Survivor Hones Recipe For Recovery From Traumatic Burn Injury
by Kathy Edwards, PhD
Coriander. Cumin. Turmeric. A pinch of salt and a dash of pepper.
Cooking is the spice of life for Sabina Qureshi. Known for serving up generous portions of delectable food to those she loves, it’s a poignant irony that Sabina’s clothing accidentally caught fire in July 2010 while she was preparing food for a relative with an injury.
“I had quite a few stoves going, including a camping stove out on the deck,” Sabina explains. “The wind suddenly picked up and flames shot out of the stove, catching the back of my skirt.” She ran into the house, where several kitchen fans served to accelerate the blaze.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Sabina had sustained second- and third-degree burns to 65% of her body. Somehow she had the presence of mind to put the flames out by herself and call her husband, Saleem, who was at work.
A neighbor drove Sabina to the nearest hospital, where they met up with Saleem. From there, she was taken by ambulance to the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center.
Preparing for the Worst
Saleem recalls that as he rode in the ambulance with his wife, she was giving him instructions on how to inform their daughters and how to handle their affairs in case she didn’t make it.
“Sabina knew how badly she was burned, but I didn’t understand,” Saleem explains. “She was wrapped in wet towels and blankets. I couldn’t really see the extent of her injuries until she was admitted to the hospital. That’s when I started to realize how horrific this accident was for her.”
Saleem remembers feeling very alone in the first days after the accident. “Sabina and I have been best friends for 30 years, 25 of them as a married couple,” he says. “It was hard to watch her go through the pain and suffering.”
He found hope in his extended family and by staying actively involved in Sabina’s care. Saleem reflects on a moment of clarity and peace he experienced early on, while talking to the doctor about his wife’s condition. He remembers thinking, “Everything is going to be okay. We’re going to make it through.”
Sabina and Saleem did make it through, with the help of their daughters, Attia and Umbreen, and a strong support network of family and friends. But it wasn’t easy.
“I figured out that having a positive attitude and determination were the keys,” Sabina explains. She endured multiple skin graft surgeries, painful dressing changes, and physical therapy during her recovery.
Saleem wondered if his wife would have long-term disabilities that would prevent her from doing everyday things. He wondered if their life together would ever be the same. He found solace in being there for her at the hospital and later when she came home, helping her when he could with tasks such as changing her dressings and putting on her pressure garments.
After 14 surgeries, 2 months in the burn unit, and a week in a rehabilitation hospital, Sabina was finally discharged.
Learning to Accept Help
Although it was wonderful to be home, Sabina found there was still a lot of healing to do. For the first few months she recalls spending a lot of time crying and mourning the body she had lost. She felt guilty that Saleem was taking so much time off work.
Sabina appreciated the fact that her daughters and her extended family didn’t leave her side for 4 months. She felt loved and supported, but when anyone was nice to her, Sabina’s first reaction was to cry.
One day her sister-in-law shared an important insight. “For the last 12 years, I have been trying to find an opportunity to give back,” she explained to Sabina. “You are always the one taking care of others. The one who is there when we need you. This is a gift for us to be able to take care of you.”
The ability to accept help was one of the life lessons Sabina learned from her accident. “Every person who was there wanted to be there,” she says. “That was such a blessing in my life.”
Another important lesson came when her oldest daughter asked Sabina to cook something shortly after she came home from the hospital. When she first tried to cook after the accident, Sabina experience anxiety attacks.
The attacks began with shaking and pain in her ankles and legs, because that was the first part of her body to be injured when her skirt caught fire. Sabina had to remember to slow down and breathe. First she would turn on the fan, then drink water and apply a cold cloth to bring down her heart rate.
She decided to face her fear and work through it in therapy. “The burn had already taken so much of me by then, that when my daughter asked me to cook something for her, I promised myself I wasn’t going to let this accident affect any more of my life,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to give it anymore than it had already taken from me.”
For a few months Sabina and Saleem saw a therapist to learn new coping strategies to handle the anxiety. Sabina began writing about her thoughts and feelings in a journal. She also started writing positive sayings and motivational quotes in a notebook. Her niece also sent her inspirational thoughts and articles online.
To this day, Sabina sometimes goes back to the notebooks or writes new ideas in them. “The notebooks take me out of the state I’m in,” she says, “and put me in a more positive frame of mind.”
Finding a Safe Place a WBC
In September 2011, about a year after she was released from the hospital, Sabina attended her first World Burn Congress in Cincinnati. She remembers it as one of the most emotional experiences of her life. “Seeing so many other people with scars, meeting others in similar situations, was very reassuring for me,” says Sabina. “It became a safe place very quickly.”
At this year’s World Burn Congress in Milwaukee, Sabina and Saleem participated in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) training program. A testament to how far they’ve come, the Qureshis are preparing to serve as peer support volunteers at the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center, helping other burn survivors and their loved ones. It’s something they have wanted to do since Sabina was released from the hospital in September 2010.
Making Each Day Count
With each passing day, Sabina sees new evidence of her physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery. She and Saleem renewed their wedding vows on their 25th anniversary in a traditional Indian ceremony that involved circling a lighted fire pit. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Saleem believes that life is richer since his wife’s accident. “We don’t wait for tomorrows anymore. We make today count, for both of us.”
“Life is much crisper, more vibrant,” Sabina adds. “We tell people we love them often and show how much we appreciate them.”
Perhaps Sabina’s proudest accomplishment is overcoming her fear and experiencing her passion for cooking anew. Her recipe for life is simple:
Coriander. Cumin. Turmeric. A pinch of hope and a dash of wonder.
Kathy Edwards, PhD, is a burn survivor and member of the national advisory committee for the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program. She has conducted SOAR training workshops in several states and serves as an online chat moderator for The Phoenix Society. She is a professor of communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.