Trans­form­ing tragedy PLUS ‘I wear my scars like di­a­monds’

AF­TER be­ing ‘grossly dis­fig­ured’ in a crash, this woman – who made a phe­nom­e­nal re­cov­ery – shows off her scars.

People (South Africa) - - Contents -

IN 1988, af­ter her sev­enth birth­day, Heather Mead­ows, now 37, was rid­ing back home on a bike with her brother, Jon, who was swerv­ing to the left then to the right. The dust from the road stung their eyes. Jon couldn’t see and out of an ef­fort to avoid the dust he swerved to the left, en­ter­ing the op­po­site lane where a truck struck them. The crash re­sulted in the truck burst­ing into flames that en­gulfed Heather and Jon.

Heather re­mem­bers some­one grab­bing her and drag­ging her from the wreck­age where she was taken to a nearby burn unit. Doc­tors told her dis­traught par­ents that there was a very high chance she would die.

Heather’s fight to sur­vive paid off, though, and she woke up in hospi­tal where she learnt that she had burnt 87 per­cent of her body. Tragedy over­came her when she was told that her brother, Jon, had died in the ac­ci­dent at just nine years old.

“Jon and I pulled out be­hind a truck. It was a coun­try dirt road. We didn’t have on gog­gles. In­stead, we had an ur­gency to get home,” Heather says. “We didn’t stop. We didn’t pull over and wait for the dust to set­tle. In­stead we con­tin­ued rid­ing be­hind the truck, mak­ing progress on the jour­ney home, but un­able to see and know our sur­round­ings. Jon kept swerv­ing to the left and right, left and right. The dust stung his eyes; I knew this be­cause it was sting­ing mine. I hunched be­hind him try­ing to shield my eyes from the cloud of dust en­velop­ing us. Sud­denly, on Jon’s last swerve to the left, we en­tered the op­po­site lane and col­lided head-on with a truck. The gas cap came off the mo­tor­cy­cle and a mas­sive fire be­gan burn­ing.”

Heather con­tin­ues, “I was in the flames. No longer did my eyes burn from a cloud of dust but be­held the blur­ri­ness from the fire. My face felt so very hot.

Some­one grabbed me un­der my arms and pulled me, drag­ging me away from the fire. I was trans­ported by a he­li­copter to the lo­cal burns cen­tre where it was de­ter­mined that my aorta had been com­pletely tran­sected from the force of the im­pact.

I went in for open heart surgery, lead­ing to my jour­ney of be­ing a burn sur­vivor. My par­ents were

[told there was a huge chance] that

I would die. Nev­er­the­less, they held out hope, mean­ing my great­est, most heart-wrench­ing chal­lenge to keep liv­ing was be­fore me. I was di­ag­nosed with an 87 per­cent third-de­gree burn in­jury. At seven years old I felt my worth, value and beauty had been lost on that dirt road.”

Heather adds, “But liv­ing with what doc­tors la­belled as a ‘grossly dis­fig­ur­ing in­jury’ was noth­ing in com­par­i­son to learn­ing that my big brother Jon had died in the ac­ci­dent. We did ev­ery­thing to­gether. I knew no mem­ory apart from him, and sud­denly I was faced with his ab­sence. For­ever. Nav­i­gat­ing through grief was an un­known process to me. It was over­whelm­ing;

I had no cop­ing skills to face it. So, like many do, I buried the grief and worked to ‘get bet­ter’ as every­one around me chal­lenged me to do.”

Heather was kept in hospi­tal for three months where

she un­der­went nu­mer­ous surg­eries to re­cover from her burns, in­clud­ing open-heart surgery and skin grafts, and was told she may never walk again. De­spite this, she proved doc­tors wrong; she is now mar­ried to her hus­band, Bran­don, and they have four chil­dren.

“En­coun­ter­ing the re­ac­tions from strangers and peers af­ter I was in­jured was just the be­gin­ning of learn­ing how to live while be­ing no­ticed,” says Heather, who adds, “In a crowd of peo­ple, only those who stand out dif­fer­ently from the norm are no­ticed. I knew how dif­fer­ent I was as peo­ple be­gan star­ing. I was a lit­tle girl who grew to han­dle the awk­ward­ness of stares, still 30 years later en­coun­ter­ing the same ex­pe­ri­ences in the most ran­dom, day-to-day parts of liv­ing. It’s not some­thing any­one is ever com­pletely okay with. But it’s some­thing that makes a burn sur­vivor a sur­vivor and not a ‘vic­tim’. I’m not a vic­tim of the re­ac­tions and be­wil­der­ment of strangers. I’m a sur­vivor in the face of it.”

Heather adds, “I had to re­de­fine my­self. I had to re­de­fine beauty. It was the long­est road and most painful process, but like most chal­lenges that are hard and hurt­ful, it pro­duced the great­est un­der­stand­ing of who I am and how I can

[han­dle] this life I was left to live.”

Heather ex­plains, “Pa­tients don’t travel a road to re­cov­ery alone; I had a team of health care pro­fes­sion­als who did more than pro­vide med­i­cal treat­ment, they be­came a fam­ily to me. My mom and dad were com­mit­ted and per­sis­tent to see me not just live, but to have the high­est qual­ity of life, push­ing me even in the midst of ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain.”

Heather, who met her hus­band in high school says, “I was a very unas­sum­ing young lady, never imag­in­ing a teenage boy sight­ing beauty and value in me. This be­came the de­tails of what con­trib­uted to a spe­cial friend­ship be­fore a ro­man­tic one. My hus­band and I got mar­ried at 18 years old in June 1999. Through the years he has proven that the depth of beauty in the heart and soul can shine and cap­ti­vate the most gen­uine love.”

Heather and her fam­ily ar­ranged to have fam­ily pho­tos taken while pre­par­ing for hol­i­day in Hawaii in Au­tumn of 2016. “Peo­ple stare; no mat­ter how many years have passed since the ac­ci­dent, peo­ple stare, and I can see the what-hap­pened-to-her look on their faces,” she says. “It’s un­com­fort­able, it’s awk­ward. So never in a mil­lion years did I fig­ure I’d take pho­tos in a bikini and share my scars for all of so­cial me­dia to see. But while life af­ter a burn in­jury will never be the same, life can still be good. Th­ese bod­ies are merely shells. The value, hope, hap­pi­ness, and op­ti­mism that is con­tained within them have far greater in­flu­ence on the lives we live than the bod­ies which carry us through the jour­ney.”

Heather with her brother Jon Af­ter the ac­ci­dent

Heather show­ing off her scars

Get Heather’s book, en­ti­tled Trans­form­ing Tragedy, on Ama­

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