In August of 2010, Domenic Vinacco was your average teenager, watching online video stunts with his teenage friends. The group decided to reenact an online video that included a Super Soaker water gun filled with gasoline, a match, and enough fumes to cause Domenic’s shirt to ignite. In an instant, his world—and that of the Vinacco family—changed.
Suffering burns to almost 50 percent of his body from head to toe, the 14-year-old spent the next 2 months in the hospital undergoing the challenging physical recovery that accompanies a burn injury.
But the family’s journey had just begun. Still reeling from the accident, the Vinaccos struggled to cope with the ongoing emotional toll.
“I could see after everything happened that everyone just kind of shut down and didn’t talk about anything, especially Domenic,” recalls older Rachael, 19.
Seeking the support and resources to deal with the many unanswered questions and struggles that face a young burn survivor and family after hospital discharge, the Vinaccos attended a Burn Awareness Walk in Boston in June 2011. It was there that they crossed paths with Phil Tammaro, a fellow burn survivor and firefighter, who also serves as a Phoenix Society advocate.
“I started talking with him about the information in Burn Support News, about the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress, what it was, and if he thought we would benefit from it,” says Domenic’s mother, Barbara. After Phil’s pitch, the Vinaccos were sold.
In September, Domenic, Barbara, and his father, Richard, attended the World Burn Congress in Cincinnati, Ohio. With the goal of meeting survivors and families that had been in similar circumstances, the Vinaccos almost immediately found what they had been looking for.
“From the minute we got off the plane, till we got back on, it was so well run, so well organized,” says Barbara. “Every minute we were there, we felt
surrounded by people who had been through similar experiences.
“Knowing there were other people out there, I just think it was helpful to know and see how they have moved on, and how they got through certain things, and learning about additional resources for burn survivors and their families. Every second we were absorbing information, and making contacts with other families. We also met a family that had a son Domenic’s age, and got connected with them, along with others each day.
One resource was tailored specifically to Domenic’s need for peer support. UBelong, a program within the Congress, is designed to positively inspire and support children and teens, ages 7 to 17, using a mix of fun, social skill building, and peer group interactions.
Initially apprehensive about the thought of interacting with other burn survivors his age, including sharing his story, Domenic “dragged his feet” going into it. “On a scale of 0-10, he said 2 or 3 after the first day,” recalls Barbara. “The next day, it was a 10.”
“I didn’t know anyone at first, but I started to make some friends so it got a lot better,” explains Domenic, who turned 16 in April. “I found it was a lot easier talking to people who had been through a similar experience.”
The almost immediate growth that he made socially was noticeable by more than just the family. A UBelong staff member made sure to seek out Barbara and Richard at the event to alert them of their son’s progress.
Domenic believes it was the peer support and learning to communicate his story to others that made his experience so successful. The lessons learned, he said, have been effective in everyday life.
“When people were sharing their stories, I found that it gave me tips on how to respond when people ask you what happened, and how to respond without getting nervous or anything like that,” says Domenic, who has used the those tips when returning to school or going out in public. “It’s easier to explain what happened now that I went there.”
Although she was unable to attend the Congress, Rachael, who was away at college, agrees that the experience helped her brother. But she has also noticed
the impact on the family as a whole.
“After learning these tools and resources, communication is definitely what they learned, including being able to talk to everyone and family,” she says. “And Domenic’s more open—there’s more of a confidence.”
In 2012, Barbara Vinacco was asked to speak before a group in Providence, Rhode Island, in support of the Phoenix Society. The city will host World Burn Congress in 2013 and the Vinacco family is actively involved volunteering their time planning for the event.
“I just talked about the compassion, the camaraderie, and how we felt that the whole time we were at the Congress we were surrounded by people who have been through similar circumstances,” says Barbara, “and how that has helped us move forward.”