Finding Strength and Inspiration at Each Life Transition

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By Jeanne LaSargeBono

Keneatha Perteet

Each year the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors awards Phoenix Education Grants (PEGs) to deserving burn survivors who are pursuing a post-secondary education. Keneatha Perteet, a PEG awardee, shared with us her unique journey of recovery and the important role education, with the help of PEG, is playing in her life.

Keneatha Perteet is the number one fan of nurses. She has spent years of her life in the presence of nurses—first as a 9-year-old burn patient at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois; later as a teenage, volunteer candy-striper at the same hospital (eventually becoming a certified nursing assistant); and finally as an aspiring nurse herself, returning to school and pursuing her degree as a registered nurse.

“I never thought I could actually be a nurse,” Keneatha says thoughtfully. “As a patient, I learned so much about the importance of nurses.” She then laughs warmly, “As a child, prior to my injury, my knowledge [of their role] was minimal. All I knew was that nurses were the sidekicks to the doctors, similar to Batman and Robin nothing more, nothing less. During my stay in the in the hospital as a burn patient—well, it was there that I really began to recognize the true significance of nurses.”

Healing Through Compassionate Care

Her voice is cheerful and even buoyant as she recounts her journey of finding strength and inspiration at each life transition—and finding the motivation for pursuing the education to fulfill her lifelong desire to become a nurse. But she is also very matter-of-fact. “We lived on a rough side of town [in Chicago]. I was playing Monopoly in the front room with my brother and cousin when I saw what I thought was a falling star. But it was a Molotov cocktail bomb that was thrown through the front window.” The flames from the explosion instantly ignited her pajama pants, and in a state of panic and shock she ran out the back door. Her grandmother, who was home at the time, gave chase and smothered the flames with a blanket, then called an ambulance. Although she recalls feeling no pain, she remembers being transported to the hospital in the ambulance with her father by her side, asking him, “Dad, am I going to die?” And she remembers her father’s tears and utter devastation.

Keneatha didn’t die. She was hospitalized for more than 3 months recovering from third-degree burns over 50% of her body. And although burn treatments and pain medication were limited at that time, her memories are largely centered on the wonderful care that the nurses provided while she was hospitalized.

“I had such wonderful nurses. Back then there were 10 kids in the hospital ward, and the nurses not only took care of our physical recovery, but they also provided us with encouragement, companionship, empathy, and compassion. Mind you, not every single nurse was that warm and compassionate, but the majority—oh, they were so caring.”

Recovering With Unwavering Family Support

Keneatha also credits much of her support and recovery to her family, adding, “When you are a little kid, you don’t necessarily understand why adults do what they do.” Keneatha’s mother stayed by her side in the hospital nearly every day and pushed her hard to handle the challenges of her physical therapy and recovery. “I never saw my mother cry. Mom was the tough one while I was in the hospital—and I actually thought she was so mean!” Her mother was practical, efficient, and utterly focused on the treatment and therapy required for Keneatha to recover her full range of motion. When she was discharged from the hospital, her mother was determined that Keneatha would perform her daily tasks by herself. And she didn’t tolerate any whining or complaints. “I just thought she was so cruel. Now, as an adult, I can see that my mother was teaching me to be tough so that I could handle all of the challenges that I would eventually have to face in life. She knew that life going forward was going to be tough on me—and she wanted me to be tougher. I appreciate that now—but I didn’t appreciate it then!” Keneatha admits.

Her father provided the soft touch, but he struggled emotionally with her burn injury. Her siblings, 2 brothers and 3 sisters, provided unwavering support both at school and at home, trying to make things as easy for her as they could, particularly when their mother wasn’t looking. And through it all, her grandmother would tell Keneatha that she was beautiful. “She would tell me that God doesn’t make mistakes and that He had most certainly molded me for a very special plan,” recalls Keneatha. “She would pray over me to ‘Keep the Faith!’”

But becoming a burn survivor at the young age of 9 made life very difficult to resume. Once an unencumbered, free-spirited girl who loved the world, she had become the victim of unwelcomed stares and whispers. “I had to learn to do everything over again—to walk again—and to deal with bullying. I questioned everything I’d once believed, most notably, my belief in God. For many years I wondered, ‘Why would God allow this to happen to me?’”

Gaining Strength and Independence

The first 10 years after being burned were the most difficult, although it was during that time Keneatha gained most of her strength. “As a teenager, I can recall my summers the most. For years, I was afraid to expose my legs. It was not unusual for me to wear 3 pairs of opaque nude pantyhose on a hot summer day to conceal my scarred legs.” One day, after struggling to dress to go outside, she snagged the stockings and created a run. “I just lost it and cried uncontrollably until I was completely exhausted. I was tired of covering up my legs just to make everyone else comfortable and accepting of me, while I was hot and miserable. That was the day I gained my strength and independence—the strength to walk outdoors with my head held high, knowing that regardless of the scars I was beautiful both inside and out.”

Discovering and Sharing the Gifts of Empathy and Compassion

It was also during those teenager years that bullying at school and in the neighborhood started to exact its toll“Children as well as adults could be cruel. Sometimes comments were made out of curiosity or pure ignorance. Others were made out of pure meanness.” She admits that she started acting out, so her father took matters into his hands and signed her up for something that would put her to “good use”; he enrolled her as a candystriper volunteer at Cook County Hospital, where she had been hospitalized less than 8 years before. It was here she discovered her gift of empathy and compassion for others. “I learned during my teen years to accept myself just as I am, knowing that true beauty is not defined by a person’s appearance, but by the love and compassion one has for others. Now I knew that God had molded me to help others.”

Upon graduating from high school, she saw a newspaper ad for an opportunity to “earn as you learn” as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). “I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I stuck with it,” she recalls. Keneatha would spend the next 20 years as a CNA, offering compassionate care in various healthcare facilities. “I began to use my gifts to help others. I’m outgoing and friendly, and I know that patients need someone to help them through difficult times. I pay attention to what they need, give them choices, and treat them with dignity—so they can feel human again. It can be as simple as a comb or a fresh cloth to wash their face. I enjoy putting beauty and human dignity back in their lives and making people feel good.”

Fulfilling a Lifelong Desire

Her call didn’t end there. Recently Keneatha became motivated to return to school and fulfill her lifelong desire to become a registered nurse. “It’s hard to go back to school as an older adult,” she acknowledges. “It’s hard to practice studying again, but yes, it’s doable.” She is grateful for the Phoenix Education Grant that is enabling her to complete her college education. Keneatha plans to graduate in December 2016. Her ultimate career aspiration is to become a nurse practitioner in wound care or pediatrics, because she believes her education and personal experience can provide a unique value to others who may be facing similar situations.

“I am so grateful for this scholarship!” exclaims Keneatha. “I believe I will finally be able to return the exceptional nursing care that was given to me, which I believe was such an important part of my recovery.”


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 2, 2016.  Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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