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.

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