Jill Sproul and Kevin Cook: A Story of Hope

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By James Bosch, MA

Writing Your “Someday” List

Does everything really happen for a reason? How does someone maintain hope in the face of a devastating trauma? These are two of the biggest questions faced by many burn survivors and their immediate caregivers. This article addresses both questions through the lens of a love story, the story of how Jill Sproul and Kevin Cook lost much but found each other. It aims to plant a tiny seed of hope so that no matter how desperate things may seem, you can know it is still possible for your life to change in ways you had never dreamed. It is still possible for your “someday” to be full of love, happiness, and opportunity.

Keeping family a priority -- From left to right: top row, Kevin and Jordan; bottom row, Jill, Tyler, Kayli, and Meghan.
Keeping family a priority—From left to right: top row, Kevin and Jordan; bottom row, Jill, Tyler, Kayli, and Meghan.
 

Jill Sproul’s burn journey began on a chilly morning at a campground in Northern California. It was March 27, 1972. Jill was 7 years old and the youngest of three girls. She and her oldest sister, Chris, decided they would get up early and surprise their parents with breakfast. They had difficulty getting the fire started, so 12-year-old Chris grabbed what she thought was lighter fluid to help things along. What she had in fact retrieved was gasoline, and in a flash both girls were on fire. Chris stopped, dropped, and rolled, which extinguished the flames. Jill, younger and frightened, ran. While Chris sustained third-degree burns over 35% of her body, Jill’s injuries were more severe—65% of her body had been seared. When Gene and Shirley Sproul came running out of their tent, they encountered a horrific scene, a scene that would bring about change for the entire family.

Jill’s initial 4-month hospital stay was full of pain and unpredictability. Her mother ran between two hospital rooms and two injured children; her father took care of the home, the dogs, and the couple’s middle daughter, Kelly, who was not injured.

Jill recalls the painful dressing changes, blood draws, cold bed pans, and the anxiety caused by not knowing what would happen next. All of this was compounded by the end of Jill’s daily life as she knew it. “Everything was going on without me, and I was missing out,” she recalls. “Everything seemed so uncertain.” It would take many pages to chronicle the long journey of facial reconstructions, donor sites, medical procedures and complications, bad wigs, pressure garments, etc., that followed.

Jill’s parents were her rocks, and the family in turn was fortunate to have a lot of community support, as well as a great team of doctors and nurses. When it was finally time for Jill to leave the safe bubble of the hospital, she was afraid to face her peers with her altered appearance. She remembers making a pact with herself that she was going to be strong, that she would not show any weakness. This worked in her insulated world of family, friends, and school. It helped that she had been very social before her injury; now all of those friends were there for her when she was eventually able to return home. School reentry programs didn’t yet exist, so Jill’s mother went to the school and talked about what had happened to her daughter. Shirley showed Jill’s classmates the pressure garments she would be wearing and helped to create an atmosphere of acceptance.

Jill recalls that the hardest moments were when she went to the mall or to the movies and had to deal with the hostile stares and bullying comments of strangers. Her resolve to be strong would waiver, yet her tribe of friends was always there to support her. “Someone always had my back,” she says.

It was a different story when Jill got to high school, where her days were filled with D’s and F’s. These D’s and F’s were not the kind you find on a report card—Jill continued to do well academically. They were the D’s and F’s that plague a new burn survivor: disfigurement, dieting, dating, dealing with peers, dealing with reconstructive surgery, fear of failure, fitting in and having fun. Jill believed, as many teenagers do, that if she were skinny people might not notice her disfigurement. So she tried all kinds of fad diets. It’s an example of how a survivor may try to control an area of his or her life to compensate for feeling out of control in other areas. But Jill says her behavior only led to her becoming very unhealthy and looking like a “too skinny burned girl.”

When Jill started dating, she had some good experiences, as well as some bad ones. At one point she decided that maybe dating, marriage, and kids were not in the cards, and she dove into academics. “I thought, if I can’t have a family I will have a great career,” she explains. After high school graduation, Jill enrolled in nursing school, inspired by all the wonderful nurses (and some of the not-so-good ones) who had taken care of her. Jill landed a job in a burn unit, enabling her to achieve one of her proudest accomplishments, becoming a burn nurse.

Her “someday,” however, was still to come.

Kevin Cook’s burn story began when he was a little older. His early life was one of change, resiliency, and adaptation, three qualities Kevin feels helped him cope with his devastating burn injury when it occurred. Kevin is the child of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier father, who met during the heart of the Vietnam War in 1963. As a military brat, Kevin had to move every 2 years and often to different countries, where he had to open his mind and heart to new people and new experiences. It also taught him the importance of family, another quality that would help him cope with his eventual injury.

Kevin, who had an older sister, gained a brother when his parents adopted a boy. Then after a move to Thailand, the family added two more adopted children. The family would continue to grow when, while they were living in Thailand, Kevin’s mother courageously traveled to Vietnam seeking to sponsor as many children as would be allowed in order to get them out of the country as it began to fall to the communist regime. After the family returned to the U.S., 6 children whom the family had sponsored eventually arrived in California, via the Philippines, to join them. With these 10 brother and sisters, Kevin never lacked love and companionship, and each time the family moved, a little city moved with them!

The family eventually settled in Northern California. Kevin was very active and social in school. Although he always struggled academically, he excelled in sports and was often featured in the local paper for his football triumphs. It was in high school, when he was accidentally enrolled in a welding class, that he was introduced to his calling and the eventual cause of his injury.

The moment Kevin began his first project he knew that welding was what he wanted to do with his life. Welding and fabricating became not only his career, but his passion. When he was not welding at work, he was fabricating a project on the side in his free time.

Kevin was equally focused on his personal goals, which including owning a house, getting married, and having children, all by the time he turned 30. He achieved the first of these when, at 23, he bought a home. Everything continued to go as planned—before that milestone of 30 he had a home; had met and married his first wife with whom he had two beautiful children, Kayli and Jordan; and enjoyed a very active lifestyle that included boating, barefoot water skiing, scuba diving and free diving, and big family gatherings on the weekend.

However, on August 28, 1997, everything changed. On this particular Thursday, Kevin was working at a remote welding site when something went terribly wrong. During a routine industry-practiced procedure that he had performed 55 times previously, a vacuum that would have kept diesel fuel in the tank was lost. Kevin was soaked by the fuel, which ignited. Normally Kevin would have been at the site alone and would surely have perished, but fortunately a coworker arrived earlier than usual, saw Kevin, who was on fire, jump down from the machine, and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher.

Kevin remembers everything from the time he caught on fire until he was rolled into the local burn center. He had no idea how bad things were, and being a hard worker, all he could think about was that he had ruined his perfect work safety record and would probably have to cancel his weekend ski trip. Then Kevin learned that he had burns over 85% of his body. In fact, the fire was so hot that Kevin’s feet were burned by the steam his sweaty socks had produced in his boots.

Kevin underwent more than 20 procedures during his first hospitalization, spending his 31st birthday in the hospital. He received overwhelming support from his large community of friends and family, including his mother, Lee, who was by his side every day. Kevin’s excellent physical health before the injury, coupled with his stubborn determination, helped him achieve his goal of being home by Thanksgiving. In fact it was precisely on Thanksgiving Day that Kevin was discharged, just 90 days after his injury.

It’s at this point that Kevin feels the more challenging parts of his recovery began. Back at home, away from the support of the burn center, Kevin struggled with being idle. He was accustomed to working up to 70 hours a week, but now he had a lot of “stagnant” time. During the first year of recovery he also struggled with all the unanswered questions and new challenges: Would he be able to return to the work he loved and when? How could he make plans for his life with an uncertain surgery schedule and countless hours of therapy ahead? Would the legal battles ever end? And then there was the heavy grief over losing the function of his hands, his main tool, and feelings of sadness about the lack of touch and the disintegration of his marriage. And everything was intensified by Kevin’s chronic physical pain and constant itching.

Losing his livelihood, his dreams, and his marriage, combined with the impact of financial and legal issues, began to take a toll. Kevin needed some hope. He found books on burn recovery, which were helpful, but what really drove Kevin to recover was his children, as well as the peer support offered by the local burn support group and burn foundation. Kevin reached deep into his reserves of natural optimism and adaptability. Getting involved in the Phoenix World Burn Congress (WBC) and other burn support programs helped Kevin to start to see the possibility of a second chance at his “someday.”

Little did Kevin and Jill know that their “someday” was just around the corner.

Kevin Cook and Jill Sproul on their wedding day.Jill and Kevin’s lives finally intersected at Phoenix WBC, as well as local burn events, where a warm and supportive friendship developed. Kevin’s marriage was deteriorating. He and his wife were now living as roommates and moving toward separation. Jill had just escaped a very unhealthy relationship. Both were wondering if a loving relationship was in the cards for them. As their friendship grew, a mutual friend (me) put a bug in Jill’s ear by asking, “Hey, what about you and Kevin?” It didn’t take long for the two to realize they were meant to be together, and their friendship developed into a courtship and finally into love. And then, their “someday” wishes merged and became a reality.

Jill and Kevin were married on April 16, 2005. They have a son, Tyler, and a daughter, Meghan. They are currently working on the next phase of their lives by adding more to their “someday” list. They have a home, which is the meeting place for their friends and their families, and they are very involved in the burn community. By giving back and giving other burn survivors hope, Jill and Kevin live their story. It is a gift of hope for all burn survivors, young and old, who live with the belief that because of their disfigurement or situation they will never have a loving relationship or a family. Jill and Kevin share their “How to Have Hope” list:

  • Be optimistic. Strive to see the glass as half full.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Be willing to reach out to others and to ask for help when needed.
  • Help others.
  • Find new passions to replace the ones you have had to let go.
  • Don’t give up on finding new ways of dealing with chronic pain and itching.
  • Get involved in peer support and the burn community.
  • Keep family a priority.
  • Set and look forward to new goals.

They encourage others to open up their hearts to the possibility of love, even if it first leads to heartache. It took them a while to find each other, and the journey helped make them each who they were when they finally crossed paths. Jill reminds everyone, “Hope costs nothing, but hopelessness can cost you everything.”

Hold your mind open to the possibility that your injury happened to help put you in the right place at the right time to align with your true destiny. While Kevin and Jill continue to add to and revise their someday list, they hope you’ll start your own!

 

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life to the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and a consultant. James is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA.

 

This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 1, 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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