So what does it mean?

“The body has memory.  The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.  The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic.”  Claudia Rankine, poetess

Finding Dr. von Heimburg’s document about my burn history was a stunner.  For months after, I racked my feeble brain, wondering how that document could have appeared in a basement box I’d long since forgotten. Just how did a critical document I had never seen before GET in that box?  Even more incredible was its likely fate — it was headed for the garbage had my god-sent friend Gloria not mysteriously saved it from extinction.

To my my way thinking, it was a miracle document.

After paying it due homage and digesting the very fact of its existence, I began to wonder what exactly it meant. First, in terms of my very survival as a pediatric burn patient. Second, in the memories it filled in and the gaps it left.

I turned to Dr. Robert Lehman, a noted St. Louis surgeon.  “Bob, can you help me interpret this report?” I asked, as I looked at its menu of debridement, dressing changes and skin grafting. “Oh, this was serious,” he replied with a knowing tilt of the head.  It was a classic Dr. Bob gesture.

The most medieval of the menu is, of course, debridement, a surgical procedure using forceps, scissors and other implements (of torture, I might add) to remove dead (or what they perhaps lovingly refer to as ‘necrotic’) tissue.  Skins grafts are then transplanted to the debrided site.  In reflex, I rubbed my thighs thinking about that — my thighs and rear end are my donor skin sites and still carry the precision scars of the scalpel, which cut perfect rectangles of skin from them.  Thinking about it made me queasy.

I asked then what was possibly the more interesting question, “Reading this, how do you assess my survival rate at the time?”

Of course, in the interim, I’d looked up the various measures of burn survival, like the R-Baux score which measures mortality in adult burn victims or the P-Baux score which measures mortality in pediatric cases.  These various measures include some combination of the percent of body surface burned + the patient’s age and often including a smoke inhalation component as well as sepsis status. It’s all sort of compellingly macabre and all, according to Dr. Bob, irrelevant for me.  In his pleasantly dead-pan manner he said, “I think, that at the time you were burned, the thinking was burn plus age.  Looks like there’s all sorts of analysis being done today that would never have applied back then.  I should say that the new analyses weren’t done then.”  Hmmm.

This is understandable.  Not only am I old (!) but at the time I was burned, 911 was not even in existence.  It was something of a cowboy world for burn care.  There were no burn units, no Baux scores, no longitudinal studies.  I didn’t even get to the hospital by ambulance.  By all accounts, my parents drove me to the hospital, hours after the accident.  That was standard operating procedure in the day.

Taking Dr. von Heimburg’s report, my survival score was 12% total body surface area burned (TBSA) + age of 2 = 14% mortality.  To me, those were fighting chances.  And then, there was always contradictory information out there — “In the 1960’s, the likelihood of survival was only 50% in children with burns covering 35 – 44% of the total body surface area (TBSA), and few patients with burn sizes exceeding 45% TBSA survived.  The average length of stay for the acutely burned child was 103 days,” writes Dr. David Herndon of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

It made me think about my length of stay — somewhere past the 60 day mark — as well as my other doctor, Dr. Thomas Lynn. There were no records available from him.  He died young, a stroke or heart attack according to his daughter and my high school friend Julie. Within two years of my accident, he was gone and I was referred to plastic surgeon Harold Hoops.  By the time I developed interest in finding records, Dr. Lynn’s clinic was long since closed, the records destroyed.

So here were the gaps again.  Confirmation on nine procedures.  But the story I remember put the count at about 20.  Dr. von Heimburg listed only one skin graft.  Looking at my leg, I know there were others. I see the cuts and feel the ridges It had to be the handiwork of Dr. Lynn, whose records are gone forever.  “The body has memory,” Claudia Rankine says. I know it to be true.

 

 

Playing with Fire

Welcome to Ox-Bow

Welcome to Ox-Bow

The oven felt like it was 900 degrees but Sue let me know that the two fire “holes” on either side of the main oven were at least 2300 degrees.

We were at a glass blowing workshop at Ox-Bow, the Art Institute of Chicago‘s summer program in Michigan, and at first I thought that literally ‘playing with fire’ would not be my speed.  But much to our group of seven’s surprise, we began working the glass and hot ovens within about an hour of our instructor’s tutorial in the glass studio and were making glass.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the trade – jacks, tweezers, shears, diamond shears, wet newspaper and the blow-torch

For three days we worked almost eight-hours a day, learning the ancient art of glass blowing and skills like jacking, blocking, shearing, blowing and keeping the body relaxed as part of the craft of glass-making.  These were no small things.  Working with fire, high heat and the time pressure of cooling glass, one wrong move meant injury, burns and more significantly for our sort-of-competitive group, a broken piece.

Admittedly, Day 1 consisted mostly of making glass blobs and later, some interesting paperweights – all in the name of learning how to use the “pipes”, gather the liquified glass from the oven and begin the process of working with the material.  It also set the foundation for working in teams.  Glass work is typically not a solitary toil — a lead artist tends to direct a team, who assists with blowing the glass and other assorted tasks such as reducing the intense heat from the glass with a properly placed paddle.

When Day 2 dawned, our group felt confident despite a few minor surface burns the previous day.  I was particularly impressed with myself from Day 1 – few jitters and no burns.  Going in to the class, I worried briefly about how I’d handle the fires and my proximity to them.  Over the years, I experienced a few, mostly minor, reactions to fire ranging spontaneous heat rash to persistent sensitivity to hot and cold weather.  When I burned my leg, whatever remaining skin was left was removed through a surgical process called debridement.  New skin grafts were placed over the remaining muscle and bone, resulting in scar tissue and a fair amount of nerve damage.  It never troubled me in any meaningful way and I’ve had full and complete use of my leg all my life.  I’ve always felt that as a burn survivor, I am a lucky one.  Even with the glass blowing class, I never felt it was a challenge to overcome fire in any way — I’ve long been over that — but simply an exciting skill to learn.

And then Day 2 brought  the wadded newspaper tool.   The ” tool” consists of six to eight sheets of newspaper, literally wadded together, folded over, drenched in water and held in your hand.

The wadded newspaper tool shows the singes from use on the glass

The wadded newspaper tool shows the singes from use on the glass

As part of the glass-making process, an artisan takes a “gather” of molten glass from the main oven and begins a process called marvering on a metal table to elongate and flatten the glass.  Moving to a specially designed bench, the artisan then smooths and/or blows the glass out, using one of a variety of tools — the jack, a wooden cup or the newspaper — depending on the goals for the project.  In the day’s demonstration our instructors Jonas and MC showed up the form and approach to using the wadded newspaper.  It all seemed like a textbook approach.  I felt ready.

But when I sat in the chair, using the newspaper to guide the glass, I felt the heat sear through my hand.  My reaction was visceral.  I felt the heat not only through my hand but come up through my right foot like phantom heat.  “I can’t use the newspaper,” I blurted.  “I can’t.”  Calmly, MC the instructor responded.  “No problem.  There are always other ways to do the same thing with glass.  Let’s give it a heat in the oven and marver it again.”  I put the newspaper down and the sensation went away.  I looked at my team mates Susan and Ann and they appeared nonplussed.  Inside, my heart was racing and I felt pangs of heat shooting through my body.  I took a deep breath, walked the pipe to the oven and gave the glass a heat.

It passed.

By Day 3, I decided to pick up the newspaper tool again and used it without incident, creating two bowls, a yellow glass and a big ole, colorful  paperweight.  This was an awesome experience.  Playing with fire wasn’t so much about fire but about understanding an ancient craft, working with friends and moving behind my limits.  I am not afraid of fire in any way.  It simply ignites the work in so many dimensions.  Thank you Louise Silberman for creating this opportunity and for your support of artists and artisans at Ox-Bow.

Tattoos – Those Chosen and Those Not

 

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tattoos have always been a source of curiosity and conflict for me.  Not so much the little cross or anchor simply and strategically placed covertly on an ankle or elsewhere; more so the multi-colored tattoos covering major body surface areas.  Why would anyone consciously and mostly irrevocably deface themselves?  It seems I am naive about the burgeoning tattoo, or shall I say ‘body art’ business, but I stand firm in my confusion about and quasi-revulsion of it.

When I saw the tattooed trucker sitting across from me at the communal hotel breakfast at the Burlington, Wisconsin Hampton Inn this morning, I wondered again about tattoos.  Colorful and large, they dominated his forearms as far as the eye could see, jutting out from his short-sleeved shirt.

He struck up a conversation about this and that and I asked him, “Tell me about your tattoos.”  He seemed not-at-all-off put and happily explained that each of his tattoos signifies a life event such that he is now a living canvas.  “Every time I look at any of these tattoos, I remember a special event from my life.”   He explained that his tattoos were not born of rebellion but of careful thought and planning.  He also chose piercings in the same way, and I saw the studs on his ears and eye brows.  I did not ask to see the ones he said were on his nipples because I believed him when he said that they were there.

“Couldn’t you just keep a scrap-book of life events,” I asked.  He laughed.  “I prefer to be the living scrap-book of my events,” he said cheerily.

When he got the first of his tattoos he was in the Army.  Regulations required that he wear long sleeves or face penalties.  When the tattoo was in fact discovered, the Army docked him two pay grades among other disciplinary measures.  “They were that important to me,” he said.

“Are you thinking of getting a tattoo?” he asked.

“No, not really.  I have something like a tattoo.”  I paused.  “I had a serious burn when I was young and when I look at it, I think about how I didn’t want it.”  We got up to refresh coffee and I pointed out my leg injury.  He assessed it with a slow and careful gaze.  “I worked in the hospital unit in the army.  I can understand what you went through.”

He told me there were any number of reasons the people he knew got tattoos, from rebellion to personal statements, from feeling special to receiving attention.

“You know what’s funny?” I asked.  “When you have an injury not of your own making, people avert their eyes when they realize you see them staring at you.  I guess when you custom-create your own spectacle and you see people staring at you, you feel special.”

“Do you know what the current tat trend is now?” he asked.

I had no idea.

“They call it branding.  They take a fire-hot poker and create customized burn scars.”

I must have looked absolutely horrified at the thought, because it did horrify me.  Who in their right mind would purposely scar themselves?  Would they have any idea how painful the burned area would be?  Would it matter?

“It’s all along the same lines as a tattoo,” he continued.  “People like it because it might have a personal significance and because they create the scar themselves.”

He looked at my burned leg.

“I know,” he said.  “I don’t really get it either.”

 

Who’s To Say?

Who’s to say why anyone starts or stops writing.  In my case, I’ve taken a hiatus from writing for a couple of months.  Work transition, family responsibilities, summer — it would be easy to pick any excuse but they would all be excuses.  I watched and waited for a sign to return to writing…and yet every sign that floated by wasn’t good enough or interesting enough.  I just needed a break.  Sometimes you get to close to the storyline and break can help bring perspective from the navel gazing.

Today’s sign seemed simply said, “Finish the work you started.”  I met haphazardly with a colleague who told a story of being selected from the host of attorneys at the firm.  “{He} appeared in the doorway and told me I was the only one who could handle the depositions that needed to be taken,” she told me.  Those depositions were of children, some as young as 3, burned by disposable lighter accidents.  “The worst one was the child who burned her twin and that twin died.  These parents left the lighters out – they were not good parents.”

The look of frozen shock must have been apparent on my face.  At least I thought it was but she continued on.

When you experience something so strongly, so personally, it’s almost as if you re-live it when you hear of someone else’s misfortune.

And so I’m back.  Hoping to finish the project with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

By the way, I did tell my colleague about my leg.  “I’m so sorry,” she said.  “Can I see it?”  It’s refreshing when someone is so forthright.  “I”m okay,” I said.  “Of course you can.”

Finding Maggie and So Much More

Maggie Ready for Work

When I called Dian Page at the Green Bay Press Gazette a couple of weeks ago, my hope was to connect the memories in my mind.  For so many years, I have had pictures of my little self at the time of my burn accident but I’ve never been sure if these are real or “created” memories.  It can be-devil anyone to wonder about these things — did this really happen to me or have I made it up?  In my case, I need only look at the scars on my leg to know it did indeed happen.  But how and why do I remember (or think I remember) certain pieces of the experience.

That was my motivation for searching for Maggie, the Nurse.  I had no idea what I would find.  I was ready for anything.

Except perhaps for the fact that I found Maggie and a great deal more.

I didn’t set out to find someone’s Nana, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s sister, someone’s friend.  And yet all these people found me and there was a quite a story to tell.

Maggie Glaser Conard was a pediatrics nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay for some 30 years until her retirement in 1987.  She did not recover from the massive stroke she suffered in 1988 and died at just 60.  “I just wanted to let tell you that your vivid description of her (Maggie) brought her back to life for me.  She was exactly as you described in everyday life; not just in work.  She was crazy about her grandchildren and she made each and every one of us feel the way you felt.  I thank you for this.  You have made my night, my week, my year,” Maggie’s granddaughter Jessi Guenther wrote me from Seattle, Washington.  Something amazing was happening.

Maggie Conard Memory CardIt continued when I spoke to Maggie’s sister, Shirley Warpinski, a retired nurse who still lives in Green Bay.  “Maggie had a gift.  Everybody loved her.  She was happy-go-lucky and always optimistic.  She was just the sweetest person,” Shirley said, telling me that Maggie was valedictorian of her high school in Luxemburg.  “Whenever she had free time at the hospital, she would go playroom and be with the children.  And oh, did she love to read.  She read to the children all time.”

There is was.  During my three-month hospitalization, I learned to read and at 3 years old, became something of a freaky genius for that day and age.  It came back to me now that Maggie had been the one by my bedside, reading to me, teaching me the letters, encouraging me on during those long days when I was confined to a crib, secured with netting so I couldn’t get out and harm my recovery.  Whether it was 15 surgeries or 20, I knew my treatment was painful and grueling.

“Yes, I remember those nets.  We had to cover the cribs for safety reasons,” shared retired Green Bay nurse Carol Mangin, who worked with Maggie for a “long, long time” at St. Vincent’s.  We talked about my third-degree burns.  “Burns are so painful.  You were lucky yours were third-degree because the nerve endings died and it would not have been as painful as first- or second-degree burns.”

“My mother cared for people for the better part of her working life,” her son Ted Conard told me.  “Caring was in our gene pool I guess since I went into that field and others in our family did too.”  After 35 years of working at Green Bay’s Curative Workshop, Ted recently retired and still lives in Green Bay.  After my discharge from St. Vincent’s, I attended therapy at the Curative Workshop for many long months, regaining flexibility in both my legs after months of inactivity and re-learning how to walk.  “You probably worked with Gloria, a therapist there,” Ted said.  “She was there forever.”

Suddenly, my memories were expanding, connecting.  They were real.

“My mom Maggie had crazy love for children.  She would come home and talk about her patients especially the ones she became close to and I’m sure she talked about you.  She would have grown really attached and her heart would have been breaking for what you were going through,” Maggie’s daughter Julie said.  “She would have thought of you like you were one of her children.”

“Maggie would be so pleased to know that you are pursuing this,” retired Green Bay nurse Mary Thomas explained when I spoke with her.  “As nurses, you touch people’s lives and then they go their own ways.  To know that you remembered, that she touched you and it meant something to you, well, that means something to all of us.”

My sister Susie, a nurse herself and professor of nursing at UWGB elaborated on that thought.  “Nurses do so many things but the human caring is what makes the difference.  This nurse cared for you, she transformed a difficult experience for a child.  In her caring for you, you were no longer alone in that room.”

Once again, what I set out to find wasn’t at all what was there.  Instead I found something deeper and richer.  Yes, I found Maggie and the memories the beautiful memories she gave me.  But now I understand the life she brought to so many people — her patients, her colleagues and friends, and her family.

Her granddaughter Jessi told me about her brother’s reaction to this unfolding story and she included it on her blog as well:

“The first thing that came to mind…is how loved ones have a way of letting us know that they’re still there, they never left to begin with.  What an awesome gift”  ~Nathan Kofler

There’s also a comment from “Carrie” following Jessi’s blog post that makes a great deal of sense to me:

“…..We have named those, God-incidences because its too perfect just to be a coincidence…..” Carrie

These “God-incidences”/coincidences have brought me this far and at every turn of this journey I’ve found something immensely beautiful.  For anyone who has gone through a fire of any kind, be it physical or psychological, we know we would never want to go through it again.  And still there are great lessons and great love to be found.  “It meant the world to me and my family to know that Maggie was loved by so many people,” her daughter Julie told me.  “What a legacy she has left.”

A legacy indeed.

Thank you Maggie Conard.  You have left behind an incredible legacy of healing and helping for so many of us.  I am grateful to be a part of it.

What are the Chances?

In my main ‘day job’ I work with lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  Today as I was yukking it up with Craig-The-Lawyer, he mentioned a key meeting tomorrow and asked me to ‘light a candle’.  Without skipping a beat, I quickly retorted, “Well, I’ll do my best but I have a little problem with fire.”

“What is that,” he asked innocently?

Muttering an internal “dang it” for blathering on so quickly with that comment, I pulled out some of my stock burned-leg phraseology, “Oh, when I was a kid I climbed up a stove and burned the crap out of my leg.”

“Did you?” he said and again I added too much more content.

“I did.  I was trying to get a cookie or a cracker from the cabinet above the stove and well, it didn’t go so well.  My shoe got stuck on the burner and it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re kidding?” he half-queried.  I realized I might now be stuck in one of those lawyer-socratic-phrase interchanges where I would soon head down the proverbial “slippery slope” of this repartee.  I’d offered too much.  I was conversational toast.

“You know, the same thing happened to me,” he said.

“You’re kidding!” I countered, bemused and intrigued at the same time.”

“Yeah, I must have been four or five and I wanted to get some of the cookies we kept in the cabinet above the stove.  But keep in mind that I was kind of short fellow then so I took the phone book with me, climbed up the stove and put the book over the burner.  Wouldn’t you know it but I accidentally turned the burner on high.  I got the cookie, but the book got torched and I’ll tell you, the whole thing scarred me for life.”

“It was a gas stove, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, now taking over the role of questioner.

“Matter of fact, it wasn’t.  It was an electric stove.  My wife was talking about getting a gas stove the other day and I told her that based on my experience with the electric stove, we could not get a gas one.  That would be certain death for me,” he laughed.

“Wait.  Are you telling me you had the exact same experience I did but you didn’t get burned?”  I couldn’t believe anyone would have a similar story, an almost verbatim same experience.

“What I’m telling you is that I seem to be a whole lot smarter than you,” he teased.  “I brought along that phone book and it worked a whole lot better than your strategy did.”

And so it was true.  My mind raced.  How many families kept cookies in the cabinet above their electric stove?  How many little kids had exactly the same precocious crazy idea as Craig-The-Lawyer and I did?  How many more people did I know who would share some sort of similar death-defying childhood feat?

In my earlier blog post, Cabinets Above Stoves (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/cabinets-above-stoves/), I wrote about my strange sensitivity for placing goodies above the cooker.  It doesn’t seem so strange anymore.  In fact, I can attest to countless conversations with my relatives and childhood friends who, as adults, will tell me, “You know, I have to tell you.  I’ve told my kids about your accident and it’s how we talk about being careful in the kitchen.”  At first, it used to take me aback to hear these things, as if burning-my-leg-by-climbing-up-a-stove was my lasting legacy.  Over time however I found it almost reassuring — that if I was to be the poster child for stove-related accident prevention, I could live with being a something of an off-beat hero.

By the way, the wry title of this post “What are the Chances?” is obviously a rhetorical question.  Years ago, I might have thought that running into people like Craig-the-Lawyer who have similar stories to share was an anomaly.  Now, I know that it is just the path I’m on these days.  Lots of serendipity.  No coincidences.

Perspective From the Newspapers

The first roll of microfilm threaded through the library’s reader as if it were on a mission to be viewed.  I smiled, hopeful that with a new set of film covering five months of the 1965 Green Bay Press-Gazette from there would be some clue about my childhood accident — was there even a fire call?

I’d already viewed a year of Green Bay Press-Gazettes from 1964 and found absolutely nothing.  This didn’t completely discourage me since my mother had made entries in my baby book about the accident’s dates as both November 1964 and 1965.  Other than those baby book entries, the stories I’d heard and the whispers behind cupped hands, the only empirical verification I had of my burned leg accident was the leg itself.

“Annie, why are you looking for this stuff?” my friend Mr. Baum asked me in his endearing but quizzical manner.  “Are you not quite right in the head?” he chided.   As a reporter, Mr. Baum asked questions for a living for more than 40 years.  They were questions worth posing.

Even though I felt confident that the stories I’d heard about burning my leg on a stove at age two were probably right-on-the-money accurate, I couldn’t help but look for some verification outside of the pool of relatives who served as my sources.

“There are some things a person just wants to know.”  It wasn’t the most scientific of answers but it seemed to quiet Mr. Baum, at least for the time being.

The microfilm reader hummed as I paged through images of the newspaper from 40 some years ago.  My mother’s entries in my baby book said that in August I put my hand to the stove and burned it, a spooky foreshadowing of the larger injury to come.  But the August newspapers didn’t carry a fire call and it was more likely than not that this burn was treated at home or the doctor’s office.

As the November dates approached, I felt tension.  Would it matter one way or the other if there was a news item or fire call on Tuesday, November 23rd?  I knew it wouldn’t but kept paging through the microfilm just to check.  “Clearing and cold tonight.  Low near 23 degrees,” was the weather report for that day.

An annual solar eclipse occurred November 23, 1965. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partially obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth.   Depending on which literature you read, “eclipses are dramatic tools the universe uses to create change (http://www.astrologyzone.com/eclipses/).  A solar eclipse is always a new moon and in astrology tends to mark new beginnings,” explains the astrologer Susan Miller.

Solar eclipse of November 23, 1965
SE1965Nov23A.png

Any news of my accident was eclipsed as well.  There was no mention.  Not on the November 23rd, not on the 24th and not on the 25th, which was Thanksgiving Day.

For a moment I felt sad and stared ahead at the microfilm reader, only half-reading the Thanksgiving Day editorial.  “On Thanksgiving Day, Americans need to give thanks for weathering national perils, and for the victories we have achieved over disease, hunger and the inhumanity of war.  America has come a long way since that landing day in 1629…..Be not therefore anxious for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient onto the day is the evil thereof.”  If you took the 1965 date off the editorial, it would have been just as relevant today.

In my case, the morrow indeed took care of itself.  I’ve been blessed with good health, good work and good friends.  My accident shaped me but never defined me.  I couldn’t say the same for my parents, gone since the 1990s.  From everything I learned, the accident changed them and their relationship for the rest of their days.  I was oblivious to it until I started searching around for clues in the last couple years.

I thought of what their Thanksgiving Day 1965 would have been like, with a child in the hospital and no assurance she would live.    I couldn’t imagine it.  I didn’t want to imagine it.  When I started searching microfilm, I was looking for my own perspective.  But the newspapers found a way to give me theirs.

It didn’t seem to matter much that I hadn’t found a news item or fire call in the newspapers.  In fact, now I was kind of glad none appeared.  My heart ached for my parents.