When you’re a burn survivor, you have a signature that the world sees. Mine I’ve had since July 2012 – when a serious bonfire accident covered 6 percent of my body in third-degree burns. It’s along my right side. Up my neck. Across my chest. Down my arm.
My accident landed me in the Regions Hospital Burn Center, where my body recovered wildly well. Regions is one of only about 70 verified burn centers across the country and its burn surgeons are highly skilled, having developed treatment therapies that have become worldwide standards. But looking back, what made the biggest impact on my recovery was how my nurses and the other staff at Regions treated me even when they weren’t providing direct medical care.
Most of Athena’s burns were full thickness all the way down to the muscle. In order to heal, she needed skin grafts that, although faded, are still visible today.
My nurses were so patient. So caring. So in tune with what I needed as a human being. The mental and emotional aspect of surviving trauma is actually a lot harder to overcome than the physical aspect. You feel so alone. So different. You feel like you’ve got nobody to talk to. And the Regions Burn Center got that. The support they gave me is precisely the reason I went to nursing school and have come back to work as a critical care nurse in the Burn Center myself. I want to help burn survivors know that they’re still valuable and important – because that’s what was done for me when I was here and it truly makes a lifelong impact.
To me, Regions Hospital means home.
Many of the nurses Athena works with today helped care for her during her time as a patient.
When I became a Regions Burn Center nurse in late 2017, I started working alongside some of the very nurses who’d made such a strong impact on my own recovery. At first I wondered how I’d possibly provide as great of patient care as I’d received from them, but quickly it felt like I’d just finally arrived home.
That’s because at the Burn Center, it’s all about human connection. Each survivor's journey through the experience is different. But across the board, it’s having a positive support system in place that makes or breaks your recovery – so at the Burn Center we start providing that support from day 1.
Every day I take time to sit down and connect with my patients on a human level. While recovering from a burn injury shows you that the human body can adapt, endure and do so much more than you ever thought, overcoming emotional trauma and your mind can become a big setback to healing. That’s why I do everything in my power to make sure every one of my patients gets to where they need to be both mentally and physically to know they’re valued. To know they’re important. To know they’re still the same person they always were – and that their injuries don’t define them. I make every moment matter because I know firsthand when you’re in your darkest times, you just need somebody there to listen and be at your side.
Another crucial part of Athena's support system: her wife. “We were engaged at the time of my accident and she was my rock. I was so thankful that the Burn Center allowed her to pull up a cot alongside my hospital bed and stay with me every single day.”
Humor is a powerful thing.
“Emotional trauma gives you this overwhelming anxiety that makes you ruminate on pain and negative thoughts. And if I can just introduce a little humor to my patients, they can often completely forget about whatever they were ruminating on.”
When my patients ask me about my own journey, I often tell them, “I got a little too fired up for the weekend burning stuff.” Or when they sheepishly ask to use the bedpan, I’ll say with a wink, “Oh don’t worry – I'm getting paid for this. It's not enough, but that’s OK.”
Those jokes might take you aback. They might even make you uncomfortable. But that’s because the general population focuses on burn survivors’ injuries. They stop at the disfigurement or loss of function that a burn survivor’s injuries caused – and they forget a really, really important thing: we're still human.
When your nurse jokes with you, it does wonders for your recovery because the comedy helps you feel human again. And that’s really the very thing that you need most as a burn patient. My own nurses’ use of humor has stuck with me, and now I too make sure to talk with all of my patients about the fun stuff. Using comedy puts them at ease and gets them to remember there's a life outside the hospital room – and that helps improve everything from pain control to mental function and coping with anxiety.
I’ve discovered my personal purpose is to inspire others.
Before my accident, I was an avid runner. I’d mostly run shorter distances, like a few 5Ks a week. But after my injury I thought, “Man, if I survived that, I can do way more than I ever thought I was capable of." So I decided to train for a whole marathon – and two years after my accident, I ran one.
Now I work every day to instill that same kind of drive and positivity in my patients. So much of recovery is a mental mind game and when you first see your skin grafts, you feel like Frankenstein. At least I sure did – I felt like my injury had turned me into a completely different, unlovable person. But your support network, which starts with the Regions Burn Center, helps you see that’s not true at all. My skin grafts haven’t changed who I am. They are literally just my skin – and if anything, they’re a reminder that I can endure more than I ever thought.
“My patients mean the world to me. They give me hope and inspire me to give back every single day that I'm here. Each day I feel accomplished because I know the effort I put in is going to change somebody's life.”
Yes, your injury is life-changing. But in actuality, it gives you so much potential because you get a second chance at life. “Do something purposeful with this second chance” is what I tell all of my patients. If I can do it and function and make the most of every day, you can too – and I’m here to support you every step of the way. I’ll give you my email address. I’ll give you my phone number. And I’ll always pull up a chair and even just sit in silence with you when that’s what you need. I’ll do whatever it takes to get you where you need to be. You will never be alone.