Healing Together: When Multiple Family Members Are Injured by Burns
By Nicole Perry, BA, CCLS
Healing Together: When Multiple Family Members Are Injured by Burns
On the evening of January 15, 2013, Cheri Kent and her two children, Quincey and Kennadey, followed their usual evening routine—after both children took a bath, they settled into bed. But 15 minutes later the family’s apartment suddenly exploded.
An Entire Family Faces Recovery
Cheri ran throughout the apartment frantically searching for her children, but was unable to find them. “I got turned around and couldn’t figure out where I was or even how to get out,” she recalls. “In that moment, I thought I was going to die.” Suddenly Cheri felt someone’s hand on her head—a neighbor had entered through a window to help her escape. Another neighbor, Cheri later learned, had helped Quincey and Kennadey find their way out.
All three family members, who were taken to the University of Alabama Medical Center Birmingham for treatment, had significant burn injuries—the tragic result, it was later determined, of a natural gas leak that had been ignited by the apartment’s furnace. Quincey, who was 7 years old, had sustained burns to his face, hands, and right arm and shoulder. Six-year-old Kennadey had suffered burns to the top of her head, her shoulder, the back of her thigh, and on several fingertips. The children spent the next 2 months in the hospital. Cheri, whose burns covered her arms, buttocks, and left hip, leg, and foot, required an additional month of hospitalization.
The physical injuries were just one part of the major lifechanging impacts of the fire. Cheri remembers feeling incredibly depressed during the first portion of her hospital stay. She didn’t allow visitors because she didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. Cheri acknowledges that she was deliberately uncooperative and uncompliant with her care as a result of her anger and disbelief of the situation. Like many survivors struggling to cope, she controlled the few things that she could.
A First Glimpse of Community Brings Hope
It wasn’t until Cheri saw other burn patients for the first time, in the physical therapy gym, that her attitude changed. She finally realized that other people were facing similar challenges, and she began to feel lucky that she was still alive. This experience gave Cheri some perspective on her injuries and motivated her to focus on her own recovery. Her cooperation with the nurses and therapists increased, and she started to see herself making small progress in regaining her strength and healing.
During the 3 months Cheri was hospitalized she had not had an opportunity to see her children, although she was able to stay connected by talking to them on the phone. After she was discharged, reuniting presented challenges and brought up emotions for the entire family. The children were hesitant to see their mother for the first time since the accident, and when Cheri finally saw them, she realized the permanence of their injuries.
“It really hit me then that they were hurt and injured, and I couldn’t do anything to help. It caused me to go into a state of depression all over again because of the guilt I felt for not being able to save them,” Cheri recalls. She was able to work through some of these feelings with the help of a counselor but, like many parents in similar situations, Cheri still struggles with feelings of guilt and helplessness to this day.
A Return to School Brings Challenges
Returning to school was an important step in healing for both children, whose teachers and principal had visited them while they were hospitalized. Upon the siblings’ discharge home, school staff collaborated with the local fire department to facilitate a school reentry program. Quincey and Kennadey’s fellow students were very welcoming, embracing and supporting the young burn survivors upon their return to the classroom. However, while Quincey wore his face mask and pressure garments openly, his sister chose to cover her garments with long sleeves. Nonetheless, with the help of the school reentry program and support from the school staff, the first year back to school was a seamless transition and empowering for the entire family.
Things changed the next year when a new student seemed to alter the school experience for Quincey. It was quite some time before Quincey mentioned anything to his mother, who had begun to notice a significant change in her son’s mood. Eventually one afternoon he revealed that he had been getting bullied. The other boy had consistently cursed at Cheri’s son, making derogatory comments about his face mask, laughing at him, and telling Quincey he deserved to be burned. At the time, Quincey was unequipped for addressing the bully, and Cheri suspects that he had delayed telling her about it because he was embarrassed—behavior that is not uncommon for targets of bullying. Advocating for her son, Cheri reached out to the school for additional support with the situation. Despite many school attempts to intervene and stop the bullying behaviors—even moving the bully to a different classroom—ultimately, Cheri felt it would be best to move both Quincey and Kennadey to a different school (closer to their new home) for a fresh start. There the children have been able to find a more comfortable daily balance, which has been anxiety-free and completely supportive thus far.
A Family of Survivors Learn to Thrive
Cheri first learned about the Phoenix Society in late 2015 while searching online for local support groups. The 2015 Phoenix World Burn Congress had just wrapped up and the conference slideshow was posted on the Society’s website. Viewing it, Cheri was inspired by the support, healing, and peer support connections she saw there. Determined to make attendance at 2016 Phoenix World Burn Congress a priority, Cheri applied for and received the Phoenix Society’s George Pessotti Scholarship that enabled she and her children to attend the Congress last fall in Providence, Rhode Island. The Phoenix World Burn Congress experience was life-changing for Cheri—she felt incredibly welcomed, and the workshops provided her with new skills and tools that she is using today in her own recovery and healing. Quincey and Kennadey loved participating in the Phoenix UBelong Youth and Teen program, and both children gained new friendships and learned valuable skills to help guide their own healing journeys. Quincey shared with his mother that the best part of the program for him was learning social skills, including rehearsed responses, and methods for dealing with bullying, teasing, and staring.
Tools, Resources Provide Support for Growth
The skills that the family gained at Phoenix World Burn Congress and Phoenix UBelong are invaluable for anyone who has been affected by a burn injury. If Quincey had had these tools when he was being bullied at school, he may have had the confidence needed to address the bully or tell his mother or another trusted adult sooner. Cheri recommends that parents foster open, honest communication within the family, making it easier for a child to speak up when a situation, such as bullying, is bothering them. Modeling this open communication, as a parent, through advocacy—communicating early and often with the school or leaders—is also essential.
Using the tools that Cheri and her family learned at Phoenix World Burn Congress and the resources available through the Phoenix Society can provide a child and his or her parents with valuable support throughout the process. Cheri hopes that she, Quincey, and Kennadey will be able to attend another Phoenix World Burn Congress so that they can continue to strengthen the skills and support that she and her children have already gained.