Lisa Donovan used to call herself the old woman who lived in a shoe.
Between working, going to school nights to finish her undergrad, all the while serving as a mother to six young children, the challenge is understood by most in the motherhood industry. Now armed with a Masters degree in Human Development and Family Support, and a laundry list of other accomplishments and responsibilities, Lisa has demonstrated an ability to thrive after a burn injury.
Even more remarkable? She isn’t even supposed to be alive.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we share the story of Lisa, a burn survivor, mother and healthcare professional at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Boston, that has used her burn injury and the Phoenix Society to help herself and others thrive again.
WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND OF YOUR BURN INJURY?
Lisa: I was injured in 1968 when I was 18 months old. My brother and I were in the backseat of the car, and there was a wiring defect. The car caught on fire while my parents were inside the house.
After taking us to the hospital, the prognosis wasn’t good. I coded at least five times, and they didn’t expect me to live.
The burns affected my face and hands. But with babies, the face is the biggest part of the body, and that was one of the toughest parts for my parents. My brother was 10 months older, and his injuries were not as severe.
THE LONG-TERM PROGNOSIS OFFERED BY THE DOCTORS WAS UNSETTLING, TO SAY THE LEAST?
Lisa: The doctors were insistent with my parents that I wasn’t going to make it. And even if I did, they told my parents that because my brain had lost so much oxygen, I was going to be mentally impaired and would never be able to walk and talk – and they suggested that I should be institutionalized if I survived.
Due to the severity of the burns on my hands, the doctors had also suggested the amputation of both hands because they wouldn’t be useful, but my father would not let them do this.
THERE WAS A SWEET IRONY TO THAT DIRE OUTLOOK, THOUGH …
Lisa: Yes! I regained the use of both of my hands, and I was walking and talking in plenty of time for school. As for being brain damaged? I graduated college with the highest honors, summa cum laude!
HOW DID YOUR INJURIES AFFECT YOUR CHILDHOOD?
Lisa: I would not even realize my scars were there because my parents were really great at treating us no different from any other kid. There was no school re-entry program, there was nothing like that.
At one point, there was a new kid in our first-grade class, and the principal called my mom and said he was having a hard time because I was scaring him; he asked my mom if she could keep me home. My mom responded, ‘If he’s having a hard time, maybe he should stay home for a few days.’
Another time, I was coloring at my desk, and a couple kids came up and said ‘Lisa, take off your mask, it isn’t Halloween.’ And I thought, ‘He’s right, it’s not Halloween, I don’t know what he’s talking about.’ So I smiled but it didn’t occur to me that it was about my scars. A couple of years later, once it occurred to me, it made me upset.
I’ve always been very outgoing, which probably helped.
HOW HAVE YOU USED YOUR EXPERIENCE WHEN RAISING YOUR CHILDREN?
Being a mother means everything to me. My kids are my world. I love them all, unconditionally, and being a survivor what I try to get across is to treat other people how you want to be treated. If there’s someone in your class that’s different, be understanding, especially if it’s something they can’t help. My burn injury is something I had no control over, so to tease someone over something they didn’t sign up for only adds insult to injury. I try to stress to my kids to be accepting of everybody: physical disabilities, race, gender, everything.
I think I have ‘street cred’, and it helps me with my work at Shriners Hospital for Children, too. You can talk to a child about having a donor site, but what if you’ve never had one? Once they know I’ve had a donor site, I think that helps.
WHEN YOUR 16 YEAR OLD SON WAS BORN, IT WAS LIFE CHANGING ON MANY LEVELS. CAN YOU EXPLAIN?
Until my son was born, it had never occurred to me to work at Shriners, even though I had been a patient. He was born with a very rare skin blistering disorder, missing a big chunk of skin on his abdomen, and he was in the NICU and they thought he was going to die. The whole time he was in the hospital, the dermatologists were bringing me different diagnosis; and as a parent your mind just races. I thought, ‘How is my child going to live with this?’
With my background, I didn’t want him to be teased. All I wanted to do was to talk to someone who had a child with this condition, so I knew he was going to be OK; as a parent I wanted to know if he was going to have friends, and be married and be fine.
I was finishing my undergrad at Northeastern University, and I had an epiphany: what could I do that would be meaningful, with my experience and with my degree, and help other people? And that’s when I thought of Shriners, and being a person for parents who have a child with an injury, and answer those same questions that I had.
So I investigated and I looked into it, and I got a position at Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston in the child life department. I completed my masters in Human Development and Family Support and became a Certified Child Life specialist.
Because of my parents serving as role models, treating us the same, I tried to normalize everything for him. I hope I had some influence on how well he’s turned out.
HOW DO PATIENTS OR FAMILIES REACT TO YOUR OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?
Just yesterday, I went into give some parents information and the father was said, “I see you’re a burn survivor” — I liked he used that word and not the ‘v-word.’
I was shocked that he noticed because I don’t think of my injury at all. And he was very impressed that I was working at the hospital and commented that must be wonderful for the kids and families.
YOU’RE ALSO A PHOENIX SOCIETY SOAR COORDINATOR! HOW WERE YOU INTRODUCED TO THE PHOENIX SOCIETY’S SOAR PROGRAM?
I never heard of the Phoenix Society until 2000 when I was looking for resources for one of my patients, I found it to be a fantastic resource and believe that it would have been a fantastic resource for my family had we known about it.
I was sent to the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress in 2004 to get some information on the SOAR program. I started learning more about the program, met a lot of great people, and learned a tremendous amount. I also knew the value in it, so I went about creating the program here.
DECADES AFTER YOUR OWN ACCIDENT, YOUR MOM IS NOW A SOAR PEER SUPPORTER. HOW HAS SHE BENEFITED FROM THE PHOENIX SOCIETY PROGRAMS?
I was able to get my mother to be one of my SOAR peer supporters, and she was also able to attend last year’s World Burn Congress (in Cincinnati) and she never had that support available, and she loved it!
Even when you talk to her and ask about the accident, it’s still very raw, because she didn’t really have a safe place to talk about it. It has helped to her healing. It’s a catalyst to her healing and I was happy she was able to experience it.
MANY PEOPLE MIGHT ASK ‘HOW DO YOU DO IT?’ DO YOU HAVE ADVICE FOR THOSE TRYING TO MEET THEIR OWN CHALLENGES?
I think first of all you want to be a positive role model. Giving back to your community, like Phoenix Society pays back to the burn community, is important. Being honest with your kids, and letting them know that life isn’t always easy and there’s going to be challenges, and you just have to face them and devise a plan. My big thing is: What are your goals? If you have goals, you’re going to go somewhere. If you don’t, you’re just treading water.