Sarah Bazey: Deciding to Live a Life Not Defined by Scars

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By Sam Fowler, BA, MDiv, and Kimberly Calman-Holt, BA 

There are some sounds you never forget.

The moment you step onto an ice rink for the first time as a competitive skater and hear the crowd cheer you on...the sound of your name being introduced at a beauty pageant...your own scream of joy on that first big contract signed for your start-up company...

And, when you hear the words “We’re going down” in your headset on that final helicopter ride of the day...

The real moments that change a life forever are seldom planned. They happen. They swoop in from nowhere and demand that you pay attention. They radically alter the course of your life as if to announce boldly that “you” have a part to play in the drama, regardless of what your “plan” was along the way. The drama demands a character, it demands a crisis, and it waits to see if redemption or tragedy will be the end of this particular chapter of the great story.

Sarah Bazey knows this all too well. Her change moment occurred October 26, 1994. Enter drama, crisis, and her role as the lead character. Never again to be the same...never again to be “normal”...never again to know what that is...

Of course, this wasn’t just mere disappointment. You don’t become a successful businesswoman in your industry if you can’t handle disappointment. You don't start a multimillion dollar enterprise before your senior year of college and not expect there might be some disappointment along the way. You don’t allow yourself to be critically reviewed on the whims of judges in competitive skating if you can’t handle the disappointment. You don’t walk on stage of the Miss Minnesota pageant if you aren’t aware of the possible disappointment that may await. No... you know you can handle that stuff. It’s why you push yourself. It’s why you refuse anything less than the best from yourself. And, it is why you ultimately succeed.

But... this is beyond that. Way beyond that.

Sarah’s company, Simplex, had just completed a large highway construction project. In order to give the construction team a sense of accomplishment and show her gratitude, she chartered a helicopter to give them tours of the project all afternoon. Trip after trip took off and landed, with the crew being rewarded for a job well done. On this beautiful day with clear blue skies, the last ride came––Sarah stepped onboard and into the last seat on the chopper to get a glimpse of what she had helped to accomplish.

As fate would have it, the power company had recently strung some lines over the newly constructed bridge. When the helicopter came upon the lines, the pilot attempted to fly under them. No luck. The rotor was quickly tangled in the lines, only to be ripped away from the core of the copter. And then it happened...immediate turbulence, violent shaking, and that sinking feeling of being hurled toward the earth.

Then the sound...“We’re going down.”

Sarah never thought she was going to die. It just didn’t cross her mind. When you’ve trained to be successful and fought the wars of business and athletics and navigated the competitive nature of pageantry, you don’t ever think “die.” It’s just not part of your DNA. You think “obstacle” and rise to meet the challenge. But then, you’ve never seen the roof of a helicopter ripped off and the complete devastation of an aircraft. You’ve never been blown backward by an explosion with such force that you had to unbuckle your seatbelt upside down. You’ve never heard the sounds of panic and fear of others so eerie that your own senses could not possibly understand the degree to which your life was going to change. You don’t know how to respond to all of this naturally because you are not aware of the gravity of what is happening and about to happen to you. You’ve never had to experience the horrific encounter of being on fire...until now.

Sarah tumbled out of the wreckage and quickly realized the flames in her peripheral vision were in fact her own clothing. She instinctively hit the ground and stopped, dropped, and rolled to try and extinguish the flames. After her futile attempt, she realized she was soaked in jet fuel and the dry weeds around her were catching fire—making matters much worse. She screamed. A raw, real, fear-enticed, gut-wrenching, blood-curdling scream. The kind that comes from crisis...extreme crisis and pending tragic story.

And then she crawled to a nearby mud puddle. She caked it on her face to soothe the pain. She stood and started to walk around, not realizing that the majority of her clothes had been burned off. She was in shock, but could remember vividly the assorted details later. There was the friend and colleague who was burned over 90% of his body, causing him to die 3 months later. There was the Department of Transportation worker who came to her side until the medics arrived, holding her hand and refusing to let go. There she was, handing him her burned off ponytail—a mere artifact of a day gone completely wrong.

And then... the hospital. With media swarming the scene, she remembered profusely disagreeing with the ER/hospital personnel. No IVs...that wasn’t her. The fight against intubating... Oh, she fought hard against that. And with that came the sound of the doctor’s voice... “Do you want to live?” He intubated while she was conscious! The agony...sheer pain beyond belief.

The battle continued in Sarah’s life. Fifty days spent at the Ramsey Burn Unit (now known as the Regions Hospital Burn Center) in St. Paul, Minnesota. Upon discharge, she struggled for 18 months in physical therapy trying to regain what had once been a “given” in her life. She had been burned over 40% of her body. A woman who had once gauged many things in life—indeed, her own life—on such things as physical appearance, athletic ability, and the “it” factor that had helped her succeed in life were now reduced to rubble.

Disappointment? Certainly. But this was beyond that. Way beyond that.

The drama had ushered in the crisis. But, for the burn survivor, the crisis is an on-going dialogue. The crisis doesn’t end when the “event” is over. The “event” only starts the ball of crisis going. What do you do when you look in the mirror and don’t see yourself—at least, the way you understand yourself to be seen? There was Sarah...very little hair, waxy white with charred skin, a head the size of a basketball with no eyelashes or eyebrows. The Miss Minnesota pageant seemed so far away at that moment. But then...

There is always a “but.” At least you hope there is. With the “but” comes the first glimmer of hope. And that is where the story of redemption or tragedy hinges. With hope you go on. Without it, you die. 

Sarah looked in the mirror and saw her own eyes. And she knew...she would one day be okay.

Just weeks after her release from the burn unit following another day of intense therapy and traction, Sarah, reflecting on all that had happened, finally lost it. She allowed herself 30 minutes to pity all that wasn’t in her life. Thirty minutes of pure bitterness, sadness, hurt, anger, and tears. And then...hope again. After all, what had always been a part of her life in the first place was a positive attitude. “I can do this” was a refrain all too familiar to her. It was time to echo that conviction again. Her father served as a rock through the ordeal. And yet, even that succumbed to the crisis of the drama as he passed away on her road to recovery just 14 weeks after the accident and 10 days before her wedding. The stress was overwhelming at times.

She got back to work. It took her 2 years to get her psyche back and ability to focus. It took her 2 years to be able to sleep through the night. Over time, she was finally able to drive to work again. She went back to school and graduated from Harvard Business School. She was back and regaining that which she had “lost” in the fire.

But still...the scars. They are always there. They just don’t go away.

Sarah, encouraged by her husband, Joe, (left) and friends, competed in the 2010 Mrs. United States pageant, where she came out a winner in more than one way.The former beauty pageant contestant was still hiding the scars. She could hide them with a great wardrobe and a wonderful personality. But, for all the inward work she had done to regain her life, the outward work was still a source of concern. She knew they were still there. She was “Sarah” and could still remember life before the scars. Would she ever see past them?

It was the love of her husband and the love of adoring family and friends that gave her the strength to face another challenge. They encouraged, strongly encouraged, the former pageant contestant to compete in the 2010 Mrs. United States pageant. For the latest chapter in her “new normal,” Sarah mustered up the courage to allow herself to come all the way back. In finishing as 3rd runner-up in the contest, which was held in Las Vegas, she won something even greater—she not only competed in a swimsuit, but the next day she wore one to the pool for the first time since the accident and completely forgot about her scars. People cheered her bravery poolside and she remembers that sound like it was yesterday. Oh, what a sweet sound it was... 

Sarah came to the realization in that moment that people don’t care about the’s the burn survivor’s issue that we make and we need to get past them. Besides, the scars in life don’t define us...they just help set up conclusion of the drama—and it’s up to us to decide what that is. Frankly, it’s simple: tragedy or redemption?

For Sarah Bazey, “redemption” is the choice. It’s got a great sound...unlike any she has ever heard. It is highly unlikely she will ever stop hearing that sound ring inside her soul.

After all, there are just some sounds you never forget... 


Sam Fowler is the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Magic Valley in Twin Falls, Idaho, and a motivational speaker.

Kimberly Calman-Holt, Sam's sister-in-law and co- author, is a 26-year burn survivor and also a motivational speaker. In addition, she volunteers as a SOAR peer supporter and serves on the American Burn Association's Membership Advisory  Committee.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Spring, 2011. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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