heard. It was Delwyn Breslau. Since that day, I have been an active member of Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. My first Phoenix World Burn Congress was in Philadelphia in 1997. I was 23 at the time, and it was the largest gathering of burn survivors I had ever seen! I was so inspired by everyone I met - especially Alan & Delwyn Breslau. They became almost 2nd parents to me. I am forever grateful to them. If not for Alan’s vision, I’m not sure where I would be today.
Even though I’ve been a burn survivor for more than half of my life, it’s still a struggle sometimes. Some anniversaries are harder than others. During those times when I feel like withdrawing into myself, that’s when it’s most important for me to reach out to others.
It might feel uncomfortable, but I urge you to make a connection with another survivor - online, over the phone, or in person. I can almost guarantee someone else has walked or is walking in your shoes. Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors has many ways to help you to this. I promise, you’ll be so glad you did.
Carey lives in Yorktown, VA, with her husband, Jason (who she met at Phoenix WBC 2001!) and 9-year-old son. When they’re not attending their son’s various sports games, they enjoy traveling whenever they can get away. Carey loves planning the trips almost as much as going on them!