The Bowers Family
A Family Faces the Challenges of a Burn Injury Together and Grows Stronger in the Process
In the summer of 1999 the Bowers were a self-described “successful, middle class, loving family” living in southeast Texas, near Beaumont, where David was an assistant plant manager at an air separation facility and Carly was a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time as a church youth director. Daughter Samantha was nearly 9 years old and son Nathan was 2. The family was looking forward to a possible job transfer for David that would send them to Indiana, closer to much of their extended family.
Suddenly Life Changes
Then on August 20, life for the Bowers family changed. While 31-year-old David was at work, a highpressure oxygen pipe ruptured and engulfed him in a flash fire with temperatures up to 5000 degrees. Carly recalls, “Nathan was down for his afternoon nap and I was working on a lesson for our youth group. The phone rang. It was a phone call that all of us dread getting. It was a nurse from our local hospital that told me my husband had just been in a serious accident at work and I needed to get to the hospital as soon as I could. My ‘perfect’ little world started to crumble out from underneath me.”
The prognosis for David was grim. Based on a standard calculation that took into account his age and extent of burn, the chances that he would not survive exceeded 100%. But when the doctor delivered that news, David suggested that she “get busy” because he was going to “beat the odds.”
His daughter Samantha recalls, “I remember the look on the teacher’s face after she got off the phone. I didn’t remember my mom telling me that she was picking me up from school early…but my confusion turned to excitement easily because all I could think about was how cool it was to get out of school early! Standing in the corner was my little 2-year-old brother with my dad’s boss’s wife. At that moment, I no longer was excited to leave school early. I knew something was wrong.”
Carly made it to the local hospital to see David before he was flown to the burn center in Galveston, but his injuries made him nearly unrecognizable. “Our time together was not like what I’d seen in the movies,” remembers Carly, “it wasn’t eloquent or long winded. It was short and very to the point. We told each other we loved one another. Then David told me, ‘Everything is going to be ok….take care of the kids’ then I was led outside of his room into the hallway.”
That day in the emergency room, Carly remembers having one of the toughest conversations a mom could have, “I knew in my heart that I had to be honest with her from the beginning.”
Samantha also clearly recalls that conversation, “Mom sat me down, held me close and told me the news that Dad had been in a very bad accident at work and had been burned very badly. I was full of questions and remember her trying to keep calm and stay strong for me. I remember asking if Dad was going to live and Mom telling me, ‘I don’t know honey…’ All I wanted to do was to be able to see my dad.”
Samantha wasn’t able to see David before he was flown to the burn center and she describes it as the “hardest day of my life.” Carly spent the next 2 hours riding to the burn center. “I remember my thoughts kept racing… I prayed that David’s injuries really wouldn’t be as bad as first anticipated, I hoped for the chance to see him again, I mourned over who would ever teach our young son how to play baseball, or who was going to help me raise our two children,” says Carly.
The toughest part, recalls Samantha, was not being able to go with her parents and having to wait for news of whether or not her dad had made it through the night.
The Rollercoaster of Recovery
David did survive that night and spent another 4 months in the intensive care unit at the burn center. Although he was intubated and heavily medicated, he was not placed in a medically induced coma, so, unlike many burn patients, he was awake and coherent at times during his stay there. “I think this helped me process part of what was happening to me,” says David, “instead of not being able to see things at the worst.”
During those months, despite the incredible support of family and friends, Carly, who stayed in Galveston to be with her husband, often felt overwhelmed. “There was a time I felt like I had lost everything,” she remembers. “I had given up my job, I wasn’t living at home, our kids weren’t with us, my husband wasn’t the same anymore, and I might lose him at any moment…”
She wanted to “fix things and make them all better,” and reassure her kids, but in this situation she could not.
The family found ways to cope with the uncertainty. “We learned to take one day at a time,” says Carly. “We realized that the roller coaster ride you experience in a burn unit happens many times in one given day—so many highs and lows. One minute I’d be elated simply because David wiggled his toes on command; the next moment he was unresponsive and fighting off infection. We tried to keep our sense of humor through it all.”
Samantha’s early hospital experiences as a 9-yearold were equally difficult. “I still had a hard time believing that it was my dad until I saw his blue eyes. I knew Mom wasn’t lying and it really was Dad hooked up to all of those beeping machines. I thought after 2 entire long weeks of Dad being in the hospital that he would almost be back to normal but I was wrong. I remember the first words Dad said to me were, ‘Is that Samantha? My daughter I haven’t seen in weeks!’ I was happy that he talked to me what little he did. I remember feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, worried, lonely, and empty. I missed my mom and dad and wanted our ‘normal lives’ to resume.”
Nathan, on the other hand, had been too young to really understand what was going on when David was injured. He couldn’t experience anxiety the way his older sister did. Instead the toddler often got physically ill after his visits to the hospital. “That’s how his little body tried to cope with all of this,” says his mother. He couldn’t verbalize his feelings, Carly explains, but at times he acted them out.
Even as David made progress in his physical recovery, it was hard for him not to feel discouraged at times. The first time, after his grafts, when he “walked” from the bed to the door of his room, David remembers that the physical therapist had him “pinned in a walker” and his dad was moving his feet, so he was “doing nothing.” “Everybody else was so excited that I had been up and walked,” he says, “and I was devastated that I was so pathetic.”
A New Set of Challenges
Once David was released from the hospital, he was transferred to an inpatient rehab center closer to home, where he spent the next 2 months. That was followed by several more months of outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and hand therapy, and many trips over the next several years back to the hospital for additional surgeries.
While everyone was excited to have David at home, there were new challenges. “So much had to be done for me at that point,” says David, “I was not independent in any way. The kids and Carly were initially excited but the change in schedule and responsibilities made it tough for everyone, and I couldn’t help.” Carly was now the nurse, the caretaker, the wife, the mom, the chauffeur, the scheduler, the therapist and so much more. David was slowly learning how to walk again, feed himself, and perform basic daily tasks.
But the family faced more than physical and logistical challenges. Carly experienced stress and anxiety. “I couldn’t sit still for very long or be in quiet spaces because the flashbacks would happen. I would replay the phone call from the hospital; the diagnosis of a high mortality injury; the first time I saw David, etc. The flashbacks and fear for my family’s safety were too intense to manage on my own, so I sought counseling.” Samantha, her mother says, felt that her safety net had been jerked out from underneath her and she didn’t know when it might happen again.
The 9-year-old worried about how other people might treat David when they were out in public. “Not only did I become overprotective with my dad,” Samantha explained, “I became overprotective with my family. It became a nightly routine to make sure all of the windows and doors were locked to the house—something not every 9-year-old would do… I struggled with depression. I struggled with the question, ‘Why?’ Why did this happen to Dad? Why did my family have to go through this? Why weren’t people as understanding with ‘differences’ out in public? Why did Dad have to look different?” And despite the fact that it was completely unsubstantiated, she somehow felt responsible for her dad’s injury.
The entire Bowers family was feeling the impact of David’s burn.
The Search for a Community of Support
Nearly 6 months after the incident, the family finally got a referral for professional counseling; in addition, Carly continued to search for ways to help her family cope with David’s injury and their new life circumstances. David remembers being “starved for information on what it meant to be burned.” They didn’t know any other burn survivors and there were no support groups in their area. “Luckily,” Carly says, “my mother came across a brochure for the Phoenix Society.” It led to the Bowers finally receiving information that proved to be crucial for their healing.
“We learned about an online chat group. This helped David initially and our family was beginning to realize that we were not alone. We could learn from other families who had been affected by a burn injury,” she explains.
Just 11 months after the accident, Carly and David, who was wearing a full-body compression garment and required 3 hours of dressing changes each day, traveled to San Francisco for the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress 2000.
“This event was exactly what the two of us needed!” says Carly. “We were overwhelmed with the sense of community we felt at the onset of the Congress. For the first time in almost a year, we felt like other people understood what we were experiencing on a daily basis. Sure, we had family and friends that supported and helped us, but the people at the World Burn Congress knew firsthand what it was like to live the life of a burn injury 24/7. We ‘fit in.’
Over the years, the speakers at the WBC gave us tools to use in our own lives, coping skills and a sense of hope that we could overcome this injury. We were like sponges for many years, trying to soak in as much information as possible to help our family heal.”
David remembers the early struggles of going out in public, “I perceived that everyone was staring at me. One of the first times out in public I avoided looking at anyone, knowing that they were all staring at me. Then, as I was being pushed in the wheelchair I had glanced up and saw someone staring, I glanced away and then glanced back and ended up staring back at the person, it was a minute before I realized that it was only a reflection.” Like Carly, David says that at WBC they found the tools they needed to continue their recovery as a family—how to tell their story when someone asks at the grocery store, how to handle staring. They were inspired by other survivors and realized that their lives too would return to normal, that they could get past the therapy and surgeries.
After several years, David and Carly started making WBC a family event, bringing Samantha and Nathan along to the yearly meetings. “We feel like this helped them feel connected with other survivors,” says Carly, who recalls that the kids also learned ways to cope and heal. Both kids, according to their mother, have grown into caring, responsible people who see the needs of others and are oblivious to most physical differences.
The impact of their father’s injury has been quite different for Nathan and Samantha. According to her mother, Samantha was old enough at the time to be aware of the fear, the chaos, and the uncertainty the family was facing. Samantha, even at 9, felt obligated to take on the role of caregiver at home, despite the fact that her grandfather was there to help in her parents’ absence. “She was forced to grow up too soon,” says Carly. And, unlike her brother who doesn’t remember life before his dad’s burn, Samantha will always be able to compare her father before and afterwards.
“This has always been Nathan’s normal,” says Carly, so he doesn’t give much attention to his dad’s injury. But as can be expected, it bothers him when adults stare and he has occasionally wished his dad could do things other dads can—like throw their kids up in the air or chase them around.
Sharing What They Learned
Because of their experience, David and Carly have also been proponents of family programming at the Congress, especially for the children and siblings of burn survivors. “It’s always been our way of thinking that a burn injury impacts the entire family unit—not just the person with the physical scars,” she explains, “so we’ve been thrilled to help out with implementing the UBelong program at WBC.”
The couple encourages other families who have been affected by a burn injury to seek help early on. “The Phoenix Society now has a vast collection of resources online that are available for families to use. Find other burn survivors. Even if there’s not a support group in your area you can connect with people from all over the country online via the web chats hosted by the Phoenix Society. It helps to know you’re not the only one going through this crisis. Gain wisdom from those who have walked the path before you. Seek counseling if you need it. Take care of yourself, if you’re the caregiver; if you’re exhausted you can’t take care of anyone. Get outside help when necessary. You don’t have to do this on your own. Talk about it; sharing your story helps in the healing process. Laugh when you can,” suggests Carly.
A New Kind of Normal
In 2002, after most of David’s outpatient therapies were complete, the family decided to make the move to Indiana they had been hoping for years earlier. Although they had an incredibly supportive community of friends and co-workers in Texas, Carly says, “We needed a new start, a fresh beginning.” The move, according to Carly, was “scary and exhilarating all in one.”
“A fresh beginning in a new place was a bit overwhelming some days,” she says. “How would people welcome us? Would we be included? Our fears subsided quickly as our new community welcomed our family with open arms. Once again, I think it helped that we weren’t wallowing in our misfortune—we were trying to take it in stride and make the best of it most days. Not every day was easy. It took work to put one foot in front of the other some days. David’s had well over 40 surgeries, many of which were in the first 8 years. We’ve found a new kind of normal. The rollercoaster ride that involved doctor’s appointments, therapy, and hospitalizations has been replaced with the rollercoaster ride of an occasional infection. But through the years we’ve found our laughter through some occasional tears.”
Looking back, Carly says her perspective has changed over time, “Initially I thought our lives would never be the same and, though that’s true, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
The Bowers are now focused on finding ways to reach out to others in similar circumstances. “It’s hard to have a pity party when you’re serving others,” says Carly. “We’ve tried to still find the joy in life that surrounds us each day—there’s plenty of it, we just need to acknowledge it. But it’s a choice every day for us to choose to be joyful. Life is tough and there will always be painful moments, but if we make a conscious decision to find joy in the little things, our days will be much more rewarding to us and those around us.
A burn injury, says David, is “not life ending, just life changing.”
In 2009 the Bowers family was received the Phoenix Society’s Janet Harman Award, which recognizes outstanding philanthropic or volunteer leadership in support of the Society.
This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Issue 2, 2013. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery. All Rights Reserved.