By Frank McGonagle
Why was I burned? Why me? That’s a question most burn survivors ask, usually right after they’ve been burned. Families and friends of survivors also have the same frustrating issue about their loved one who’s been burned.
For most survivors and their families the answer takes years. For some, it never comes. For a fortunate few the answer is almost immediate. Answers to this perplexing question depend a lot on the orientation we have about life’s major issues. What is our belief system about life itself? How do we explain suffering and death to ourselves? How do we feel about reward and punishment, about chance and determination or fate? Much depends on the spiritual or philosophical orientation we have about life itself and its big questions.
I was burned in a rear-end collision auto accident in 1966, in which my wife, Charlotte, and unborn child were killed. In retrospect my own burns and disfigurement were considerably easier to understand and accept than the death of my wife and baby. Charlotte was a good and gentle person, a loving wife and caring mother to our four young children and to me.
I spent years in anguish asking, “Why her? How could God do this to her? How could God do this to our children? How could God do this to me?” The answer did not come easily or quickly. As a matter of fact, it took almost a quarter of a century and even now I don’t have full understanding of the why. However, I do have full acceptance of the reality and the finality of the event. I finally came to realize and accept the great truth about life; the undeniable evidence that this is the way life is. It is not fair, not just for me but for virtually everyone.
Years ago I asked a good friend, Dennis Gardin, who had been horribly burned as a teenager, “Do you ever ask, Why me?” Dennis replied, “Sure, for a long time I asked Why me? And the answer kept coming back, Why not you? Are you any different than anyone else? Do you think you’re exempt from the rules of life?”
Then Dennis went on to tell me how he finally came to accept the reality of his burns and disfigurement. He learned that he could not control what had happened to him. He could only control his attitude about it. He gradually accepted his appearance and the pain and horror he had experienced and took charge of his own reaction to it. He rose from the ashes to become the wise and compassionate person he is today. This change in attitude did not happen fast and it certainly wasn’t easy. But it did happen over time and is now part of Dennis’ make up and grace.
Dennis and many other marvelous burn survivors I have come to know have gone beyond mere acceptance of their burns and disfigurement. They have truly risen from the ashes and gone on to do many positive acts that they might not have done were it not for their burns. Many, like Dennis, have found purpose in their burn experience and have dedicated much of their daily activities and financial resources to helping other burn survivors.
There are hundreds of people who fit this model. Many give of themselves tirelessly to help the newly burned and their families. Some survivors and family members have become inspired medical professionals dedicated to the physical and psychosocial care of burn survivors. Some are key participants in local and national burn support organizations, such as support groups and children’s burn camps.
Virtually all of these survivors and their families who become involved in burn support will tell you that their activities were and are part of their emotional healing process. Most have found purpose in their burns even though they initially found them almost impossible to accept. Most who become involved in burn support believe it is their destiny to help in this cause. And surprisingly enough, many would not undo the burn experience even if they could. This does not mean to say that they wished the burn experience on themselves or any other person. It seems they feel that since the burns did happen, they turned the negative experience into a positive force of aid and compassion rather than negativity and tragedy.
Much of what I’ve shared may not make sense if you’re a newly burned person or the family of someone recently burned. Burns are indeed tragic, life shattering and devastating both physically and financially. Burns are an experience that requires maximum courage, fortitude and wisdom on the part of the burn survivor and the family. To even suggest that being burned is desirable is unthinkable. I am not trying to say that burns are a positive experience that should be embraced by anyone. But burns do happen and despite all of the excellent burn prevention programs our society has mounted, sad to say, they are likely to continue happening.
Am I saying we should print up bumper stickers stating, “Burns happen” and be done with it? Hardly! We need to work hard at burn prevention and many burn survivors do remarkable work in this important area. I am urging both recent and long-term burn survivors and their families to consider assisting some of the many groups who provide burn support. The need is great and the opportunity is now. Admittedly I have a bias to the work done by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. But that is by no means the only organization you can help. There are many fine local organizations that do burn support work all over the world. The Goal of the Phoenix Society as a national burn support organization is to assist and enhance local support and serve as a resource center by developing key support programs. In this issue we shared Mary and Tom Hessel’s story and found their journey includes involvement at the local and national levels in many different ways.
Not everyone wants to or is capable of helping by dealing directly with burn survivors. But everyone can help in some capacity. For instance, you can help with mailings, work on golf outings, or other fund raising events, or help your local fire department with fire prevention education. Some burn survivors and families do not know exactly where their talent for helping lies or where it’s needed. Here the Phoenix Society can help direct your talents and skills.
To that end, the Phoenix Society Web site http://www.phoenix-society.org lists a variety of local support groups who always need assistance. But while I’m at it, let me quickly review the activities of the Phoenix Society that are in great need of your support by contributing either volunteer time or money.
Burn Support News provides thousands in the burn community valuable information and inspirational stories.
The 13th World Burn Congress will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan and will continue to serve as a one of a kind opportunity to network, share and grow through the power of peer support.
The introduction of a new program in June 2001 for peer support will assist burn centers and survivors to develop peer support locally and directly assist thousands more each year.
Burn Support Internet Services will provide even more opportunities to participate in burn support in the months ahead as we expand our presence on the world wide web.
Advocacy work in the area of prevention and burn care is also a very important activity of the Phoenix Society. Our focus over the last year has been aimed at the Fire Safe Cigarette issue.
The toll free (800-888-2876) assistance line serves over 250 individuals each month by providing resources and referrals. Several resources will be developed based on the common issues we see by providing this service.
As you can see from this list there are many ways you can help burn survivors, depending on your inclination, physical ability, time availability and financial resources. Our programs are supported by individual donors just like you! Every donation regardless of its size helps the Phoenix Society get closer to the goal of assuring that survivors and their loved ones have support in their recovery.
Now let me return to the perplexing question I raised at the start, “Why me?” My answer, which took over twenty-five years to learn, is that my accident and burn scars and the death of my wife and unborn child were destined to be. Do I like that reality? No way. Do I accept it? Yes. Did anything good come of it? Certainly. I am a far better person than if I had not experienced these trials. What is the antidote for me? It has and will continue to be working on behalf of burn survivors. I deeply believe that is one of the main reasons I was spared. Certainly the care of my other four children must have been part of God’s providence, but I also survived to help other burn survivors and their families. It is not my obligation. It is my privilege.
So, my recommendation, if you’re a burn survivor or a family member looking for those perplexing answers to “Why?” Get involved somehow with burn support. It may not answer all your questions and frustrations but it will get you on the path of discovery and acceptance. Out of what appears to be entirely bad at the start, much good will come.
Frank McGonagle is a long time member and the President of the Board of Trustees of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. He is the President of Brenton Marketing Service in Swansea, Massachusetts.