Turning a Tragic Experience Into an Opportunity for Change

Andrea Gardner remembers that stormy evening in August 2005. She remembers telling her then-boyfriend that she was ending their relationship. She remembers asking him to slow down as he drove on the rain-soaked streets.

She remembers being trapped in the car after it skidded, rear-ended a telephone pole, and erupted in flames. And she remembers the passerby who, she says, saved her life.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Andrea Gardner at World Burn Congress 2010

Andrea says she was trapped for 18 minutes while rescuers waited for the Jaws of Life to arrive so they could finally free her from the tangled wreckage. In the interim, according to news reports, numerous employees from a nearby manufacturing plant battled the blaze with fire extinguishers. Not long after the impact a man driving past the scene noticed someone thrashing about inside the burning wreckage and stopped to help.

Although he couldn’t free her, he did manage to get his arms around the girl who was coincidentally the same age as his own daughter. He did his best to shield Andrea from the burning car seat until the equipment that could extricate her arrived, despite burning his own arms in the process.

THE PROCESS OF RECOVERY

Andrea was transported from the scene of the accident in St. Joseph, Missouri, to the burn unit at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC). Fifty percent of her body had sustained burns—her entire back, her head, and her arms. Another 45 percent eventually was used for grafting, leaving little of her body unaffected. She lost her left arm to amputation. Her remaining wrist doesn’t bend down due to the effects of heterotopic ossification, or HO. The fingers on her right hand sustained amputations as well. However, Andrea is grateful that other than her burns, she sustained few injuries — two small bruises to her brain and a ruptured spleen.What Andrea remembers most vividly, perhaps, is the discovery she had lost both of her outer ears. “When I looked in the mirror for the first time, I balled and cried because I had no ears,” she says. “Being a young lady not being able to wear earrings,” she explains, “that really hurt me bad.”

Andrea made that discovery months after her accident while a patient at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Cincinnati. Andrea had been transferred to Shriners 2 months after her injury, while still in a medically induced coma. Despite the fact that she was 5 months outside of their standard cutoff age of 18, Shriners Hospital for Children – Cincinnati admitted Andrea.

Andrea, who is “very, very grateful” for the care she has received, spent the next several months at Shriners and has returned numerous times for subsequent surgeries — among them skin grafts, a neck release, laser work, and, most recently, to have the fingers on her remaining hand lengthened. While that surgery will likely improve her function, the 24-year-old seems most excited that it will allow her once again to wear rings, something Andrea describes as a “wonderful thing.” Her joy is equally evident when she explains that, thanks to a set of prosthetic ears, she is now able to wear earrings as well.

A SECOND CHANCE

Andrea says she’s not glad she was burned in the accident 6 years ago, but she does think it has made her a better person. She says that before the accident she was “young and dumb,” a rebellious teenager who had unfortunately gotten involved in drugs, alcohol, and an unhealthy relationship.

Her change wasn’t immediate and Andrea admits it wasn’t always easy. After her discharge from Shriners and her return to Missouri, Andrea also returned to the dangerous habits of her former lifestyle. She describes those initial months as “rough,” largely due to “hanging out with the wrong people.” But one evening in April 2007 as Andrea sat on a sofa at a party, she wondered, “What am I doing?” She had been given a second chance at life. She had survived an incredible injury and yet she was risking it all. “What kind of an example am I setting for my peers and the people around me?” she thought. It was then that she decided, “I’m done. I quit.” In that moment, Andrea decided to turn her life around. She started studying the bible again, which she had rejected during her teen years, and dedicated much of her life to sharing her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. That faith, says Andrea, has gotten her through the challenges of recovery.

A DETERMINATION TO HEAL

Despite her tendency to rebel, Andrea says she always knew that when it came to her physical healing, being compliant was crucial. So regardless of the challenges she faced, Andrea was dedicated to doing the required stretches, wearing her full-body compression garment, face mask, and airplane splints.

“You’ve got to do it,” she urges other survivors. To remind herself of how far she’s come, Andrea looks at a video that her family took early in her stay at Shriners. Andrea says it inspires her never to give up and to keep moving forward. She also hopes that other survivors might find inspiration from seeing how far she’s come.

A NEED TO SAY THANKS

After Andrea’s initial discharge from the hospital, she was determined to seek out the man who had helped her on that August night. She and her family found Tom Farrell at the auto repair shop where he works. She greeted him with the “biggest hug ever.” He confessed to Andrea that, because of the severity of her injuries, he had questioned whether she would indeed be grateful that she had been saved.

“It was a long process to get to that point of being glad that I lived,” admits Andrea, but by the time she met him she had her answer. She had come to the realization that outward appearance is only skin deep. “A true person goes beyond the skin,” she explains. “It’s in the heart.” Andrea had also come to the realization during her recovery that she had to survive, not only for herself, but for her two younger brothers who would have been devastated to lose their big sister. She believes Tom made that possible. “I am so grateful for that man,” she says.

THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS

Andrea recalls she often prayed that she would run into her ex-boyfriend, who was able to get out of the car without injury, so that she could tell him that she held no grudge about the events that transpired that evening in 2005.
She was able to do that when a chance meeting occurred. Andrea feels that forgiveness was key to her healing and says that holding a grudge would have hurt no one but herself. She encourages other burn survivors in similar circumstances to consider the power of forgiveness in assisting their own recovery. “The best thing you can do,” she says, “is work toward forgiving the other person.”

COMMON GROUND

Last fall Andrea welcomed the chance to participate in the program at the 2010 World Burn Congress in Galveston when invited by the staff at Cincinnati Shriners Hospital. She credits WBC with helping her tremendously. “In the process of growing and being able to mature past the burn,” says Andrea, “it was really a good experience to be present at WBC.”

Andrea says that it was “really cool” to be able to talk to other people with similar experiences and found it especially fascinating to meet and interact with burn survivors from all over the world and discover how much they have in common. Andrea also appreciated the opportunity just to “be with other people” in a relaxed atmosphere where she didn’t have to feel “insecure” about her burns.

She describes her experience with the Young Adult program as “very encouraging,” especially the informal group chat sessions. Andrea found it valuable to hear other young burn survivors discuss the challenges they were dealing with in life, while fellow group members shared solutions they had discovered when faced with similar situations.

While it was nice to be able to hear other survivors’ stories and learn how they cope, says Andrea, she also hopes that other participants were able to benefit from hearing hers. “I do pretty well handling my burns” she says, so she hopes she also had something positive to offer others.

REASSURING OTHERS

Andrea, who describes herself as a “people person,” would like strangers, especially children, to feel comfortable talking to her and asking questions about her injury. “I just wish people were more informed,” she says, “and not so afraid to just ask.”

She also urges people not feel sorry for her. While she appreciates their sympathy, she believes that many people have burdens in life. A burn survivor’s are just “more visible.” She suggests that people “look past what they see.”

“Everybody has a story. Everybody has trials that they go through in life,” she points out.

GIVING BACK, GETTING UP

Andrea looks ahead to her future with excitement. “I’m young,” she says, “I’ve got so much life ahead of me.”

Andrea, who now lives in Shawnee, Kansas, is concentrating on continuing her healing process and getting through future surgeries. However, the 24-year-old “loves to be on the go, not just sitting around” so she spends much of her free time volunteering, both as a Jehovah’s Witness and visiting patients in the burn unit at KUMC, where she started her journey of healing nearly 6 years ago.

“I love being in the ministry. I love being able to give back to my community and that’s what I’m trying to do now,” she explains. Andrea would like the opportunity to share her experience with the school kids in her hometown. “I feel like I can use my story to help people,” she says. “I want young people to know that when you’re young, you make some really bad decisions, but you can make better ones.”

She’s also enthusiastic about a hobby she’s recently embraced — snowboarding. Andrea had heard people talk about the sport and gave it some thought.”I bet if I just try, I could do that too,” said the young woman who appears to welcome a challenge. She admits that mastering snowboarding has taken some work, but, as she has throughout her recovery, Andrea Gardner has persevered.

“After a fall,” she explains, “the resilient person gets up — with help, if necessary.”

To those who’ve helped her, the very resilient Andrea Gardner says, “Thank you.”

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