Celebrating a New Life and New Opportunities
By Nicole Smith Dahmen
Victim. Survivor. In the burn community, we know that these are more than just words. They are ways of life.
Victim describes someone who has given up or one who has no control over his or her situation and is in a vulnerable place. Survivor describes someone who has not just lived through a devastating injury, but has reclaimed his or her life and is thriving despite the injury.
By her own admission, Melisa Schoeppler was a victim. After sustaining third- and fourth-degree burns to 95 percent of her body, she wanted to die. She wanted to lash out at the world. She wanted others to suffer like she had suffered. She never thought anyone would love her again. She thought about taking her own life.
Today, Melisa embodies the word survivor. Her harrowing journey of anguish and epiphany is a true inspiration.
When Melisa was 12 years old, her mother was involved in an accident and was no longer able to care for her. Melisa bounced from home to home and eventually ended up in a group home. It was while living in the group home that Melisa met her future husband. She was 14 years old; he was 35. When Melisa turned 18, the two were married, despite the fact that even on the eve of their wedding Melisa already knew things weren’t right. “I didn’t have the strength to walk away,” she explained, “so I walked down the aisle.”
“Because he was older, I put my trust in him,” said Melisa. “I trusted him to tell me what was right and wrong.” But her new husband was mentally and emotionally abusive. He controlled her every move and stifled her independence. He isolated her from family and friends. “I was always protecting him and trying to make sure he was happy and satisfied,” she said. “I came in second, third, fourth, or even fifth best.”
When Melisa confronted him, he promised to change. But he didn’t. After 5 years of marriage. Melisa had had enough. She told him she wanted a divorce. Initially, she thought he handled the news well. He had never physically harmed her, so she didn’t fear for her safety.
A few nights later, he called her to the garage where he was working on a car. Melisa stood outside answering his questions. As she looked for a place to extinguish the cigarette she was smoking, Melisa’s husband approached and threw a gallon of gasoline at her. The gas hit her in the chest and splashed everywhere. It was on her face, her arms, and her legs. As if in slow motion, Melisa recalled, she looked at her left hand and saw the lit cigarette. “An alarm went off in me,” she said, “but in that instant I was on fire.”
Melisa knew she needed help. “I screamed his name and said ‘I’m dying,’” said Melisa. “He looked at me and said, ‘I know.’”
She ran into the front yard screaming. “I cannot begin to describe the pain,” she said. “It was all encompassing, excruciating.” She said she looked at her arms and they looked like burning twigs.
A neighbor called 9-1-1. In the ambulance, Melisa pleaded with the paramedics to let her die. The doctors didn’t know if she would live. They discussed taking her off life support, but Melisa’s mother wouldn’t allow it—her daughter was only 23.
Melisa woke up in the hospital with her mother and husband at her bedside. Her husband was crying and saying how sorry he was. “He said, ‘You are going to get better, and we are going to go for long walks and hold hands,’” recalled Melisa.
“I didn’t think I could blame him,” she said. “I simply didn’t have the strength. I didn’t even care whether I lived or died.” She was in pain, alone, and scared. She added, “I barely had enough energy to take one breath after another.”
Any serious burn is difficult to deal with. Being burned as the result of abuse presents unthinkable obstacles. Melisa said, “It was difficult to talk about for a long time. I almost felt responsible for the burn.”
Melisa suffered extensive physical damage. She was burned on every part of her body except her scalp and feet, which were used as donor sites for multiple skin grafts. She lost parts of her hands and fingers. She lost most of her pores and fat cells, so she can no longer sweat or gain weight on most areas of her body. To this day, Melisa still has a tracheotomy.
Melisa was airlifted to the burn unit in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she spent the next 10 months. She spent another 7 months in a rehabilitation hospital, 5 hours away from her family and friends in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
As Melisa’s condition improved, her husband’s visits became infrequent. He kept her family and friends from visiting. “I had fear and hatred,” she said.
“I was becoming more and more angry at life and at the world. I hated other people because they had not been burned.”
While in the hospital, Melisa was visited by other burn survivors. “At the time, I resented their visits,” she said. “I didn’t want to look like them, talk like them, or walk like them. I just wanted them to go away.” Melissa explained that while she was too “angry and emotionally wounded” at the time to appreciate their efforts, the impact they had on her was “sneaky the way it emerged over time,” helping her to “grow and heal nonetheless.” Years later, she added, she was “blessed to be able to meet them again, and to thank them.”
Close to the end of her rehab stay, Melisa was given a weekend pass. Her husband had rented an apartment on the 28th floor of a nearby complex. In the elevator, Melisa couldn’t reach the buttons from her wheelchair. She said it gave her a horrible feeling of entrapment and foreboding.
“My self-esteem had plummeted,” said Melisa. “I began to think of myself as a hideous half-human monster that belonged in horror films. I felt like I wasn’t worth anything to anybody anymore, least of all myself.”
She was also facing unbelievable physical challenges. Despite having endured more than 100 surgeries, she still wasn’t able to close her mouth or turn her head from side to side. She still had painful open wounds that required daily dressing changes.
Looking out over the balcony from the 28th floor, Melisa said she knew that if things stayed the way they were, she was going to end up on the ground. She said she feared that either she was going to jump or he was going to push her.
That was the deep, dark place to which Melisa was confined.
But Melisa didn’t give up. She summoned all her courage and found the strength to begin changing her life. “I slowly realized that God still loved me,” said Melisa. “God didn’t care about my scars. He saw me from the inside, and if God could still love me, maybe I could love me too.”
Melisa left her husband, moved back to her hometown, and began to reconnect with family and friends.
In May 2005, nearly 5 years after her injury, Melisa made the decision to attend the Canadian Burn Survivor Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At the conference, Melisa attended the B.E.S.T. program, presented by Barbara Kammerer-Quayle, a burn survivor and image enhancement and behavioral skills specialist. The program, offered through the Phoenix Society, teaches practical tools to empower burn survivors to feel confident in any situation. Melisa said, “I was so inspired by Barbara and her program. I started to realize that it is my choice how I respond to people and how I let myself be treated. Hearing Barbara talk gave me incredible strength and encouragement.”
Melisa met many burn survivors at that conference. “If they were happy, I could try too. Meeting other survivors who had come through their burns with a positive attitude gave me strength and motivated me to do the same,” she said. “Yes, terrible things happen, but I started to see myself as re-born with a new life and new opportunities.”
Upon returning home, Melisa met and thanked the firefighters who responded to her 911 call. Shortly after, she began volunteering with the Saskatchewan Professional Fire Fighters Association (SPFFA) Burn Fund. She started visiting schools with firefighters to talk about fire prevention and fire safety. She said, “At first I was so nervous. I had had some bad reactions from children before. They had been scared of me. But I started to realize that people tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand. I wanted to educate the kids in fire safety and give them a better ability to accept people with physical differences.”
Melisa longed to be a role model to these children, but thought, “How can I be a powerful role model, if I still see myself as a victim?” It was at that point that Melisa said she stopped thinking of herself as a victim.
“I learned that happiness is a choice. Being a victim is a choice,” said Melisa. “As long as I saw myself as a victim, I was giving my power away.”
Today, Melisa has learned to use humor in difficult situations. She said, “If I can get people to laugh, it breaks the ice. It can still be hard when people stare, but it has gotten easier over time and I’ve learned that if I smile at them they will usually smile back.”
Through her involvement with the SPFFA, Melisa said, she discovered that she had the potential to turn something horrible into something good. She added, “I want to inspire other people and make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Today, Melisa is doing just that. She regularly speaks in schools and she volunteers at the Red Cross, as well as for a program that provides transportation to seniors and people with disabilities. She is also writing a book about her journey. In the future, she wants to enroll in college and study psychology. She hopes to work with women who have been abused.
Prior to her injury, Melisa said her self-worth came from her physical appearance and possessions. “Even after my burn injury I tried desperately to find happiness on a store shelf,” she said, “but it just wasn’t for sale. I know now that joy is not only a choice, but it’s also an emotional tool that each of us may tap into at will, regardless of external conditions.”
Although Melisa was healing emotionally, she came to the conclusion that she would never have another intimate relationship. She explains, “I had come to believe and accept the fact that nobody would ever love me, so I learned to be happy alone.”
However, fate had a different path in mind for Melisa.
At the 2005 World Burn Congress in Baltimore, Maryland, Melisa met a fellow burn survivor named Erin Mounsey. “When I first met Erin,” she recalled, “I literally thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really nice! I hope he has a great life.’”
Melisa and Erin spent a lot of time together during that conference, but “Erin didn’t force himself on me,” Melisa explained. “He said, ‘I really enjoy spending time with you, but if you need some space just let me know.’ He gave me permission to have barriers and the freedom to choose, and that was exactly what I needed.”
Meeting Melisa also had a big impact on Erin. “Meeting Melisa was such an amazing surprise, he recalled. “Her vibrancy and zest for life was so reassuring and refreshing.”
Melisa and Erin kept in touch after the conference. They e-mailed each other and had many late night phone calls. Their relationship continued to develop and they became committed to each other. Together, they made the decision that Melisa would move to Colorado.
Melisa said, “Erin is such an amazing blessing in my life. He encourages me to learn and grow and experience life. He supports me in my choices because he wants me to be independent and try new things. It’s truly wonderful to be in love with my best friend.”
Today, 2-1/2 years later, the couple is engaged.
“We both had such hardships and tragedy with our past love experiences,” said Erin. “I had absolutely no concept that the greatest love and the most complete comfort of my life would be found on the other side of this burn experience.”
However, the journey for Melisa did not happen overnight. Through much self-reflection, Melisa learned, “Success and happiness are not about the kind of car I drive or what I look like. I know now that beauty and happiness come from inside.”
Her advice to other burn survivors is, “Take things one day at a time. Don’t look at the big picture. Celebrate the small successes—I was so happy the day I was finally able to button my own jeans.”
Through it all Melisa has learned that life can be short and unpredictable. She said, “None of it should be taken for granted. Today, I’m happier that I ever was before the burn.”
Melisa Schoeppler is clearly a woman who not only faced the flames, but survived the flames.