Facing Motherhood: Female Burn Survivors Tell Their Stories

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By Maureen Kalil

For female burn survivors who may have not started or completed their family at the time of their injury, many have concerns about pregnancy and motherhood and few have the opportunity to meet other women who share this unique perspective. The following women who’ve been through it share their challenges and their joy and offer words of encouragement to other survivors.

Now the Mother of Three

Caroline Dixon of Syracuse New York, was a 20- year-old college student who suffered extensive injuries when she jumped from the third-story of a burning building. In addition to a 65% total body surface area (TBSA) burn injury that included third- degree burns to her back, arms, legs, and hands, she suffered multiple fractures to both feet and a spinal fracture. It doesn’t come as a surprise that one of the issues that concerned Caroline during her recovery was whether or not she’d be able to have children.

Caroline’s concerns were not with her actual burn injury so much, but rather with the “constant chest x- rays” and the large amount of medications she’d been subjected to during her 16-week stay in the burn unit. Caroline recalls that when she questioned her physician, he couldn’t promise her whether or not she’d have difficulty conceiving or carrying a child. Caroline recalls, “I was devastated.”

Caroline also admits that following her injury she wondered, “Who would ever love me?” However, 3 years following her injury, while she was still undergoing frequent surgeries, Caroline met her husband, Doug, through mutual friends. She credits him with being “supportive all the way.” Caroline explains that Doug “has just never seemed to notice my burns. I can never doubt that he loves me for who I am.”

Caroline’s concerns about being able to have a family faded as her recovery progressed and she became more confident in every aspect of her life, including the prospect of motherhood. “I wasn’t sure if my body would handle a pregnancy and what would happen to my skin. No one ever told me I couldn’t do it though, so I didn’t hesitate to get pregnant,” says Caroline. She explains that since neither Doug nor her doctors made her burns an issue, neither did she.

However, because Caroline suffered serious orthopedic injuries to her feet and back, that was the issue that concerned everyone most. How would she tolerate the physical strain of pregnancy? But Caroline reports she did so without difficulty, other than a significant increase in the swelling in her feet, a condition Caroline has learned to live with since her injury.

Despite abdominal and breast scarring, conditions that may concern other prospective “burn survivor moms,” neither seemed to be an issue for Caroline. Now the mother of three, Caroline admits to carrying her babies “low,” although she’s not sure if that was in any way related to the band of scarring at her waist. And while Caroline does have breast scarring, she had no problems breastfeeding each of her children “for many, many months.” In fact, the only real difficulty Caroline experienced was an inability to respond to an epidural anesthesia while in labor with her first child. Again, no one seemed sure why the epidural didn’t take effect, but Caroline surmises it could be related to her orthopedic or burn injuries or what she describes as “an incredible tolerance to pain medication” that she says some burn survivors experience. As she has done with much of her life, Caroline even puts a positive spin on that issue. She reports that after her negative experience with the epidural, she was introduced to The Bradley® Method of Natural Childbirth, which she enthusiastically credits with enabling her to give birth to her next two children drug-free.

Caroline and her husband, Douglas, are now the proud parents of 10-year-old Micaela Alison, 7-year- old Aubree Caroline, and 5-year-old Lore Douglas.

It's Not Always Easy

Mary Hessel was 28 years old and newly married when she sustained a 75% TBSA injury in a natural gas explosion 8 years ago. Mary’s injuries included third-degree burns on her face, shoulders, arms, hands, legs, and feet.

For the next 2 years, doctors were concerned that Mary was experiencing an early onset of menopause as a result of her injury. Doctors felt that her condition may respond to hormone therapy, however, Mary decided to delay treatment until her physical and occupational therapy and several reconstructive procedures were complete. As it turned out, Mary’s cycle resumed on its own 2-1/2 years post-injury. Still Mary couldn’t be sure her hopes for a family would work out. “Even though my doctors could never confirm or deny whether I would be able to have children, I wasn’t at all sure that I would be able to have children.” She wondered, “How much trauma can woman’s body take and still be able to bear children after recovering physically from that trauma?”

Mary unexpectedly became pregnant shortly thereafter, but unfortunately experienced a miscarriage at 10 weeks. “For a long time I wondered about my ability to successfully deliver a healthy child. I knew one thing for sure, though, I was going to try again in the future, after I completed several more phases of plastic surgery. That was the plan.”

While at World Burn Congress 2000, Mary suspected she was pregnant again. After a positive pregnancy test, she recalls, “I was ecstatic but also very worried about another miscarriage. I worried that entire pregnancy even after two good ultrasounds.”

“I was also concerned about my abdominal skin and torso not having enough elasticity to carry a baby 9- plus months because I have several deep tissue donor sites on my abdomen and the sides of my torso. Donor sites usually don’t have the elasticity of non-burned skin,” explains Mary. “In the end, it wasn’t a problem,” she reports. The sites stretched enough to enable her to carry her daughter to term. On March, 23, 2001, Tom and Mary Hessel, who live in St. Louis, Missouri, welcomed baby Jennifer to their family.

Unfortunately Mary experienced another miscarriage this winter, but is happy to report that she and Tom are expecting their second child in February 2005. After miscarrying a second time, Mary admits, “I’ve come to realize that there will always be a part of my brain that will never allow me to fully relax during my pregnancies. The fact that I’ve miscarried twice, along with the emotional pain that goes with it, may prevent me from ever letting my guard down. But I don’t think I’m this way because of my burn injury. I think most women who suffer multiple miscarriages feel much the same way. It’s like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to fall. I told my ob/gyn that once and he said, ‘That’s because with you, Mary, it tends to do just that.’

The Same, But Different

Jill Sproul, who sustained a 65% burn injury as a 7 year old, was expecting her first child last year when she was 38 years old. So Jill experienced some of the same concerns of other “older” moms, but, as a burn survivor, Jill also was worried about the ability of her scars to stretch during her recent pregnancy. However, neither turned out to be an issue and on October 11, 2003, Jill Sproul and Kevin Cook became the proud parents of son Tyler Lane.

Looking back on her pregnancy Jill recalls, “I was also concerned with the chronic breakdown I get on my legs which often results in cellulitis and would I be able to take antibiotics while I was pregnant.” “I did get cellulitis,” she explains, “and I had to take antibiotics during my pregnancy and the baby was fine.” Jill also suspected she would be unable to breastfeed due to burns on her chest. Although she was indeed able to do so, Jill admits breastfeeding was a challenge, complicated by being able to nurse on only one side.

Words of Advice

Jill says she benefited during her pregnancy from being able to connect with other female burn survivors who have had children. She also credits her “wonderful ob/gyn” and urges other women to “make sure you have a great ob/gyn that will work with you.” Looking back on the last year, Jill remarks, “I must say that being a mother has been the best experience in my entire life.”

“For me, being a mother is something I always thought would happen for me,” explains Mary Hessel. “I come from a really large family and we all love kids. Until my burn injury, there was never a doubt in my mind about whether I’d have children or not. Prior to my burn injury, it was never a question of if, but rather when.” My brothers, sister, and I all love being around kids. We always have. Then at the time when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be physically able to have kids of my own, I thought if it didn’t happen for me naturally then I would go to the ends of the earth to see to it that one day I would be someone’s parent, one way or another.” To other survivors facing challenges having a family, Mary urges, “There are endless possibilities for people to have children these days. Educate yourself on your options, and then go from there. If you really want children, don’t ever give up on having children because you’re burn injured.” “If you do give up on having children and blame your burns,” she cautions, “it’s like letting the burns ultimately beat you and you should never let that happen. It would be like letting your burns have the upper hand.”

That's My Mom

In addition to concerns about pregnancy and childbirth, some prospective “burn survivors moms” may worry about how their children will handle having a mother who may have visible scars.

Caroline Dixon reports that like many children of burn survivors, her children don’t seem to give her scars a second thought. However, she admits, “I do wonder what my kids’ friends think when my children initially introduce me, but it has not been a problem so far. I think I am so comfortable with myself that other people see that and are comfortable with me as well.”

“I used to worry about how my children would handle my disfigurement socially,” remembers Mary. “When would it dawn on them that I look different from the other mommies? Would they be teased or taunted by other kids because of my scars? If so, how will it affect them and how will they handle it? When will they notice other people staring at me? Will they know or understand why? I worried about how it would make them feel to notice others who stare and gawk at me in public. How will I ever explain it to them?”

“My daughter, Jennifer, is aware of my burns and scars and that I look different from others because I’ve told her just that, ‘I’m burned, these are my scars, and I don’t look like other people anymore.’ She’s only 3 years old right now and she still hasn’t seemed to notice other people staring yet. I am going to arm her with as much information as I can to prepare her for what she is likely to encounter from other children and even from their parents when she gets older. I plan to tell Jenn as much as necessary to make sure she is comfortable with explaining my appearance because if I don’t address it and advise her on it, how could I expect her to deal with it well? Of course, some of it I will have no control over, and when that happens, we’ll deal with it as honestly and openly as we can.” 

This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2004. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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