The Before

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Burn Survivor

I had a love/hate relationship with my rental house. I loved that my landlord was okay with whatever cosmetic changes I wanted to make/hated that he was too cheap to fix or replace anything –especially in my kitchen. The sink leaked and dripped, the fluorescent light took half an hour to warm up and switch on, and the stove was a dinosaur.

I had a crap job delivering a tabloid newspaper all over the northern half of Alabama. Once a month, I drove two hundred miles to pick up the latest issue from the printer and then drove another thousand miles over the next three to five days delivering them to every outhouse, hen house and… I mean, to every gas station and home-owned grocery store around.

I would typically pack a cooler full of diet soda and sandwich-making supplies for the road because I never really knew how long I’d be in the car on any given day. This particular month was different. My routine was completely off for reasons that aren’t particularly relevant to this story, so I’ll just leave it at that.

In what I suppose was a feeble attempt at self-comfort, I went grocery shopping and picked up a bulk bag of breaded popcorn chicken. Easy to eat while driving, I thought. I’ll fry it all up and take it with me instead of sandwiches this time. So I poured some oil into a skillet, turned on the stove eye and dropped in some chicken pieces. Then I walked to the back of the house to get my drink from the bedroom– that’s it. That’s all the time it took. I came back down the hallway and saw it ignite. I was calm (or so I thought). I had a kitchen fire extinguisher right beside the stove. I picked it up, tried to pull out the pin, and my hand slipped (not so calm, I guess) and hit the handle of the skillet.

I saw it go flying and tried to jump away but it made contact with my right calf. I kicked at it (reflex? panic?) but not before the oil ran down my right leg, pooled around my right foot, and splattered the top of my left foot. I’m not even going to try to describe the pain, but it was immediately nauseating.

I guess we humans operate on a fairly primal level in a situation like that. I don’t remember a lot of my thought process after that. I remember thinking I should call 9-1-1, but my phone was in the bedroom at the end of the hall. The skillet landed in the hall so the hall was on fire. No good. It was after eleven at night and I was wearing a bra, a tank top, and a pair of panties. Go next door, I thought. In my underwear?! Do or die, literally. So I tried to move toward the front door, and I fell. More pain. And of course I fell… the floor and what was left of my feet were both covered in oil. I grabbed hold of a drawer handle and pulled myself up then managed a few steps, all the way into my living room before I fell again. It was easier to get up the second time and out the door I went, down the front steps, into the wet grass, to my neighbor’s front door. I knocked and then beat on the door. I screamed his name over and over. But he never heard me.

Do something else, I thought. The house is burning down. Go get the cats out. So I went back. I ran up the steps expecting to see fire everywhere once I opened the front door. I took a few steps through the living room thinking I’d find the cats and get to my cell phone and I fell (yes, again). This is when my survival instinct started to wane. I was trying so hard and I couldn’t manage to stay up on my feet.

I’m going to die, I thought. This is it. The house is going to burn down and I’m going to die and it’s going to be days before my parents even know I’m gone because no one else is here and no one will know who to call… There I was, in a heap on the floor, accepting that I was done.

I’m not a deeply religious person. In fact, I sometimes envy those who are. I suspect a deeply religious person would have had peace in that moment, knowing she was on her way to meet her creator, that the trials of this life were over, etc. Me? All of a sudden, I was PISSED. Oh hell no, I thought. I’m not going out like this. And I got up.

I stepped into the hallway to find the skillet upside down on the rug. The fire had been smothered out. I made it to the bedroom, dialed 9-1-1, and had a conversation with the dispatcher that was more about being mortified at the idea of the firemen seeing me in my underwear than it was about my injuries. She was trying to have me get out of the house and I was looking for clothes to put on. As a compromise, she suggested I drape a towel over my lap, sit on the front steps and wait for the fire truck.

I heard the siren in the distance just about the time I looked down and saw the damage — more nausea. And now that I was still, and safe, a lot more pain. The siren was getting louder so I adjusted the towel across my lap, still trying to hide my underwear.

After that, there are just flashes of memories of the next two weeks. A ride to the ER followed by an army of nurses, then a single surgeon who calmly told me they weren’t equipped to care for me there so I was to take another ambulance ride to the Burn Unit at UAB. The surgeries, rehab and recovery that followed are a whole other story. They’re the AFTER, and can wait for another day…

(Note: Read Part 2 here.)

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