Family Support: Key to Recovery

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Stefanie Bello Stote was burned to more than 75 percent of her body on January 3, 2001, when a transformer exploded in an electrical substation that she and two of her colleagues from the Massachusetts Electric Company were investigating. Stefanie had worked for Mass Electric for 13 years and had recently received a promotion to this new position. She was excited about the new job and saw it as her chance “to move up.”

Stefanie remembers the explosion followed by blinding lights and then pitch-blackness. She was thrown against the wall and somehow managed to crawl out of the building. As she emerged from the building, she realized her body was on fire.Stephanie Bello Stote, shown here with daughter Alex, after a session with David Nicholas of DNI Cosmetics, an advanced reconstructive make-up training center and photography studio in the Boston area.

As the ambulances arrived, Stefanie recalls thinking, “This is a bad dream,” and asking the paramedic, “Am I going to die?” Although she felt “petrified,” her thoughts were not for herself, but for her 9-year-old daughter, Alexandra.

When Stefanie woke up—on what she thought was the next day—she heard the voices of her family, but remembered the accident and began asking about her two colleagues, and friends, who had been in the explosion with her. But it wasn’t the next day. In fact, it was the middle of April, more than 3 months after the explosion. 

Through the Eyes of a Child

When Deena Bello, Stefanie’s oldest sister arrived at the Massachusetts General Hospital burn center on the day of the explosion, she remembers seeing the shocked expressions on her family’s faces and her parents in tears. Deena wanted to see her sister, but was terribly afraid. Deena says she may have never had the courage to enter that hospital room, but then something happened that gave her the strength.

As Deena was debating her own courage, she saw Stefanie’s daughter, Alexandra, emerging from the hospital room. Alex turned to the rest of the family and said, “I know my mommy is going to be OK.” Alex, who has been described by her family as “loving, intelligent, and funny,” proved to be a true source of strength to both the family and to Stefanie during Stef’s recovery.

At one point, doctors warned the Bello family that Stef’s right arm might need to be amputated below the elbow. The family was worried, but was even more concerned about telling Alex. Upon hearing the news, Alex replied, “It’s OK. Mommy can hug me with her other arm.” 

The Struggle to Survive

Although the doctors were able to save Stef’s arm, the next few months proved to be extremely trying for the entire Bello family. Stefanie endured heart failure, kidney failure, and pneumonia, among other life- threatening conditions. The doctors didn’t know if Stefanie was going to live or die, and they took each day one at a time.

One of the hardest things for Stef’s family was the feeling of helplessness. Deena recalls, “You wanted to reach out and tell Stef that it is OK, don’t be afraid, we are all here. You wanted to touch her, hold her, cry with her—and you couldn’t.”

Diane Bello, Stef’s mom, desperately wanted her daughter to survive, “but,” she says, “I also kept thinking ahead. What am I going to tell her? And, what is life going to be like for her?”

By the end of April, Stef had been taken out of the medically induced coma and was moved from the “tent” to a private room. Deena remembers, “I felt like we were ‘together’ again. Touching her didn’t seem so fragile and talking didn’t seem so distant.”

But, Deena also worried about the future. As Stef’s older sister, Deena wondered, “How am I going to protect her from people staring?”

But when one family member would worry, another one would prove to be a source of strength. Deena recalls Stef’s younger sister, Pamela, saying, “If anyone can come out of this accident and still be beautiful, it’s Stefanie.”

Stef’s sister Jaclyn says, “I truly believe that my family love and devotion to each other is what saved all of us. We are always there for one another.”

Stef remembers being confused and in a lot of pain during this time. She also clearly recalls wanting to go home. But, she couldn’t go home, as she was still in critical condition. She also hadn’t yet learned the extent of the accident on her body and her life.

Although Stef was grateful to be alive, she was saddened to learn the fate of her co-workers and friends—Bobby had been killed in the explosion and Mylene was also suffering from severe burns. 

Stefanie was also learning the extent of her own physical injuries. She had been burned on both sides of her body from the top of her feet to her scalp. Stef felt incredibly discouraged and wondered if she was ever going to be able to leave the hospital or do anything for herself again. But through the love and support of her family and friends, Stefanie gradually gained confidence. 

The Love of Family and Friends

The Bellos are an extremely close family and are active, well-known members of their community, Malden, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes outside of Boston. Stefanie, now 37, is the second youngest of Jack and Diane Bello’s five daughters (Deena, Jaclyn, Leanne, Stefanie, and Pamela). To keep distant family members, friends, and community members up-to-date on Stef’s progress, Deena created a Website on which she posted weekly progress reports and other resources for those who wanted to help. The site also had a guestbook section, where visitors could post messages to Stef and her family.

Deena, as well as other family members, believe that “Alex is the reason why Stefanie fought so hard to beat her odds. You truly must see the two of them together to appreciate the relationship of mother and daughter.”

Leanne, Stef’s sister, recalls one of the high points in Stef’s recovery, “Alex leaned over, and she kissed her Mom on the forehead. Stefanie smiled like I had not seen since her accident. She gazed at Alex with such pride, while a tear rolled down her cheek. I had to bury my head in my arms so that Stefanie could not see me. I just couldn’t stop the tears. It was a very bittersweet moment. It must have been torture for her to not be able to grab Alex and give her a huge hug.”

Leanne remembers that later that day Alex announced, “Okay, Mom, it’s therapy time.”

“Alex looked at Stef and began saying the letters of the alphabet,” recalls Leanne, “Alex would say a letter and then Stefanie would mouth it back to her. It was quite a struggle for Stef, but they did the whole alphabet.”

Another high moment came the day Stef was able to sit up for the first time. “Pam put on a dance tune with the words ‘I believe in miracles, you sexy thing,’” Deena remembers. “Well, Stef was bopping her head and mouthing the words. It was such a great moment!” 

The Road Home

Five months after the accident, Stefanie was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, where she would spend the next 5 months. It was at Spaulding where Stef would again learn to walk, to feed herself, and to see herself for the first time.

Stefanie’s mom worried about Stef seeing herself for the first time. Mrs. Bello says, “I didn’t know how to go about it.” A therapist at Spaulding Rehab suggested taking a snapshot of Stef and letting her see the photo. So Mrs. Bello showed Stef a photo of herself, at which point Stef asked for a mirror. Mrs. Bello recalls, “She handled it well, but I knew she was upset.” Deena remembers that moment and says, “Mom came out of the room and cried.”

Low points at Spaulding were also followed by high points. While Stefanie was still in a coma at Mass General, Alex wrote a song for her. Alex sang this song to her mom for the first time at Spaulding: 

We have been together.
You and I together.
Holding hands, you and I.

We have been together.
You and me forever.
Going along, through life.

I’ll be here by your side.
Mommy, I’m always all right.

You’ll always be the same.
You’ll always be the same, to me.

Mommy, I love you so much.
I’ll be here with you always.
I’ll be here by your side.

Mommy, I know that it’s all right.
You’ll always be the same, to me. 

The day Stef took her first steps was another dramatic turning point in Stef’s beginning to regain her independence. Stef says, “When I took my first steps, we all cried. When I took my first step, my daughter held my hand.” The Bello family in 1996. Stephanie is second row, far left.

Looking Ahead

On October 15, 2001, after 10 long, painful months, Stefanie finally returned home. While she was ecstatic to be home, she knew that many challenges still lie ahead. Stef says that the biggest challenge today is “trying to be myself again.”

There are days when Stef gets depressed. “I cry,” she admits, but then Alex will get home from school and smile at me.”

Stefanie credits her strength and her recovery to the love and support of her family and friends. “They were there every step of the way,” she recalls. “I have learned that family means everything.”

Stefanie is also grateful for the love and support of her fiancé, Keith. Stef and Keith were planning to be married prior to the accident. After the accident, Stef was concerned that Keith may no longer want to marry her. “But,” she says, “he was there to sit by my bed and hold my hand until I fell asleep every night. He would tell me, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’”

Today Stefanie and Keith are planning their wedding, and they are expecting a baby in August. Stefanie says that she is really excited about the baby, but also a little nervous because she hopes she can “do everything for the baby.”

Stefanie knows that her life has been changed by the accident, but she adds, “I don’t look the same, but I feel the same. I know I have another whole life ahead of me.” 

Sources of Strength

When Stef’s father first saw Stefanie lying in the hospital bed, he didn’t think there was anyway she could survive, and he “prayed she wouldn’t suffer too much.” Today Mr. Bello says he has “more faith in God,” and describes Stef as “beautiful, bubbly, and so full of life.”

Stef’s mom says, “She is an inspiration. There is nothing she is afraid to do. She is still beautiful Stefanie. She has sparkly eyes and an unbelievable smile. I believe in miracles because Stefanie is one of them.”

Jack and Diane Bello knew their five daughters were close before Stef’s accident, but have witnessed the incredible strength and comfort that their daughters have given each other through Stef’s recovery. The Bellos are also grateful for the superior care Stef received from both the burn team at Mass General and the therapists at Spaulding Rehab.

The Phoenix Society has also been a source of support for Stef and her family. At Mass General, the Bellos were introduced to George Pessotti, a Phoenix Society board member. Stef’s mother recalls, “We were so distraught, and he made us feel so comfortable.” 

Inspiring Others

“I would hope that people don’t look at my sister as a victim,” explains Deena, “but see her as an inspiration—a beautiful woman who has taught us through her will to live, how to learn to enjoy and value life, to take the time to stop and acknowledge all the good that we have and have done, to simply be ourselves and not be what others perceive us to be, to smile and take a deep breath and open our hearts to life, family, and friends.”

Stefanie and her family are true role models for other burn survivors and their families. 

 

This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Summer Issue, 2004. 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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