Burnt alive

Burnt alive as a tot, now I’m a strong woman, wife and mother

Chat - - Come On In! - By Theresa Van­der­meer-diehl, 46, from Asheville, USA

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

When I saw my face, I had to be se­dated

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