Burnt alive as a tot, now I’m a strong woman, wife and mother
Piercing screams wrenched me from my sleep. The house is on fire,
I realised, panicking. It was April 1976. Mama had taken me, then 4, and my little sister Karen, then 2, to stay at Uncle Clifford’s.
Smoke filled my lungs, stung my eyes, while searing flames roared towards me.
Only, I couldn’t get up. My left foot was wedged in a hole in the old mattress, caught between springs.
‘Mama!’ I screamed hysterically, desperately trying to twist myself free.
Agony coursed through me as flames lapped at my skin. I was burning alive!
Horrified, I watched as my flesh melted off.
Overcome by heat, pain and smoke, I gave up. Then a shadow appeared. ‘Theresa!’ Uncle Clifford, then 33, cried. He’d come to save me! Within seconds, he’d freed me and run with me to the window.
‘I love you,’ he whispered, handing me outside to Mama. Mama grabbed me and ran. ‘Please don’t let her die,’ she shouted to the ambulance crew.
I was screaming in agony, my skin dropping off, as a paramedic laid me on a stretcher, and cut off my clothes. Then everything went black. I was rushed to Memorial Mission Hospital, fighting for life, with third-degree burns to 65 per cent of my body.
My hair and face were burned off, my fingers scorched black.
That night, I died three times, was resuscitated.
Pumped full of pain medication and sedatives, I don’t know how long it was before I regained consciousness. But I’d faded in and out for weeks.
I couldn’t see, felt cold, scared.
Mama was there. She’d been treated for second-degree burns, while Karen had escaped with a burn on her hand.
Three days after the fire, I’d been flown to the Shriners Burn Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’d needed horrific treatment to scrape off my black, dead skin. My eyes had been sewn shut to save my sight.
I kept getting infections, and the fingers on my right hand had to be amputated one by one. Mama was warned I wouldn’t make it.
When I was more stable, I was told that, seconds after my Uncle Clifford had handed
Unable to cope, Mama stopped visiting after a few weeks
me to Mama, the house had collapsed, killing him. He’d died a hero. I’d never forget that… It was still touch-and-go for me. I had endless surgeries, my wounds oozed, I needed daily bandage changes. It was excruciating. Mama fed me soup through a straw, read me stories. She was kind, sweet – but also an alcoholic, who’d often neglected us.
Unable to cope, she stopped visiting me after a few weeks. I was devastated, alone. Slowly, my sight returned. Only, when I looked at my arms, legs and hands, I wept.
Red, gnarled scars twisted across my skin, the rest was covered in bandages. I was numb with shock. ‘Do you want to see your face?’ a nurse asked.
I nodded as she held up a mirror. Then I screamed.
The blue-eyed, blonde-haired, rosy cheeked little girl was gone.
In her place was a monster.
I wanted to rip off the mask of scars and run.
‘Let me out! Get me out of here!’ I shrieked, until I was sedated again.
Police discovered the fire was deliberate, though no-one was ever caught.
After three months, I was discharged, covered in bandages, splints, braces, a face mask and a mouth-and-neck brace.
Mama couldn’t look after me, so social services placed me in a rehabilitation hospital. I had daily occupational therapy, learned to use my hands again, walk, pick up things, tie my shoes, feed and dress myself. I even learned to swim and play the piano.
But I needed reconstructive ops three times a year.
Four years on, I moved between foster homes.
Finally, at 13, I was adopted by Betsy and Jos Vandermeer, and was given the love, support and stability I craved.
Kind and loving, I soon called
them Mum and Dad. At school, I played sports, went to my prom. But I struggled with my self-image. Kids would point, stare. One adult even laughed in my face, reducing me to tears. I fancied boys, but knew I’d never have a boyfriend. Not looking like this.
Desperate, I saw specialist surgeons, yet none could drastically improve my face.
I had counselling, went to college – but, depressed, age 21, I attempted suicide.
After, I did fall in love, had Ariel, now 24, and Samuel, 16. But their father was abusive.
‘No-one’ll want a burnedup bitch like you,’ he sneered.
After 12 years, I broke free, was happy as a single mum.
Then I met Larry Diehl, 48, online, and he accepted me from day one.
We had Emily, now 14, married in December 2012, and he tells me I’m beautiful every day. Now I’ve learned to accept my scars. I see them as a blessing.
Without them, I wouldn’t be the strong woman I am today.
Larry accepted me from day one, tells me I’m beautiful
Dream come true I thought my scars meant I’d never have my own family
Before the fire, I was a pretty, blonde toddler
I had to have three plastic surgeries a year
My scars made me who I am