Branded: Notes On A Mark That'll Last Forever

"A burn injury is an accident, the patients hardly have the time to prepare themselves for such an event. This creates a lot of pressure and psychological strain. Looking at the situation from the patient's point of view, once the burn injury has healed, leaving the hospital doesn't signify that the patient is ready to return to the life they led before. The road to recovery is long and the patient needs additional psychological care."


The above is an excerpt from an interview with CN Hubei, my doctor, a man I've come to admire as much as I admire my dad, gave earlier this year. The translation is mine.


~~~

Nervously clasping my hands, I looked around the main hall of the hospital, trying my best to let the noisy children nearby drown out my worries. I wasn't alone but surrounded by a few friends who had kindly offered their support. One friend, YF, was sitting right beside me but even his presence didn't stop my heart from pounding. In my heart I knew I'd made the right decision but I silently continued to freak out. Despite the agony it took to accomplish the simple task, I kept getting up and sitting down until the doctor arrived to help me check into the hospital.


~~~


I petulantly ignored the searing pain in my palms and wondered yet again how my dad had managed to walk on crutches for more years than I could remember without suffering the same pain day in day out. Despite the silicon padding I just couldn't get used to the sensations of walking on crutches and I didn't want to either. I felt silly. Useless. Helpless. I focused on the floor and I continued to follow the doctor down the corridor of the ward. The clean hospital smell repeatedly assaulted my nostrils and my stomach turned and twisted in protest. "Stop it," I told myself. "You ought to be used to it by now." Each step felt like agony, my legs didn't have the energy required to continue walking but I stubbornly continued onward. I was surrounded by burn patients in various stages of their road to recovery and their family members and suddenly the inevitable felt a lot more real than it had when I gingerly climbed out of YF's car some half an hour ago.


~~~


"I'll do the surgery, just like I promised you, I'll see you tomorrow." I swallowed the tears that were threatening to fall and nodded, then I remembered that Dr Z couldn't see me through the phone. A quiet "okay" followed by an even quieter "thanks" made it past my lips and I tried to keep my hand from shaking as I handed Dr L his mobile phone. He smiled warmly and told me to come with him, he had a surprise for me. More walking, I thought desolately but nodded quietly. YF looked questioningly and placed his hand on my back to lend a little support. I wondered whether he was worried, YF had never seen me this quiet but I didn't show my true emotions, instead I muttered something stupid, turned on my heel and followed Dr L all the way back to where we'd just come from.


~~~


"My surgical kit and the knife for the skin graft." Dr Z laughed, showing off the two items in his hand. To keep them sterile they were wrapped up and I couldn't see anything but I looked away anyway. "I don't want to know." I was adamant and Dr Z laughed a little harder but briefly placed his hand on my arm to let me know that I couldn't fool him. I tightened my hold on the blanket, wondering whether I'd manage to rip a hole into it prior the surgery. I'd been tugging on ever since the nurse had come in to give me an IV in preparation for the surgery as well as do an allergy test. Dr Z asked if I wanted to say a little prayer before but with YF and my other friends around I simply lowered my head and fell silent for a moment.


~~~


"It's time." Dr Z said, motioning to the nurse, dressed in green, who'd just wheeled a trolley into my room. "Your lift is here." I rolled my eyes at my doctor for making such a silly joke and slowly climbed out of the bed, careful not to move too fast. I had neither eaten nor had I had anything to drink in more than twelve hours and my nerves were getting to me. The second I stood upright my legs gave away and I swayed dangerously, feeling more than just a little light-headed. YF and Dr Z both reacted quickly and caught me before gravity got the better of me. I shivered and let them half-walk / half-carry me to the trolley. Once I was horizontal I felt much better but more nervous than ever. "Scaredy cat!" I told myself and took YF's hand. With the blanket gone I needed something else to hold on to. I squeezed and he squeezed back. Sometimes words just aren't enough.


~~~


Unsure of where I was or what was going on I tried to figure out how to get the nurse to stop calling my name. Quiet! I thought but my mouth didn't form the words. Shut up! Nothing. I scrunched up my face in annoyance, or at least I did so in my mind. Eventually it registered that the nurse just wanted me to confirm my name. I grunted and finally my mouth complied with my brain. I drifted off again, happy that the nurse had finally stopped calling my name. A searing pain in my right heel pulled me back into semi-conciousness and I repeatedly complained about feeling uncomfortable. It took every last ounce of energy to tell the nurse that it wasn't my burn injury that was painful but just my damn heel. After the nurse massaged my heel, the pain stopped as miraculously as it had started and then the shivers kicked it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so cold and tried to complain about it but my teeth were too busy clattering. Nevertheless one of the nurses noticed and tugged the thick blanket tighter around me to keep me warm. I drifted off again...


Sitting upright a week after the surgery.

It's been more than a month since the surgery and my release from hospital. I've recovered well. I no longer have an ghastly looking open wound the size of my hand on my thigh. Instead I have two scars the size of my hand on my thigh. One is the burn injury, the other the reminder of what it took to close up this nasty wound. Actually I have three scars on my thigh. I have another one on the back of my thigh, also a burn from the accident, but that heeled on it's own.

The day I found out that I would need a skin graft I felt so utterly helpless and lost. I'm actually struggling for words to describe the feeling. For a moment I actually felt like giving up and throwing it all away. After a month of lying in bed day in day out, unable to move, go to work or fend for myself, I simply didn't have the energy to continue fighting. I was exhausted, physically and mentally, the strain of it all being too much to bear. There is just so much bad news a person can bear. Every single dressing change was pure agony, I dreaded every trip to the hospital. The pain never stopped... While I could hardly bear the physical pain, it was the mental pain that really gave me the rest. It only took a second to burn myself but the anguish that followed, well I still flinch when I think about it now. It only took three seconds for Dr Z to tell me that I would need a skin graft if I wanted to get back on my feet but it shocked me right to my core.

I only burned 3% of skin on my body and 1% of the burned area ended up needing a skin graft to aid healing. Compared to the burns I've seen on the other patients in the hospital I burned a relatively small part of my body but that doesn't mean that it was less painful or less serious. It's hard to compare a burn injury to other injuries for it leaves visible and invisible scars which people around you might find hard to comprehend. I'm not saying that they don't care but even now that I've recovered relatively well I still have quite a long road ahead of me. I have to wear a pair of stretch tights to keep the scaring to a minimum and after that, well I'm not sure. Dr Z assured me the red colour will fade and the skin will turn white. It won't be the same as before but it'll be less obvious. What scares me is that it'll always be there, a reminder I'll carry around with me forever.

I have an irrational fear of boiling hot water. I can handle it, but I'm super careful. I'm terrified that being too careful might lead to another accident and that makes me even more terrified, it's a devil's circle really. That's a scar that'll take I don't know how long to heal. The thought of a hot water bottle, electric or not, induces nightmares, cold shivers and whatnot, even when I'm not sleeping. When friends joke that they'll get me one it takes me an extraordinary amount of self-restraint not to verbally lash out at them for their lack of sensibility.

I mightn't have burned my hands or my face and even though the scar on my thigh is easily covered up it's depressing to look at and it doesn't matter how happy I feel, whenever I see it I feel moody, sullen and find myself in low spirits. I lost a lot of weight over the last year and I hope to lose some more but I'm not the perfect slender girl that some men hope to date. The accident, the pain I suffered until I had my surgery and the subsequent scar have put a huge dent into how I act and react to certain things. I used to be really flirty, now I think twice because I'm afraid of what will happen if he actually likes me and one day ends up seeing the scar on my thigh. I'm no longer the person I was, I feel a lot less confident about myself than I did before. It doesn't matter how pretty a dress I am wearing, the confidence boost wanes as soon as I glance at my thigh. I'm pretty darn good at acting but sometimes it gets tiring.

Despite the ungodly hour, Dr Z put a smile on my face.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Dr Z, a routine post-surgery check-up plus a change of dressing. That day I was in particularly low spirits, insistently complaining about how no boy will ever like me, how they'll all run for the hills and how I'll end up a sad old spinster. That morning I didn't manage to hold back the tears and even though I didn't want to show Dr Z my weak side, I just couldn't help it. "If he really loves you, he won't mind the scar on your thigh, trust me. If he minds, he isn't worth it." Though he didn't say it out loud, Dr Z was referring to YF whom he met on the day of the surgery, and whom I was actually complaining about. Nothing will fool this man. I can't even fake a smile, he'll see right through it. He mightn't actually say the words but he has a way of picking me up right off the ground like no-one else can.

Burns are a nasty business and I was unfortunate enough to experience first hand just how nasty they are / can get, but throughout it all I was also fortunate enough to meet some extraordinary people, whom I hope to keep in my life for a long, long time. They make it much easier to get used to the new me.