Survivor Spotlight: Luis Nevarez

Our recent Burn Support Magazine features a survivor profile of Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, who suffered an electrical burn injury.  Luis shares his story of recovery, support, and his enthusiasm for ‘getting back to living’ – back to full duty as a firefighter, and promoting through the ranks to his current role as Division Chief.  Here is that story:

By James Bosch, MA, MFTi

There’s a voice in my head. It’s been there ever since the day I conducted the interview for this story. I’m glad the voice is there, because it’s the voice of Luis Nevarez, and Luis has powerful wisdom and positive messages to share. I’m sure that you too will be inspired as you learn of Luis’ perseverance and courage in the aftermath of a doubly devastating injury—a severe electrical burn that ultimately led to the amputation of his left forearm.

It is difficult to bounce back from injuries of this nature. It is rarely quick or easy, and every survivor has his or her own story and path to recovery, based on individual life circumstances and support networks.

???????????????????????????????????Many firefighters who have survived burns say that they struggle with seeing themselves as having survived a trauma versus simply having experienced an occupational hazard. Luis’ story includes both sides of this issue—although his main focus was getting back to work, he recognized along the way that his burn injury uniquely qualified him to help other individuals recovering from similar traumas.

In this interview, Luis mentions having a more synergistic life view since the accident. In its most basic definition, this means that by working together we are stronger than the individual. I have had the great fortune of seeing Luis in action as a volunteer with burn survivors. We co-facilitated a support group for young adult male survivors one evening. Luis’ calm presence made the guys in the room feel comfortable. He really let his own life story be an example; I watched his empathy and care in action.

Luis Nevarez is an amazing person for each of us to have on our support team. And if you listen closely, you just might hear his encouraging voice in your head the next time you’re facing a challenge.

James: When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to be a firefighter?

Luis: I can’t say I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. I was always into sports; that was my main focus as a kid. In high school, I had a job bagging groceries at the local supermarket. The fire crews would come in to shop, and I’d ask about their jobs. They finally invited me to the firehouse. Talking with them, I realized that it was a job I was interested in, so I enrolled in the Fire Academy and applied to many counties throughout California. My first job came after a 15-hour Greyhound bus ride from LA to Humboldt County. I shaved and changed in a Denny’s [restaurant] bathroom and was ready for my interview. Needless to say, I was hired and that is where my career as a firefighter began.

James: What most motivated you to accomplish your goal?

???????????????????????????????????Luis: I have always believed that if you really want something, you have to go grab it. No one will just give it to you. After I was hired for that first job in Crescent City, I tested all over the state to get into a full-time firefighter position. Tulare City was one of the places I tested, and 2 years later they called me for a job. I’ve been there for 25 years, and throughout my career I have stayed consistent with training and education. I have worked very hard to attain my goals in promoting through the ranks.

When I was injured and lost my hand, doing office work was not an option. I was determined to go back as a firefighter with no limitations or special accommodations. The more people questioned if that was really possible, the harder I worked at it. This field is very competitive and promoting was not easy and on one occasion I did not get the promotion. I did not let this get me down, I realized my strengths were in the field, not in administration, so I went back to school and received a bachelor’s degree to balance out my skills. The second time I went for the promotion, I got it! I always tell people that it’s not how you fall down that matters, it’s how you get back up.

What motivates me? My passion for the fire service and family. I’m a single dad with three kids that I have taught to work hard for their dreams. They are excelling in their lives.

James: Can you talk about your accident and your experience in the hospital?

Luis: My accident happened on January 26, 2002. I accidentally touched a hidden 12,000-volt line while breaking a limb off of a smoldering tree. This caused my burn injuries and eventually the amputation of my left forearm. I was in the hospital for 35 days. I was back to work on light duty by August, and 364 days after my accident I was back on a fire truck with no accommodations or restrictions. I was missing an arm, but my heart was there and my passion was there. It was a long road of hard work to get my job back but again I was determined.

The day I was admitted to the hospital, the HBO (hyperbaric oxygen chamber) nurse asked me if I had trouble being in confined spaces. I laughed and asked if they could give me continuing education hours towards my confined space rescue certification. That was the attitude I brought into it.

There were definitely challenges being in the hospital and in my recovery. The support that I had from the fire service, my family, and friends contributed to the positive outcome of my rehabilitation.

James: What are some of the emotional challenges you have faced?

Luis: Some days were worse than others, and I still have some bad days. What I’ve learned is to just ride out the hard days and remind myself that the feelings won’t last forever. The next day I am usually back to myself again. Accepting the emotions I feel at the moment instead of ignoring them is important in the healing process. It’s a daily challenge, but any step forward is better than none.

My kids had to deal with people staring at me when I didn’t have a prosthetic, especially in public places like taking my son to baseball games or the mall with my daughter. I had so much support, but I don’t think my children received the proper counseling to deal with the accident. I really don’t know how they got through the experience so well.

Luis’ three children are Ashley (24), Luis, Jr. (22), and Alyssah (15).

Ashley: Since the accident, nothing about my dad has changed except that he now has a hook. He has taught me to be a very hardworking person and to not give up no matter what. That’s his motto: Never give up. I would like employers and loved ones of survivors reading this to also know that they should never give up on people with a disability. Just look at my dad!

Luis, Jr.: To watch him overcome his accident showed us that we can find a way to do anything. He has taught us to stay positive and surround ourselves with people who want us to succeed. My dad is great because he doesn’t let “how” be a factor. Just envision yourself there and you will find a way; have fun and enjoy every day.

Alyssah: The accident brought us closer as a family. We laugh together and make jokes. I think what is great about my dad is that he is a living example of how you can see the positive side of things. My dad is the person you can go to for anything. He looks at life as a challenge to win. I wouldn’t change it now. My dad is amazing as he is.

Luis: At first I had some body image issues. It was challenging for me because people would stare at me and I found myself repeating my story over and over again and repeating my trauma making it difficult to move forward. Aside from the amputation, I was dealing with third-degree burns all over my body that were hidden to the outside world. I am a patchwork of scars and donor sites. I recently ran across a Polaroid picture of the burns to my bottom when I was in hospital and it looks like a red heart. Humor is important in dealing with my burns.

Nevarez-family

Sandra Yovino is the nurse manager at Leon S Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, California.

Sandra: Luis’ personality lights up a room, he attracts people to him with his mannerisms and his charisma. I’ve gotten to watch his process over the 10 years since his injury. You know, there’s a false belief among many that the healing takes place in the inpatient phase or the outpatient phase. The truth is, the real work starts when patients are discharged from the hospital, when they start dealing with things like pain management, chronic pain, adjusting to a new lifestyle or career, or adapting to their previous work. With all my work with burn survivors over the years, I have also noticed that the milestone marked by each decade or life event can trigger important new issues for survivors to deal with. For instance, I have watched Luis successfully navigate endings of relationships, disappointments at work, and children transitioning to teenagers. These events bring up new challenges in anyone’s life. I’ve watched Luis transition through all these phases.
James: Luis, tell me about your amazing journey from this major burn injury and  amputation to full-duty firefighter with no accommodations.

Luis: When I first went back I was on light duty, mostly doing fire prevention work. I was determined to pass the manipulative and physical tests required as a firefighter, and return to full duty.  There was a new fire academy starting, so I joined the new recruits and went through all the trainings with them. These were classes that I used to teach! I became a student again to relearn my skills. I was determined not to return to work if I was going to get hurt or if I was going to hurt others.

I also went to the gym everyday. I worked with my prosthetist and my occupational therapist to find the best type of hook for my arm. I learned new ways to do old tasks, like screwing on a fire hose coupling or operating the Jaws of Life. It was actually fun for me to figure out new ways to do things. There were days I would get frustrated, but our job is about challenges and pushing ourselves to find solutions. My coworkers would get involved and make suggestions, too. They were amazing. They would joke about me having a rope burn on my hook after a training exercise, and they would put a Band-aid on the hook and keep going.

I passed everything. The media was there that day filming. A year later I was promoted to engineer, and when we opened a new fire station, I was promoted to captain. I was a fire captain for 10 years with no restrictions or limitations on an engine company. I also teach at several local fire academies, and whether it was confined-space rescue or sliding down a fire hose from a second-story window, I always demonstrate first for my students. Now, I’m proud to be on this new venture as Division Chief, with the new challenge of handling the administrative side of the fire service.

James: Describe what your life is like today.

Luis: My life today…I am a very blessed individual. The three things I am most grateful for are to be able to continue to do the job I love, to be an example for my kids, and to help others. I not only had the motivation to come back to work but to continue accomplishing all the short- and long-term goals I had set for myself long ago. I am blessed to have survived this trauma so that I could have the privilege to raise my children and watch them grow and succeed in all their endeavors.

???????????????????????????????????I would describe my view on life now as more synergistic. I’m not as task oriented or “one-minded,” so I’m more able to see how others around me are experiencing their lives. I think I understand better what people need, and not just those that have been through traumatic events, but everyone I am connected to. This means becoming interested in what others are going through and talking more deeply with them. I take the time to share my knowledge and experience. If I notice someone is off or having a bad day at work, I
take the time to find out what is bothering them.

I saw a man at the gym about 6 months ago, an older man in a wheelchair who perhaps had had a stroke. I noticed him over the months, and then one day he came in with a cane. I took the time to go up to him and tell him how good he was looking. He told me that watching me work out at the gym had been motivating for his rehabilitation. We had a great talk, an amazing connection.

Sandra: Luis has become an important member of our burn team. He is always available to us. He really does give of himself freely. Luis stayed involved with the burn center at first because of his continual needs with his amputation. An important point is that Luis is a person who will seek out help. It is sad that a lot of survivors never deal with their burn injury. Luis did. He started dealing with some of the more core emotional issues about 5 years after the injury. He then became a Phoenix SOAR trainer at the hospital and got connected to Phoenix World Burn Congress. Phoenix WBC really helped him look at the emotional side. He took his younger daughter with him last year, and I think this was an important step for the family’s healing.

Recently, during a visit as a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter, Luis came in to support another burn survivor who was about to have his arm amputated. He shared his story so this patient might be able to imagine life after his amputation by meeting Luis. Luis was able to talk to this guy about acceptance of his amputation. As clinicians, we just can’t do this. It is vital to have survivors as trained peer supporters on the burn team.

James: Luis, do you have any advice for other firefighters injured on the job, burn survivors, or individuals who have lost a limb?

Luis: Continue to work hard with the passion that you have. Set your own limitations; don’t let any other individual set your limits for you. Stay true to yourself, and only do something if you have a passion for it. When you fall down, get back up. Train hard and work hard. Remember that the sky is not the limit—you are.

James: What is the biggest “gift” of this experience?

Luis: Having the ability to reach out to others. I believe my experience is a part of God’s plan for me to help. I am constantly being called on to inspire others in similar circumstances; it is a pleasure never a burden. I walk away feeling good after I have talked to another amputee or burn survivor, or to a classroom of new recruits. Giving hope to others through my life experience and inspiring others through my story is what it’s all about.

I visited the burn center last month to meet a burn survivor who had lost his hand. He was worried he couldn’t do push-ups ever again. I said, “Push-ups, those are easy.” I took off my shirt and showed him how to do push-ups with a prosthetic and without it by utilizing
pillows. His face lit up. I felt so good afterwards because he felt good and I gave him hope.

Another experience that comes to mind happened about 3 months ago. A burn survivor was brought by the fire station. He also had an arm amputation. I demonstrated how to do simple tasks that we take for granted with and without a prosthetic. He wrote me that when he went home he tied his shoes. These are big victories. I let survivors know they can do whatever they want to do. When I see that my experience has had a positive impact and gives hope to at least 1 person, that makes it all worth it—that is the gift that I’m rewarded with.

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and a consultant.

Dexter Durlin – PEG Scholarship Recipient, “Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams”

FOCUS: Associate of Arts in Pre-education

Durlin, Dexter Photo editedDexter Durlin pursued his dream of a college education only after his children completed their own degree. He applied to Mitchell Community College to add an Associate’s degree in business to his auctioneer’s license; however, students and faculty encouraged him to consider a teaching career.

Dexter was gravely injured in an electrical explosion at work shortly after he graduated from high school. His injuries were so severe that doctors had to resuscitate him three times. He has endured more than 100 surgeries over the past 30 years.

 

Mitchell Community College faculty members recognized Dexter’s natural mentoring aptitude and appointed him the student representative for the Mooresville campus. Dexter also received the James Takes Award for demonstrating incredible perseverance. His ability to connect with students led him to switch paths and pursue a teaching career.

In the future, I see myself being able to encourage students through example that anything is possible, no matter what challenges life may hand them,” he said.

Dexter’s commitment to helping others constantly impressed students and faculty. He campaigned for easier access to buildings and restrooms for handicapped students and advocated for the redesign of a street crossing for student safety. Dexter also championed a program to help provide meals for students in need.

Despite pursuing a new career, Dexter still plans to put his auctioneer experience to good use. He hopes to serve as a benefit auctioneer for the Phoenix Society and the Be The Match Foundation.

My burn injury has defined who I am,” said Dexter. “It has made me a survivor, someone who appreciates life and all the highs and lows that are part of the journey. If it weren’t for adversity we would not realize how great our successes are.”

After Dexter completes his Associate in Arts with a focus in Pre-Education, he plans to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is looking forward to his teaching career and knows it is never too late to follow your dreams.

Story contributed  with permission by AlloSource, one of the nation’s largest non-profit providers of skin, bone, and soft tissue allografts for use in surgical procedures and the world’s largest processor of cellular bone allografts.  AlloSource has pledged a 10-year gift to support Phoenix Society’s Phoenix Education Grant program for burn survivor students pursuing their post-secondary education.  AlloSource blog: http://www.allograftpossibilities.org

Chelsea Crawford, PEG Scholarship Recipient, Pursues Lifelong Dream of Being a Neonatal Nurse

Focus: Nursing


Crawford, Chelsea Photo editedBecoming a neonatal nurse has been a lifelong dream for Chelsea. She has always felt she was meant to work with children. An educational grant from the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, provided by a donation from AlloSource, will help her work towards her career goal.

When she was six years old, Chelsea spilled hot tea and burned her legs. Though at times it was difficult for her to walk, her injury inspired her to work harder and become stronger.

 

I feel as though my injury has transformed me into a better person and taught me never to take anything for granted,” she said. “My scars remind me every day that it could have been much worse and everything happens for a reason.”

Chelsea has always been passionate about working with children. She coached a recreational basketball league for third and fourth grade girls, which provided the perfect avenue for her athletic abilities and her desire to work with children.

Chelsea also served as a camp counselor for kids aged five to twelve. She excelled at bringing out each child’s individual personality and strength.

In addition to her burn injury, Chelsea also suffered two ACL tears. She endured two separate surgeries a year apart to fix the damage caused by basketball injuries. After each surgery, she completed one year of physical therapy before she could get back in the game.

She faced her recovery from her ACL surgeries with the same tenacity her recovery from a burn required. Chelsea did not let her injuries stop her from playing the sport she loved, and she challenged herself to do better.

Calvin, Chelsea’s twin brother, is also attending college this year. She is honored to have received an educational grant from the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors because it will help her family with the cost of her education.

Chelsea is attending Dominican College in Orangeburg, New York to pursue her nursing career. She knows that becoming a nurse will require dedication, but she is prepared to work hard to make it happen.

My injury is something I will remember for the rest of my life, but it has taught me more than it has taken away,” said Chelsea. “I would never want anyone else to go through what I have been through, but if they did, I would hope it would benefit them in the end. When you can learn from a difficult situation it is a whole lot easier to deal with.”

Story contributed  with permission by AlloSource, one of the nation’s largest non-profit providers of skin, bone, and soft tissue allografts for use in surgical procedures and the world’s largest processor of cellular bone allografts.  AlloSource has pledged a 10-year gift to support Phoenix Society’s Phoenix Education Grant program for burn survivor students pursuing their post-secondary education.  AlloSource blog: http://www.allograftpossibilities.org

 

Phoenix Education Grant Recipient Pursuing Her Career in Physical Therapy

Rachel Anderson

Focus: Physical Therapy

Rachel’s experience overcoming adversity inspired her to pursue a career helping others do the same.

Rachel Anderson, burn survivor and PEG Scholarship recipient is focused on helping others overcome adversity.

Rachel Anderson, burn survivor and PEG Scholarship recipient is focused on helping others overcome adversity.

She received an educational grant from the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. AlloSource pledged an annual contribution to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors over 10 years to provide education grants for students like Rachel. She is a freshman at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. When she graduates from the rigorous six-year program, she will have a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

 

This degree will allow me to help those who are going through the same thing I did,” she said. “In my future, I want help kids who need physical therapy. My life goal is to be a role model and show others that nothing can stop you.”

While in high school, Rachel excelled on and off the field. She graduated with a strong academic record and served as the captain of her high school’s lacrosse and cross-country teams.

In addition to being named Most Courageous Athlete and Most Courageous Runner, Rachel made the Athletic Director’s All-Academic Team and All-Scholastic Team.

Rachel also focused much of her energy on community service. She participated in mission trips, volunteered in soup kitchens, and did volunteer work at the Ephrata Community Hospital and Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center.

My burn injury has shaped me in many ways,” Rachel said. “I believe I am a better person today because of it. This journey has taught me so much. I also believe that I am a more caring person because of my burn injury. So many people helped care for me; I have confidence that it’s my job to do the same.”

Rachel is grateful for the support of her family and friends. She is looking forward to a career that will allow her to provide her own unique perspective to patients going through physical therapy.

Story contributed  with permission by AlloSource, one of the nation’s largest non-profit providers of skin, bone, and soft tissue allografts for use in surgical procedures and the world’s largest processor of cellular bone allografts.  AlloSource has pledged a 10-year gift to support Phoenix Society’s Phoenix Education Grant program for burn survivor students pursuing their post-secondary education.  AlloSource blog: http://www.allograftpossibilities.org

 

Firefighters and Their Families: Making Connections at WBC

As its participants can confirm, the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress (WBC) creates a community that nurtures the common bonds among burn survivors. Burn survivors, regardless of their careers or other life circumstances, share similar steps to recovery and universal experiences, such as healing from trauma, grieving, and forgiveness.

The Phoenix Society acknowledges this shared experience among survivors, but also creates space for attendees at WBC to connect with others who share characteristics that are specific to their burn injury. For example, the programming at WBC includes special topic support and discussion forums for such groups as adult burn survivors burned as children, survivors with “hidden” burns, and survivors who experienced electrical injuries.

Partnerships Make it Possible
The Society, through its partnerships with burn foundations, individual members of the fire service, and organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Foundation Burn Fund, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, has also worked to better meet the support needs of another group—burn-injured members of the fire service and their families.

FireFighters Find Forum For healing
The fire service-related sessions at this year’s WBC included a support group for burn-injured firefighters (attended by about 30 firefighters), as well as one for their spouses (attended by about 16 spouses); a discussion group for all firefighters (attended by about 75 firefighters); and an In the Line of Duty panel, featuring Fire Capt. Luis Nevarez,

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

firefighter Scott Atchison, and firefighter-spouse Amy Adams, which provided insight into the firefighter experience to all attendees. As part of a general session panel, Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Lt. Antiliano Estrella discussed advocacy efforts and fire code policy changes that stemmed from the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003. Lionel Crowther, a Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), firefighter, and his wife Joanna also shared their story in the general session. In 2007, Lionel and another firefighter, were burned while operating at a house fire that also claimed the lives of 2 fire captains. Establishing forums where firefighters and their families can share their experiences, thoughts, and express their feelings has been an important addition to WBC programming. Their impact and benefit can best be described in the words of several participants:

  • Fire Lt. Paul Machado of the Fall River, Massachusetts, Fire Department was burned in March and attended WBC for the first time this year. He wrote, “it was great to meet everyone there and experience the conference. There was an instant connection meeting other firefighter burn survivors—they understand everything that has gone through my head. I was skeptical going in. I think you have to be here to get it—firefighters reaching out to and learning from the burn community. I’m now an advocate and will be sharing this with Brothers and Sisters.”
  • Fire Lt. Joe Kalinowski of the Marshfield, Massachusetts, Fire Department was injured fighting a fire in November 2012. He commented on the bonds that exist among firefighters and, in particular, burn survivors in the fire service, saying, “The [WBC] sessions reinforced the fact that we are a family in our profession throughout North America. Regardless of the severity of our individual injuries or stage of healing, as burn survivors we are a family that is able to support each other and share what we are experiencing or have experienced; unconditionally we have resources available to us.”
  • Firefighter Atchison, also a first-time WBC attendee, who was partnered with Firefighter Crowther that tragic night in 2007, commented, “As part of the In Line of Duty panel, I gave the perspective of a firefighter who survived a tragic incident without burn injuries, as well as insight into the workplace the burn survivor firefighters would potentially be returning to. My wife, Sheri, was also able to attend with help from the Phoenix Society and she attended the spouse support groups that helped her greatly. We were truly and deeply inspired by the survivors, health care providers, and firemen we met.
    “Going into the conference there was a feeling of apprehension as to my place with burn survivors as there are no physical scars on me. When you are a fireman, you can usually identify who has been in serious situations by looking at the gear of fellow firefighters. Some of the experienced guys will wear blackened helmets or gear that displays the wear and toil of prior incidents. My peers at the conference—both firefighter and non-firefighter— wore their blackened helmets everywhere they went in the form of physical scars. These scars gave unspoken stories of survival. After speaking on the panel and in support groups sharing the tragedy we experienced in Winnipeg, we heard the stories of some others. The internal scars, coping mechanisms, and healing processes of the survivors in this group became apparent, affirming the feeling of belonging only a group like this can bring. It helped us greatly. We felt very welcomed into this family of special individuals. Thank you very much to the Phoenix Society for helping us attend and creating such an incredible forum for healing.”

Spouses Bond With others
Who understand Journey Scott’s wife, Sheri, added to his comments from her perspective, saying, “This was my first conference at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect. For me personally, I didn’t realize that I buried my feelings/stress from the event until I attended a burn injured firefighter spouse support group. This was the first exposure I ever had to feeling like I was “normal”— every spouse feeling the same feelings… I walked away from this event with a new purpose and a new light. There was a real benefit of attending the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress this year. The connections that I made felt so genuine, and I know they will carry me through the rough times ahead for me. I wouldn’t have even contemplated starting this emotional recovery journey if I hadn’t attended the firefighter spouse-specific session. Firefighters are a special breed; while everyone else is running away from danger they thrive on running into danger. It is hardwired into them and you can’t change that, so to be able to communicate our fears with other spouses is a release for us.”

Leslie Kalinowski attended WBC for the first time along with her husband, Joe. She shared that “there is strength in bonding with people with similar situations in life—people who can truly understand the journey.” She explained that after attending the conference she has a new sense of “moving on” that she hasn’t had for many months. “It’s a good feeling,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. I went under the premise of being there to support Joe. I had no idea that I would take so much out of it for myself….I feel I have new resources in my journey as a spouse of an injured firefighter.”

Jeannine Barrera, wife of retired Stockton, California, Fire Capt. Oscar Barrera initially faced her husband’s injury in 1997 without this type of support. Oscar was injured when responding to a house fire during which the second floor collapsed, killing two of his fellow firefighters. Jeannine has since become a Phoenix Society SOAR (Survivors Offering

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Assistance in Recovery) peer supporter and a regular participant in WBC and the burn-injured firefighter spouse support group. She shares that when she was finally able to speak to other wives of burn-injured firefighters, she felt as if she had “finally found a home.”

“Before that,” she says, “I felt like I was just floating through the [WBC] conference since nothing really connected to what I went through. Yes, we all had a burn survivor connection but no one quite had the experience I had. It’s unfortunate that our support group probably will grow because that means more firefighters will be injured, but I am grateful to the Phoenix Society for understanding that there is a much needed place in their conference for the burn-injured spouse support/discussion group.”

Libby Feyh and her husband, Sacramento, California, Fire Capt. Mike Feyh, who was burned in 2010 during a house explosion that was determined to be the result of arson, have been involved since the inception of the fire service-specific support groups. Libby, who now serves as co-facilitator of the spouse support group, shares her perspective about the necessity of having these specialized offerings at WBC and their involvement in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, saying: “Mike and I both went through SOAR peer supporter training a few years ago at World Burn Congress and we are proud to be part of something so important to so many. Beyond the SOAR curriculum, though, we learned that being a burn-injured firefighter, or spouse of a burn-injured firefighter, meant we had a different perspective on many things than our civilian SOAR counterparts.” For one thing, she explains, the incident surrounding a firefighter’s injury is often a media event. Additionally, the firefighter-survivor hopes for nothing more than to be able to remain in the profession that put him or her in the position of being burned.

“This creates different dynamics in the recovery process for us,” says Libby. She adds that there are many other more subtle, but nonetheless significant, distinctions that also make the experience of the firefighter-survivors and their families unique.

Libby credits the addition of dedicated fire service sessions, including the fire service-specific discussion
groups, as being very helpful. There, she says, the couple could freely express their doubts, concerns, anxieties, and triumphs and know that others in the room would understand because they were walking the same road.

“This support meant a lot to us during Mike’s recovery and all through the subsequent arson-related trial and the continued glare of the media spotlight,” explains Libby. “The fact that attendance in these groups
has essentially doubled each year since they have been offered is testament to their power and the need for them.”

FireFighter-Specific Component of WBC to Continue to Provide Support
WBC programming includes sessions that connect attendees through shared experiences and characteristics—and those addressing the needs of the fire service are now among them thanks to the efforts and participation of many. Fire Capt. Nevarez, who lost his hand and forearm after contacting a 12,000-volt power line while on a call, credits the fire service involvement in WBC with giving many firefighters “direction and the guidance to many other resources.” We hope that others in need of support will join us next year at the Phoenix Society’s 2014 World Burn Congress, October 22-25, in Anaheim, California.

Karen Badger, PhD, MSW, is an associate dean and associate professor at the College of Social Work, University of Kentucky. Phil Tammaro, FF-EMT is a professional firefighter in Billerica, Massachusetts, and 3rd district burn coordinator for the IAFF Charitable Foundation Burn Fund.

Special thanks to all those firefighters and their spouses who contributed their reflections.

Getting Through the Fire: One Couple’s Guidebook for “Surviving Survival”

By Kathy Edwards, PhD

Lionel and Joanna Crowther share their story together as keynote speakers at WBC 2013

Lionel and Joanna Crowther share their story together as keynote speakers at WBC 2013

Feb. 4, 2007, is the day that changed the lives of Lionel and Joanna Crowther forever. A firefighter with the Winnipeg, Manitoba, Fire Department, Lionel was off duty that night when he got called in for an overtime shift to fight a house fire.

What was reported to be a routine attached-garage fire, proved to be anything but. Within minutes after responding to the call, a flashover occurred. Flames engulfed the entire house, trapping several firefighters on the second floor. Somehow Lionel managed to escape by jumping out of a second-story window.

When the smoke cleared and the flames were extinguished, two fire captains had been killed and four firefighters, including Lionel, were severely injured.

Amidst the smoke and flames, Lionel saw members of his crew performing CPR to try and save their captains. Others braved the flames to gather up Lionel and carry him to the ambulance, which then rushed him to the hospital.

“It was very powerful for me to think about what these guys were willing to do to save us,” Lionel remembers.

That Fateful Knock

Joanna Crowther will never forget hearing the knock at the door that every firefighter’s wife dreads. “Even in the midst of his injury, Lionel was taking care of me,” recalls Joanna, “He asked another firefighter to call my mom so she would be the one to come to the house to tell me the news,” she explained. Another firefighter called Joanna’s brother so that she wouldn’t have to drive to the hospital by herself while her mother stayed with the couple’s two children.

Joanna had never seen a burn injury before that night and she didn’t know what to expect when she saw her husband. Lionel’s first words when he saw her caught her off guard. “We should have another baby,” he said.

“I realized, in hindsight, that they had put him on some pretty good drugs,” Joanna says with a laugh. Although she was overcome with emotion in that dark moment, Lionel’s crazy remark gave her hope.

Joanna then faced the difficult challenge of telling her young sons, ages 2 and 4, what had happened to their father. How could she answer their questions when she had so many herself?

On the morning after Lionel’s injury she told the two boys, “Daddy hurt his hands at work.” But that didn’t satisfy their curiosity; they wanted to know why he couldn’t come home.

“Daddy got to ride in an ambulance and go through red lights,” she went on to explain, “without getting a ticket like Mommy did.” The memory brings both a smile and a tear as she remembers the things she did to cope in that impossible situation.

When Lionel woke up in the hospital he had lots of questions too. He learned about his third-degree burns, and that he would need skin grafts. Doctors told him it would be a lengthy recovery, but nothing in his training in the fire service prepared him for what was to follow.

“I started my fire career 16 years ago. At that time all I saw was the glory, the gear, the life of the fire hall,” remembers Lionel. In his firefighter training there was a guidebook for almost everything. After he experienced his burn injury, Lionel and Joanne were challenged by the fact that there was no guidebook on how to recover from a life-altering burn injury.

The Hospital Meets the Fire Service

Joanna’s initial response to Lionel’s injury was shock. “We didn’t think this could happen to us,” she says. “Sometimes we wondered why it happened. How could it happen in our city, to our fire department?”

While Lionel suffered from the pain of his injuries, he also had doubts about his future. His hands and fingers were severely burned and he wondered if he would ever regain their use. He wondered what the boys would think when they saw him like this. Would they recognize him or would they be afraid of him? Would he ever be able to return to work as a firefighter?

Another unexpected dimension of the hospital stay was the media attention and the stream of visitors from the fire service. Lionel and Joanna were surrounded by other firefighters and their families while they were in the hospital. Sometimes their presence was healing and sometimes it was hard, especially for Joanna.

“At first I was hurt because I thought he needed them more than he needed me,” Joanna explains “but I could see the healing that occurred when he talked to his brothers in the fire service, and so I accepted it.”

Joanna recalls that at one point the hospital psychologist wanted to ask the firefighters to stop visiting so she could work with Lionel. But Joanna realized that the best form of support for her husband was to talk to other firefighters so she allowed the visits to continue.

Eventually the hospital set aside a separate room for the fire service visits, which were often very emotional. The meeting place at the hospital became a place of healing for other firefighters and their families.

“Our department had never experienced serious injuries and death to fellow firefighters,” says Lionel. “It was new to everyone. It would have been a tremendous help to be able to talk to others who had gone through it.”

Lionel was particularly distraught that he was still in the hospital when the funerals for Capt. Harold Lessard and Capt. Thomas Nichols were held, making it impossible for him to personally attend and pay his respects. However, Joanna not only went to the funerals but played a song, at Lionel’s request, to help him say “thank you” and honor their sacrifice. “I know it was extremely hard for her and I was very moved that she was willing to do that for me,” Lionel explains.

Among the many other emotional challenges Lionel faced was the struggle with survivor’s guilt–the guilt he felt for not being able to save a fellow firefighter. He found that he needed professional help to learn to cope with his feelings.

“I had days where all I thought about was what I had lost,” Lionel said. “I needed to refocus and think about what I still have. That took some time.”

Home From the Hospital

It was challenging for Joanna to both manage the boys at home and be with Lionel in the hospital, but fortunately she had help from family and friends. Then only 17 days after he was admitted, considerably sooner than the 2 months doctors had originally predicted, Lionel was released from the hospital. The couple was excited that Lionel was going home, but they weren’t prepared for what was to come.

“I went from having an entire team to care for my wounds and dressing changes and take care of every need, to having only Joanna to do all those things for me,” recalls Lionel.

It was challenging for Joanna to take care of not only her two boys, but also her husband. She felt she had to manage all of it by herself. “She was no longer my wife,” Lionel recalls. “she was my caregiver. It changed our relationship.”

Being back in his home environment also reminded Lionel of all the ways his life was not normal. He had always been a very independent person and now others had to do everything for him.

One of the hardest things was watching his brother-in-law play and wrestle with his sons because he couldn’t. “I love being a dad.” Lionel said. “My biggest fear was that I would lose my boys. They were my sidekicks. We went everywhere together.” His limitations only made him more determined to work hard during therapy so he could reclaim his life.

From Wife to Caregiver – Finding the Way Back

The stress took a toll on both Lionel and Joanna. He recalls his frustration one night when he was waiting for Joanna to put cream on his burns and put his pressure garments on him so he could go to bed. As he wondered what was taking her so long, he realized that she was still busy getting the boys ready for bed. It was then he decided it was time to start doing things himself.

Lionel remembers some of his initial successes, like the first time after the accident that he was able to brush his teeth on his own. After more of those little accomplishments, he started to feel like himself again. He reached the point in his recovery where the physical challenges got much easier to overcome. But as those things got easier for Lionel, it only underscored the fact that healing physically was easy when compared to recovering psychologically .

“I didn’t see it at the time, but my wife was exhausted,” Lionel recalls. “We were on two different healing paths,” Joanna explains. “We thought once the burns healed, life would go back to normal. But then we found that it didn’t. We had to refocus and start taking care of each other.”

“We didn’t want this event to define the rest of our lives,” Lionel adds. “We had to make a choice. Were we going to allow the tragedy to destroy our family, or would we learn from tragedy and move on? We had to make a choice and we chose family.”

Surviving Survival

Fortunately the Crowthers sought professional help. They saw a psychologist who specialized in helping people work through trauma. For a while things got so difficult that they thought about splitting up. But the psychologist taught them how to think about what the other person needed. He helped them understand the other person’s healing path.

One day the psychologist told Joanna, “You and Lionel survived that fire, but now you have to do something even harder, and that is surviving survival.”

Lionel and Joanna came to see that they were trying to act like everything was normal in a situation that was abnormal. They had to learn to redefine the roles in their relationship and learn to accept the “new normal” that comes from life after a burn injury.

For Lionel that meant going back to work as a firefighter. “It was exciting for me,” he says, “but I was only thinking about myself. I wasn’t thinking about Joanna.”

It was much harder for Joanna and the boys. Both parents had a hard time deciding how much to share with their young sons.

“It’s difficult to explain to 4-year-old why Daddy is going back to a job where he got hurt–a job that nearly killed him,” Joanna explains.

Returning to Work

Lionel sensed that many of the other firefighters needed him to come back to help with their emotional healing. “My brothers in the fire service helped me ease back to work by being the fifth man on the truck,” he explains. Many of them wanted to see my burns because they were wondering what they would look like if this had happened to them.”

“At first when the fire alarm sounded, I was panicking every time I went out on a call,” says Lionel. “It felt like I was going to the same fire again. I knew I wasn’t completely healed. I was afraid to let other firefighters know I was scared.”

Finding Support, Writing the Guidebook

Lionel and Joanna have found help and inspiration through the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress. Just months after his injury, Lionel traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to attend his first World Burn Congress (WBC). He thought he was there just to gather information for others back home in Winnipeg. It didn’t take long before Lionel sought out other burn-injured firefighters to ask, “What did you do to recover? What was it like when you went back to work?” After his first WBC experience, Lionel began to talk more openly about his burn injury. He started wearing t-shirts again.

“I felt that I was proud of my scars. I accepted the fact that I survived. I made it,” Lionel proclaims. WBC has become an annual event for the Canadian firefighter who has gone to 6 of the last 7 congresses.

The Crowthers listen as Alex Trevino(r), burn survivor, shares his story at WBC 2013.

The Crowthers listen as Alex Trevino(r), burn survivor, shares his story at WBC 2013.

Joanna, who participated in the 2013 Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) Firefighter Summit and attended WBC for the first time in October with her husband, realized she was not alone when she heard other spouses talk about how a burn injury affects the entire family.

Since their recovery, Lionel, with Joanna’s support, has concentrated his studies and training on firefighter survival in its many forms. He has become a master instructor with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Fire Ground Survival Program, a trainer for the Petzl EXO Escape System, and a SOAR-trained peer supporter with the Phoenix Society.

He now works as the district coordinator for the IAFF 13th District Burn Foundation.

“I brought my two passions together when I became the IAFF Burn Foundation District Coordinator,” says Lionel. In this role, he’s writing the manual he needed and didn’t have when he was burn-injured 6 years ago. “I’m working to help other firefighters and their families so they don’t have to go through what we did all alone,” Lionel explains.

Today Lionel is proud to say he is burn survivor, firefighter, husband, and dad. In 2009 Lionel fulfilled the wish he had articulated in the first moments after his burn injury. He and Joanna became parents for a third time when their daughter was born.

Lionel carries a photo of the entire family, including all three children, in his wallet and in his heart. It’s a reminder to stay motivated and work through whatever comes his way. “This is who I’m working for. My motivation to survive and thrive didn’t ’t come from a book or therapist or friends,” Lionel explains. “It came from being a parent.”

Joanna adds, “Now that we have gotten through the fire and learned to survive survival, our life has changed for the better.”

Kathy Edwards is a burn survivor and member of the national advisory committee for the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program.  She has conducted SOAR training workshops in several states and serves as an online chat moderator for The Phoenix Society.  She is a professor of communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

Surviving the Holidays After a Loss: One Family’s Strategies for Coping

By James A. Bosch MA, MFTi

It never occurred to Tara Stackpole that her world could be turned upside down any more than it had been on June 5, 1998. That was the day her husband, Capt. Timothy Stackpole, NYFD, was severely burn injured in a Brooklyn structure fire when he and two other firefighters got trapped in a collapsed building. Timothy suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over 36% of his body. One of his partners died in the fire, and the other passed away a month later.

Timothy feared he might never walk again, let alone go back to work. He and his family faced a long journey of recovery, rehabilitation and coping with the many difficult stressors that follow a traumatic burn injury.

Timothy Stackpole with his youngest son, Terence.

Timothy Stackpole with his youngest son, Terence.

For many families in this situation, a particularly challenging source of stress is the aggressive “media storm” that often follows such an incident. “The media can be intrusive to your family life though during a difficult time like this,” Tara says, “You start to feel like your life is very exposed and sometimes out of your control.” Tara is grateful to be able to say that her family’s experience turned out to be fairly manageable, due largely to the assistance of the FDNY. The department not only provided manpower to deal with the reporters who initially “camped out” at the hospital, but it also sent others to the hospital to act as security for the Stackpoles.  

Despite the daunting outlook and overwhelming new challenges, Timothy was determined to rehabilitate and get back to his regular duties at the department. Tara was at Tim’s side as often as possible, juggling hospital visits with maintaining a household and taking care of their five children.  

With hard work, faith, and determination, Timothy not only achieved his goal of going back to work, but he also earned a bachelor’s degree.  On December 6, 2000, his name finally came up on the captains list; in March 2001, Timothy returned to full duty at the fire department; and by early September, he had received his eagerly awaited promotion. Tim was thrilled. He loved his job more than ever. Life appeared to be getting back to normal for the Stackpole family.

Then on September 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened—the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Two jet airliners hit the Twin Towers. For Tara and her children, the world once again turned upside down, but much more tragically and permanently. Timothy died.

After 16 years of marriage, Tara lost the love of her life, and Kevin, Kaitlyn, Brian, Brendan, and Terence lost their dad. Their hometown was in ruins around them. One of Tara’s first thoughts amidst the shock and the dust was, “Oh, my goodness, Christmas is going to happen! How am I supposed to give my children a Christmas?” She didn’t want her children’s future to include having to tell the story about how daddy died and mommy fell apart. What follows is the story of how Tara got through the first and subsequent winters, as well as other milestones and anniversaries.

Going Into Survival Mode

The first Christmas, she went into survival mode. Her first thought was, “I need to take my kids away from all of this and just get through it.” Her family and friends swooped in and took over—and didn’t allow her to escape. Tara’s willingness to rely on others helped her make it through. She took things one step at a time. “I couldn’t even open my box of special ornaments. Every one of them had a memory attached to it. Those memories would have been a knife in my heart.” That box stayed unopened, but a couple weeks before Christmas the fire department provided a tree and new ornaments.

“My husband was a very traditional man and loved having an open door policy during holidays and on special occasions,” recalls Tara. The family decided to keep alive the spirit of celebration Tim had embodied. They also blended old and new traditions; for instance, the following Christmas they took out the old box, decorated one tree with the special ornaments and a second tree with new memories.

Creating New Rituals

Another way Tara helped her kids was to createnew rituals.  One of these was a holiday breakfast, originally intended for Tara’s young daughter and her girlfriends. The event grew to include Tara’s other children and their friends as well. The now-annual tradition continues with Tara’s adult children coming home early for the holidays specifically so they can attend the “Stackpole breakfast.” Tara recalls stepping back on one of these special mornings while all the kids were filling her house with laughter and joy and thinking, “Darn, Timothy would have loved this. It’s something he would have done!” The new traditions have brought meaning back to the holidays while at the same time honoring the memory of their loved one.

Supporting Others

Tara eventually took a step that significantly improved her coping abilities. She accepted an invitation to become a Phoenix Society SOAR volunteer and got involved in a 9/11 family advisory board. The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR program helps burn survivors and their families deal with the aftermath of a burn injury and get back to living their lives.

“When I was first asked to help as a SOAR supporter, I was hesitant because my husband was since deceased,” Tara admits. “But when I listened to what was being taught, I thought to myself, ‘I know how these patients and their families feel. I knew I could easily connect with them and help in some small way.”

Last year, Tara provided support for the family of an injured firefighter from her husband’s old department. It was the week before Christmas, and she would simply go and sit with them. “The holidays were basically a wash for them, all I could do is be honest and tell them there is no one way to get through this.” When the family remembers that first difficult holiday, they will surely also remember Tara’s loving presence and the specific, powerful support that comes only from someone who has lived through it themselves.

Tara speaks of her gratitude for a psychiatrist who visited her within a week of her husband’s death. The psychiatrist told her that grief is something you never really get over, but that it lives parallel to your life, like two strands. Sometimes those strands lay side by side. At other times, they intersect and cause a bad day or a tough moment. He shared his best advice for dealing with those hard times: honor them, give them the respect and space they need, and allow all the feelings that come up rather than fighting them or pushing them away. This advice, which Tara says has given her great peace and acceptance, is something she can now share with the families she supports.

Making Changes That Heal

After Tim’s death, Tara had to make certain changes in order to heal. One was to move closer to the ocean and to her family. Another was to stop feeling that she had to participate in every single 9/11 ceremony and event. Instead, a private Mass is offered in her backyard every year on the evening of September 11. There a core group of family and friends meet to celebrate Timothy’s life. Tara says the group changes and evolves, just like she and her children are evolving with Timothy gone. She recalls a particularly unforgettable year when the Mass was held during an especially brilliant sunset. Tara looked across the bay at downtown New York and saw the two spotlights from Ground Zero shooting up and through the colors of the evening. She became peaceful. She felt that Timothy was indeed there with them and realized that life does continue.

From left to right:  Kevin, Tara, Brian, Terence, Kaitlyn, and Brendan Stackpole.

From left to right: Kevin, Tara, Brian, Terence, Kaitlyn, and Brendan Stackpole.

For Tara, it is not just important dates that bring hard times. “Sometimes on the less significant days I miss my husband more…the private moments and private anniversaries are sometimes harder.” They are as much a part of the fabric of her life as the happy memories.

 Over the years, the most successful strategies become clear. “Do not be hard on yourself, lighten it all up. You don’t have to set out the entire Christmas Village, just take a few things out.  Share stories about your loved one.”

Tara gets great joy from hearing one of her kids say, “Dad would have loved this.” Moments like this are a reminder that we keep our loved ones with us through our stories. She encourages others to disengage from the materialistic aspects of the holidays now, to not wait for a tragedy to make it painfully clear what is really important.

 For the Stackpole family, keeping Timothy’s presence alive through stories brings comfort, and the blending of old and new traditions has helped them move forward as well. Tara also feels strongly that when you’ve lost a loved one, the best way to honor them is to live your life. “That is what we can do,” she explains “We can’t bring him back, but we can live a life he would want for us.”

Tips for Getting Through the Holidays After Losing a Loved One

No matter what holiday you celebrate and regardless of your chosen tradition or religion, it is possible to survive the death of a loved one and find meaning in the holidays again. The most important coping strategy to remember, especially during those first holidays, is to create space for difficult feelings and awkward moments.

Helpful Tips on Getting Through the Difficult Holidays and Anniversaries

Do only what feels right. There are no right or wrong ways to celebrate the holidays without your loved one. Consult with your immediate family and come up with a plan that works for you. Resist the temptation to do what you always did or to feel pressured into attending parties or occasions that feel too difficult.

Find peer support. Connect with other groups of individuals who are also grieving. Find a grief support group or reach out to an individual who you know has lost a loved one.  Find out how others cope with the holidays and you will learn you are not alone in your feelings.

Nurture, nurture, nurture. Respect your body during these difficult times and practice lots of self-care–bubble baths, walks, time alone, and distractions (such as movies). Pay attention to cues that you are overloaded and need to take care of yourself. Avoid harmful coping techniques, such as alcohol, drugs, binge eating, and not eating enough. Set limits and boundaries with others when you need space.

Additional Insights

Allow yourself to not participate in the hype. Try to disengage from the commercial aspects of the holidays. Give yourself permission to shop or not shop. Set aside the pressure to “keep up” with the hype of the season. If you have small children, ask for help from relatives and friends to help you create a holiday atmosphere for them. You can’t buy away grief.

Create ritual. Hang a stocking for your loved one, set a place for them at the Chanukah dinner, create memory alters with photos from past holidays, participate in your individual faith celebrations and remember your loved ones in services or by lighting candles for them.

 Helpful Pointers for Getting Through As a Family

Everyone in the family may grieve differently. Give each other plenty of space, and support each other when asked. Know that difficulty and conflict can arise in families as each family member may have different ideas on how to celebrate. The optimal way to deal with this is to openly talk with each other about the expectations and the roles people want to play.  Here are some holiday strategies:

1.      Share stories around the table about your deceased loved one.

2.      Look at old photo albums together.

3.      Observe a moment of silence together to honor your loved one.

4.      Place an empty chair where your loved one normally sat and place a flower or candle there.

5.      Decide which traditions you want to keep and which you would like to change.

Something experts seem to agree on, which is also emphasized in Tara’s story, is that the most important thing you can do is talk about your loved one. At functions, if you do not speak his or her name, often no one else will either. Say your loved one’s name, include them in stories of past holidays, and allow space for the tears that may come with these memories.

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and is a consultant.