What I Learned from Two Weeks in a Burn Center

If you want to alter your perspective on pretty much everything, go hang out at your local burn center! Last year, my six-year-old son was seriously burned in an accident at home and ended up spending two weeks in the Oregon Burn Center where he underwent skin graft surgery. 

I learned a lot from two weeks in a burn center with my son (which I will certainly keep forgetting and need to relearn throughout my life.)

 

Burns Take Time to ‘Declare’ Themselves

The initial days in a burn center are a waiting game. Before this experience, I thought it was pretty simple- you get burned, the extent of the burn is immediately revealed, treatment is clear, and the doctors and nurses go do their thing. 

WRONG! 

Burns operate on their own schedule. Often, they can emerge over the span of a week or more. Thus, any treatment plan has to accommodate the burn’s agenda. The skilled doctors who specialize in burns understand how critical patience is to an effective treatment plan and master the waiting game.

Applying such patience to our everyday lives would serve us well. Think of a burn as a metaphor for a frustrating email you receive at work, rejection from your spouse, really any experience that makes you uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but in these situations, I often respond emotionally and rashly. Pretty quickly, things escalate, and the situation leaveseveryone frustrated, exhausted, and ultimately disconnected. Yet, instead of the impulsive response, what if we dig deep, find some patience, and wait for the situation to declare itself fully? The chances are that if you do so, you will arrive at the clarity and strategy to best move forward.

 

There Are Angels Here on Earth 

I am watching my son cry out in pain, helpless to do much for him other than share whatever words of love and encouragement I can muster. I am distracted by the man passing our room in a wheelchair with severe burns over 90 percent of his body. Then my attention turns to the screams of another child down the hall. A few seconds later, my mind is whisked away to the mother of the girl I spoke to earlier in the day whose daughter is in the room next door. She has been in the burn center for a month and will not be going home anytime soon. 

To use the ole’ dark/light metaphor…. Dark, very dark, equals being seriously burned. Yet, amidst such suffering, there is the light, and much of it takes the form of the burn center staff who bring optimism, inspiration, compassion, and incredible skills to these patients’ lives daily.  

You may ask, how do I become more “angelic”? Do I go work at a burn center and it’s all good? No… What I learned from these two weeks is that the first step to become the angel is to stop living in the illusion that you are one already. Stop convincing yourself that writing a couple $100 checks to local charities and volunteering a few hours on a Saturday for your company’s ‘Service Day’ is enough to make the world a better place. Stop justifying your lack of current social and environmental service with the story that you will work hard, make a bunch of money, and sit back as the world’s next Carnegie in your later years. Chances are it’s not going to happen. Stop saying that your day job is all you need to rev up your give-back-o-meter. It’s not. The commitment to drive change in ourselves, communities, and world needs to be substantial, needs to be a daily focus and needs to be now. 

 

Chill Out and Stop Rushing

I never knew what happened to any other patient at the burn center. Their stories, as was ours, were kept close as the prospect of in any way reliving the incident through a retelling was just too terrifying. Yet there are bits and pieces of information that you pick up regarding the other patients along the way as you unavoidably overhear the nurses, patients’ loved ones, or even the patients themselves for fleeting moments. Emerging from these bits and pieces, was a monolithic theme- What ever happened to many of these burn patients unfolded because they and/or others involved in the incident were in a RUSH. Hell, what happened to my son was partially a product of me rushing.

Stop and ask yourself how much of your day is lived in a rushed state- a state of slight to significant anxiety and a diminished awareness of your surroundings. My guess is that if most people are honest, the answer would be much of the day. I openly admit that my days are often a frantic juggling act of a million different things, some important; others, not so much. I bounce around with limited consciousness of my own internal state, the state of others, and my general surroundings. 

Really simple message here- minimize all the rushing in your life. Rushing is truly justified in only one instance- when your or others’ safety is at risk. Otherwise, nearly all the rushing you do can be avoided through better planning, greater organization, and doing those self-care things that help you keep your head on straight.

 

Find the Silver Lining

I was surprised to learn that silver is used as an anti-microbial agent in the care of burns. In fact, it is believed that the longer life expectancy of royalty during the Middle Age can be attributed to using dishware made of silver as the silver killed off harmful bacteria. During our first week in the hospital, there was the daily and highly unpleasant ritual of the dressing change, in which the nurses exposed the wound, cleaned it, then applied copious amounts of this white pasty stuff called Silvadene. 

Without a doubt, the dressing change was the worst burn center experience- the burn is unveiled, the incident leading to the burn is played out again, my son is terrified and screaming in pain, and I am thinking that truly, nothing could be worse. But then comes the Silvadene with its soothing and masking effects. My son immediately calms down, the burn is hidden, and my desire to jump out the window is eased.

Where am I going with this? Well, an experience like this can lead you deep into despair, and hopelessness. Regardless of what the trigger is, suffering is part of life. Yet I believe we largely have a choice over how much of our lives we spend suffering. Perhaps the most important question here is- what is our approach to pulling ourselves out of that suffering? The answer lies in the silver, or, in other words, the ‘silver lining’.

For me, the silver linings were fleeting, if present at all, in the initial days after the burn. However, they eventually came. It is in the act of seeking out the silver linings that we can recognize that joy and gratitude is once again attainable, that a deeply fulfilling life is available.

 

What I Am Left with

A year out and my son has fully recovered. He will wear his scar, his badge of courage forever. We tell him that it is a privilege to wear his badge as it will remind him throughout his life of the strength, bravery, and grit that he possesses. He has bought into this perspective and frequently shows off his scar with pride to anyone who is open to taking a look. 

Now on the other side of this experience, it is the deep presence of gratitude that rises above all else… My gratitude extends to the expansive community of support we have been blessed with. My appreciation for the entirety of the experience also runs deep. While I certainly would have taken the option of my family and I not having to live through all of this if available to us, our two weeks in the burn center and the subsequent year of rehabilitation has offered me a unique perspective through which to view the world- a perspective that has awakened me to the beauty and preciousness that is each moment of this life.

 

For nearly two decades, Sid has worked in myriad roles in the non-profit and K-12 education sectors as a teacher, administrator, researcher, lecturer, and fundraiser. Sid also founded and directed Fields to Forks, a program in Portland, OR offering low income youth access to healthy food options and job readiness training while providing local farmers and markets access to engaged student volunteers. Sid currently serves as the Director of Development at New Teacher Center, a national education nonprofit dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Sid earned a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a master's degree in education from Harvard University. Sid currently lives with his family in Portland, OR.