Purpose Through Tragedy

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By Pam Elliott, RN, BSN

Pam Elliott at WBC 2008 shows a photo taken of her as a 5 year old, shortly after being discharged from the hospital after a 3-month stay.On a beautiful spring day in April, when I was 5 years of age, my home in southern West Virginia was destroyed by fire and I received third-degree burns over 50 percent of my body. The year was 1959. There were no burn centers.

What do you think my odds of survival were? Slim to none.

I survived.

Through all of my hospitalizations and operations, my grandmother insisted that this tragedy had happened for a purpose. It took years of reconstructive work to restore my appearance and make my hands functional. In fact, recently, nearly 50 years after my injury, I had yet another surgical procedure to release scar bands. It seems as if the work of restoration never ends. However, it also seems my grandmother was right.


I graduated in the top 10 of my high school class and then, to most peoples’ amazement, I became a registered nurse. I have worked in the operating room, neuro-trauma intensive care unit (ICU), cardiothoracic ICU, the emergency department; as a flight nurse and a kidney-pancreas transplant coordinator; and on outpatient medical and surgical units. Throughout my nursing career, I feel that I have been able to bring comfort to many people through my nursing skills. Through the Phoenix Society, I became a SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) volunteer. I visit the burn unit and the plastics/burn floor to offer encouragement to burn survivors and their family and friends. When the time is appropriate, I also invite them to attend our monthly support group meetings where we discuss any issue related to burn trauma.


Through the SOAR program, I met Dr. James H. Holmes, IV, director of the burn unit at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. I was surprised when he invited me to attend the 2009 National Leadership Conference of the American Burn Association in Washington, DC. There we would lobby members of the U.S. Congress and Senate for approval of H.R. 723/ S 366.


The Social Security and Medicare Improved Burn Injury Treatment Access Act would amend the Social Security Act to eliminate the 5-month waiting period for Social Security disability and the 24-month waiting period for Medicare benefits in cases of individuals with disabling burn injuries who are otherwise not covered. It also would require their disability status to be reviewed at least once every 3 years.


Not only would H.R. 723/S 366 provide coverage for the seriously burned patient, but it would also help ensure the survival of our nation’s burn centers—a valuable national resource that is already in jeopardy. The United States currently has only 125 burn centers, with a total bed capacity of just over 1,800. Estimates are that between 30-40 percent of burn patients are uninsured, underinsured, or “self pay.” In part due to these financial challenges, in just the past 2 years burn centers in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Iowa, and South Carolina have closed.

These closures occur at a time when the federal government is asking burn centers to expand their capacity to deal with mass casualty scenarios. More than one-third of those hospitalized in New York on 9/11 had severe burn injuries. The Department of Homeland Security has recognized that there would be mass burn casualties in terrorist acts, and there is a need for appropriate preparedness activities. For example, should the United States suffer further terrorist attacks using explosions, incendiary devices, or chemical weapons, most victims would suffer severe burn injuries in numbers sufficient to strain the system to the breaking point.

The Medicare coverage for serious, disabling burn injuries provided for in this bill would enable the nation’s burn centers to remain financially viable and preserve an essential component of our public health emergency infrastructure.

According to the American Burn Association, more than 1 million people suffer burn injuries annually in the United States; more than 500,000 require medical treatment; 45,000 are hospitalized, and 4,500 will die. Burn centers admit about 25,000, or 200 admissions per institution, per year. Most burn injuries occur in young people age 20-40 years, and severe burn injuries represent one of the leading causes of lost work years.


With these thoughts in mind, I accepted Dr. Holmes’ invitation and began my journey. As I prepared to board my flight, I recognized Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. I simply could not believe it! A member of Congress from my state, North Carolina, was on my flight. What do you think were the odds of this happening? I do not know, but I would say, slim to none! My grandmother’s words once again came to mind, “Honey, this tragedy happened to you for a purpose.”


In the Washington airport I approached the Congresswoman, introduced myself, and explained the purpose of my trip. She offered me a ride to my hotel and invited me to the Capitol, where I could experience voting on the floor of the House of Representatives firsthand. I accepted her invitation. Her very gracious staff arranged to get me through security and into the balcony of the House chamber. Congresswoman Foxx joined me there, explaining the voting process and the profiles of the lawgivers.

The House Chamber is adorned with relief portraits of famous lawmakers and lawgivers throughout history. Some of the names I recognized: Gaius, Napoleon I, Thomas Jefferson; others I did not: Tribonian, Lycurgus, Papinian. I thought it amazing that these profiles turned to the right or to the left toward a central frontal portrait. If you stand behind the podium in the Chamber and look directly ahead to the upper back wall, the central frontal relief portrait is the face of Moses, the ultimate lawgiver.

After the voting was complete, Congresswoman Foxx showed me the building’s rotunda. What a gracious lady and what an incredible experience!


The next day I joined Dr. Holmes and other conference attendees to lobby representatives of the House and Senate to co-sponsor H.R. 723/S 366. As I walked through the long halls of the House and Senate offices, my grandmother’s words rang out once again, “This tragedy happened to you for a purpose.”

Could part of that purpose be that I, a country girl from the mountains of West Virginia, would go to Capitol Hill and lobby for a bill that would bring hope and comfort to countless people who will suffer the same tragedy that I did?


What are the odds of the House and Senate passing this bill?  What do you think? I think you should contact the Senators and Congressmen from your state and tell them to support this bill.

There is purpose through tragedy and if we, as burn survivors and citizens, unite behind such an important cause, we can make a huge difference in the lives of others.

Pam Elliott currently works as a nurse on an outpatient medical/surgical unit. She is Phoenix SOAR trained, is involved in a monthly burn support group, and visits the burn unit at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center weekly. Pam is currently married to the "love of her life".


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Summer Edition 2009, Issue 2. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserverd.
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