A Sister Discovers Trauma Doesn’t Just Exist With the One Who Was Hurt

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By Kristi Calman-Fowler, LFMT

You tend to remember vividly the first moment in your life that time stood still. It may have been the moment you first saw that special someone. Or, your first hit in a baseball game, that first good report card, or the first time you knew you made your parents proud.

Exciting, positive, adventure, and the thrill of accomplishment—all traits of a “time stood still” moment...

Not mine.

The day started easy enough. My family was headed to a friend’s house for dinner. Honestly, it sounded pretty fun to me. The date was September 15, 1984. I was 13. When we arrived, we did the usual socializing—food, games, and hanging out. There was a fire going in the pit and Tim, 19, and Eric, 14, were gathered around. Tim told me to go get Kim, my 17- year-old sister (and his girlfriend). I ran into the house, got her, and we headed outside. As we walked up to the fire, we saw Eric pouring some gasoline on the fire at Tim’s insistence. Just then... the can exploded.

And for a moment...time stood still.

It was like an M-80 had exploded. The bomblike blast sent off a big ball of fire that divided into two, going in opposite directions. One hit Kim and Tim’s faces—the other Eric’s legs...It was like slow motion. I felt like I was in a movie running half-speed. Everything was so real and, yet, so surreal. It felt like it wasn’t really happening. It was just a movie. My 13- year-old body didn’t know how to respond so I did what 13-year-olds do when they panic—I laughed.

As I spun round and round (because my ankle was on fire and to catch up with what was happening), my frozen moment in time was shattered by Eric’s piercing screams. “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” I tried to jump on him, but I fell to my knees instead and started pounding his legs with my hands to get the fire out. I later learned that jumping on him could have made flames immediately engulf me... the residue of gasoline had fallen onto me as well.

My dad came running out of the house. In one motion, he yanked Eric’s pants off his body. Not able to shed my 8th grade reality, I remember thinking, “Wow...I’ve never seen a boy in his underwear before!” Why I thought that I have no idea. Shock does weird things to you.

We got Eric extinguished. Then we saw my sister. She had rolled up against the back tire of a truck—just lying there face down on fire. In the pandemonium, someone had grabbed blankets out of the house and we used them to put out the flames that were ravaging her body.

And then... silence. Time stood still again. It was like we all were standing there catching our collective breath when out of nowhere...Tim. He was walking like he was drunk, with arms raised...from his waist up he was one solid flame. A neighbor came out of the woods and tackled him, knocking me down as well. We got the fire extinguished and I will never forget what he looked like. In a panic I ran to the house and dialed 911. I was scouring the kitchen counter to find anything with an address. It seemed like years before the ambulance arrived. Once it did, my world became a blur...the memories after that just seem lost.

In the short time that followed, I allowed myself to believe that this was just an “accident.” Accidents are like broken arms—they happen, they heal, and life moves on without a radical adjustment in your story. I soon learned this wasn’t a “broken arm” scenario—this was life and death. And it was life and death for 9 weeks with my sister.

Kim, Tim, and Eric were all taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, a 21⁄2-hour drive from our home. Tim would pass away 10 days later. It was revealed that Kim had 65% of her body burned and would have to undergo 3 months of intensive treatment. I say “intensive” because there are no words to describe what she went through. I felt that way every time I walked through the doors of the hospital...hearing the screams of people in “the tank,” not being able to even identify which patient was my sister.

This was a horror movie. “The Fire,” as it came to be known in our family, had changed our lives forever. As a 13-year-old sitting by my sister’s bed, all I could think about was, “Why wasn’t it me?” I hadn’t been burned. Why not? “It should have been me,” I would tell myself over and over. I was the one who ran into the house to get my sister. If I hadn’t listened to Tim, this never would have happened to her. She would never have been in this place if it wasn’t for me. I felt guilty. I felt responsible. I felt...lucky. And I felt wrong for feeling that way...

Life changed. My mom would stay at the hospital during the week, which meant I became “Mom” around our home. I did the laundry, I made the meals, I got my younger sister Jamie ready for school...things that were traditionally done by our mom now became my responsibility. On weekends, we would switch. My Dad and I would go down to the hospital and Mom would come home for a couple of days. We’d switch back Sunday evening. I had to grow up fast. The recovery process for Kim was long and torturous. Twenty-five operations. Amputated thumb and ear. Kim had pain that was beyond excruciating. The toll took its effect on everyone...Mom, Dad, me, my little sister. Life would never be the same. It couldn’t be. We had to find a new “normal.”

Thankfully, we had a community that helped us with a new “normal.” There is nothing like crisis to rally a community. And ours responded in powerful ways. We were so blessed...and that is something I will never forget.

But I still wanted life “the way it used to be.” I was holding onto my fantasy when Kim came home on December 19, 1984. Finally, we could be a family again. But the fantasy was shattered quickly. That happens when every day is filled with crying and screaming as my mom would help Kim eat, bathe, dress, and put on splints and pressure garments. The stress of our new reality was taking its toll. It was in the middle of those times I remember thinking, “I wish she was back in the hospital.” I felt so ashamed for thinking that. And, yet, it was honest.

“The Fire” happened to me. And it didn’t. I began to come to grips with the reality that my life was forever changed, yet I wasn’t the “victim.” The fire changed my life, yet I had no external scars to see. It left me in a very, very strange place. How do you honor your own feelings about what happened to you when nothing really happened to you? How do you own your own guilt for being healthy and able? How do you handle it when you lose your own identity so a person you love can recover theirs? Should a person feel mad about that? Should I feel guilty for being mad? I was scarred, but I wasn’t burned. I existed in a place that had no definition...that had no voice. I was lost. I felt I had no rights. I lost any and all attention from my parents. “You’re not the one who is burned, Kristi.” Nightmares became my reality every night. I was scared to go to sleep. My family was angry over the situation, but we had no way of processing it or talking about it. We needed to be “okay” with everything. At least, that’s the stance we took. We under-communicated and over-spiritualized to cope. And we continued to live...or exist... or whatever it was that we did. Kim and I ceased being friends. All three of us sisters dealt with it our own way. Kim was the victim. I became the over-functioning good girl. Jamie, the rebel. Dad worked more. Mom worried and prayed more. Never again would I believe that being “good people” kept you safe. “Safe” was a long time ago, left with a child who was no more...

That was 25 years ago. I am now a licensed counselor that works with families dealing with crisis situations. I am a counselor today absolutely because of “the fire” in my family’s story. It forever changed me...and I am thankful. My faith grew tremendously. My sister Kim and I are great friends now as adults. I am so proud of her...she is not the “victim.” She is a “survivor” and a wonderful, beautiful woman. I have great compassion for my parents, especially now that I’m a mom. I can’t imagine what it was like for them. If I didn’t know if my child would live or die, I would not be able to leave their side. They had so much to manage—their own feelings of guilt and powerlessness, financial concerns, and taking care of their other two daughters. Nobody is prepared for this type of situation and they did the best they knew how.

That is why I feel that a “frontier” in trauma recovery is “the rest of the family.” Taking nothing away from the victim or survivor—after all, Kim went through extraordinary lengths to become a woman who today is the epitome of grace and compassion—I have learned that the trauma doesn’t just exist with the one “hurt.” The trauma reverberates in the hearts of the entire family—especially siblings of the injured person. It’s an area I continue to delve into with people. It is where my heart is...helping those who experienced the trauma find their “voice” that leads them to a recovery of their own.

Not too long ago, Kim and I were together, just sitting on the couch enjoying a great conversation. We were talking about our scars. I looked at her. I know her burns were there, but all I saw was her. And all she saw was me. And time stood still once again... 


Kristi Fowler is an experienced marriage and family therapist, specializing in couples and family issues, as well as teenage life stressors. Kristi also travels around the country speaking to trauma issues and their effect on the family. Kristi resides in Twin Falls, Idaho, with her husband, Sam, and two children, Cody and Kendra. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Summer Issue, 2010. 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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