It was in a supermarket café. I’d just got a cup of tea, put it down on the table, and her pram was sort of alongside. It was that one day where she leant out; she’d never done it before, she’d never reached for anything out of her pram. The teapot was really colourful and she just poured it onto herself.
I actually saw it happen, I saw her pull the mug, so I knew it was happening, it was like slow motion. I automatically got her clothing off her. She was screaming. I was just trying to get the clothing off her and then I ran her into the loos and put her under a cold tap. The sink in the loos wasn’t big enough to get her under, but the staff were brilliant, they said “Bring her in here, we’ve got the big kitchen sink with a hose attachment”. They put that on cold and we just washed all of her clothes down and, whilst that was going on, someone had called the paramedic. As soon as the paramedic arrived she called the air ambulance.
I didn’t really get to see the burn until the air ambulance came. The doctors got out and assessed her and they decided to go by road to the hospital. It was when we were in the ambulance and they were doing the observations on her that I realised I’d handed her responsibility over to someone else. That’s when I really realised what had happened and saw it for the first time, it was red and blistered. It then became personal rather than just a thing I was dealing with.
I was still trying to go through the motions of doing everything I should do: trying to contact my husband, and my Mum, trying to tell people where I was and make sure everyone knew what was going on. I obviously wasn’t going to go into work either – this all happened before work, in the morning. I was working reduced hours at the time because she’d only just gone to nursery for the first time and I’d only just gone back to work.
She’d calmed down by then. I can’t remember whether they’d given her anything, but she’d stopped screaming. She’d started to smile at the doctors and I thought “She’s ok”, she’s alright, and everyone was saying to me, including the doctors, “Oh we see this all the time”, so it kind of made it more ‘normal’ I suppose. I was like “oh well, ok, they know this isn’t unusual.” And that made me feel a bit better.
Not very long before the accident she had a fall on the kitchen floor. I took her to hospital because I wanted her checked out because she’d banged her head on the tiles. That accident prompted social workers to get in touch. So, as soon as the burn happened, my overriding anxiety was to do with whether she was going to get taken away from me because it was another injury. I understood that social workers have got to do a job and they’ve got to look at child protection, but the threat of having social workers ask me about the circumstances of an accident… You’re already dealing with a massive trauma and you’re already trying to look after your child. You’re worried about them and I think you feel bad enough already… I was so anxious about losing her, either one way or the other. I already blamed myself, I didn’t want anyone else to blame me from an authoritarian point of view saying my child was in danger. So, when I realised that there wasn’t going to be that extra hassle, I was very relieved and it meant I could concentrate my efforts on looking after her and being with her, but I was very scared that she was going to get, in some way, taken away from me, either because she was going to die of shock or injury or someone was going to come along and say “You’re an unfit mother”.
She had to have two general anaesthetics. She had the first one where they did dermabrasion and cleaned up the burn site, and that was on the day it happened. It was only probably later that night when she came out of surgery that I completely fell apart. Seeing her wrapped up like a mummy and having to hand her over for a general anaesthetic and not knowing what was going to happen to her was awful - she was seven months old. The staff were brilliant and used to it but she’d never really been out of my care since she was born so I found that quite difficult. I was already really scared that she was going to die of shock. Just go. That was awful. It was like “I can’t do anything”. I felt really helpless. And, I was still waiting for my husband because he’d been in a meeting without his mobile phone turned on.
It was nice, in a way, to hand over responsibility of her to medical professionals. I think having complete trust in the staff helped me to cope with it all. I always felt very involved in whatever they were deciding for her. Obviously, she couldn’t make decisions for herself but they were very good at explaining, and allowing me to take time to think about stuff. They didn’t really give me a choice about the surgery but that’s probably because it had to be done.
When it happened, I was straightaway, probably quite vainly, thinking of scarring for her, because she was a girl, and also thinking about how it was going to affect her. Hoping that it wasn’t going to affect her. Hoping it was a surface burn and that we’d caught it in time and we’d managed to get it cold enough. But it also made me realise that she was so fragile. I obviously blamed myself for letting it happen. That still goes through my mind, that’s the enduring thing, the blame.
When she was discharged from hospital the outreach nurse came to our house every other day to change her dressings. Then, about two weeks later, she came in and said “I’m going to refer you back, this isn’t healing” and that was a pretty hard thing to take because not only did I have to worry about her chest scar but obviously the donor site that they were going to use as well. A few days later, on my birthday, she had the skin graft done.
I felt a bit pressured by the doctors at that time – that was the only time I felt it was completely out of my control – we had an outpatient appointment and three doctors walked in and said “So what we’re going to do in the surgery is…” without sort of explaining why the surgery was even needed. Obviously, they’ve got a job to do and they know what they’re doing but for me it was like “Hang on a minute, you’re about to take my daughter away for three hours and take skin off her leg and put it on her chest and she’s seven months old”.
Also, not long before it had happened, I’d been discharged following treatment for postnatal depression and I think this accident caused the anxiety to come back. Even now, I don’t like boiling water, I don’t like seeing boiling water, and I don’t like seeing steam. I’m quite anxious and I’m over-protective of her. I’m less carefree and I’m constantly saying to her “Be careful!” I suppose someone that hadn’t known what had happened to her would think, “Crikey that mother’s really stressed!” I now think about the worst that could happen the whole time whenever she does anything.
Looking back, the most difficult thing to cope with was seeing her injuries. It started off looking awful and then got even worse when she had the skin graft. It has been gradually getting better but I think it’s just that realisation that she’s going to live with that for the rest of her life and it’s in an area of her body where it will show as a girl. She can’t wear polo neck tops her whole life, so there will parts where it’s going to show and I just don’t want other people to comment on it. I suppose I want to protect her from being asked questions about it.
I would hate for her to ever be bullied because of her appearance. I hope that she can always just say, “Yeah, I got burnt when I was a baby” and hope that that shuts anyone up that starts asking her. But I remember when she was probably only about six months the other side of surgery and it was still bright red and she had all the stitch marks still on her and she had the donor site redness and I took her swimming to a baby and toddler session and luckily, you know, she was too young to understand but I was very conscious of a lot of children pointing at her and asking their parents “Why is that little girl’s chest like that?” or “What’s that on her?” and I was just like thinking “God I hope that she grows at the same time as that’s fading and she doesn’t become aware of that”.
I try and normalise it for myself as well because I never want to be around her treating it like it was something bad. Obviously, it was a bad thing that happened but we can’t change it so we’ll just get on with it. And I’m happy that she talks about it. It looks a bit like a butterfly so we call it her butterfly and we’ll say “Oh you’re really lucky because not many little girls have got a butterfly on their chest” but I think overall I spoil her now. She’s an only child so I might have done it anyway but I’m more protective of her and it’s probably one of the reasons why we’ve paid for her to go into private school, to protect her from kids being bullies. I don’t spoil her in terms of she gets what she wants but we do a lot of ‘good behaviour, great reward’ so I probably spend far more money on her in terms of taking her riding, taking her climbing, doing things with her as mum and daughter than I might if this had never happened… and she probably knows it! I can justify to myself that yes, I spend a lot of money on her and do a lot of stuff with her, but look what she’s been through.
Looking at her scars does still bother me and she still itches it. She gets blood spots occasionally and I say to her “Is that itching”. It’s really vigorous scratching she does of it but then she won’t touch it for a few days. So, I don’t know whether it’s just scar tissue stretching and new skin, but at the moment it’s itchy. Her scar is very soft now but, I suppose it depends which light you see her in, sometimes it’s more obvious and sometimes it’s not; it also depends on the temperature. When she’s cold, her skin changes colour and the scar doesn’t. I become very aware of it sometimes, and its size, compared to how big she is at the moment. I know it’s not going to grow so it will become less of a problem I suppose, or less of an obvious feature, but it’s where it is and how it looks… it’s kind of got that marbled, slightly shiny appearance.
Looking back, looking after a very small baby who was at the stage of reaching and scratching, and trying to crawl, and all of this at the same time was hard. If someone had said to me at the time it happened, “These are all the things you’re going to have to go through in the next two years” I’d have fallen apart completely but because everything was new and novel and you went from one thing to another and it wasn’t as bad that way.
I did receive support from the Burns Unit Psychologist. I probably had three or four sessions with her over about six months. She helped me to cope with the blame and the ‘what if’s,’ and just generally accepting it and moving on rather than trying to turn the clock back and change anything. I think it was just helpful to talk to somebody that wasn’t a family member that had maybe seen it before. she would say “Lots of people feel that way” or “You’ll see it differently in a couple of years” from her experience of talking to other mum’s, and she kind of gave me some ideas of how other people have got through it.
I think that it was important to access support because I ended up having to explain what had happened to a lot of people. Whether it was to my work or her nursery, I was always explaining it and it always was because of something I’d done. That does kind of drive it home to you that it was one thing that you did that changed everything and you can’t turn the clock back. Talking to a psychologist just allowed me to take ME out of it, and talk more about the injury and how we were going to deal with it. Having some support and finding out that you’re not alone and everyone in that unit has had some form of burned child was important to me. When I looked around that unit, I realised that she was really lucky because it didn’t hit her face, her eyes, or a joint. It might sound awful to say she was lucky because she was burnt but relatively there’s a lot worse that could have happened.
I think it’s important for parents to talk about their feelings because initially you feel like “God, I must be the worst mother in the world” and then you find that it happens all of the time. I remember a young female doctor saying to me, “Don’t worry, we see this all the time – this is what we do.” Straightaway, that made me feel so much better because I didn’t realise how often it happened. I’d never met anyone who’d had a burnt child until I had a burnt child, and then suddenly a couple of people at work said “Oh, yeah, when so and so was young, they rolled over on a hot water pipe by the bath and …” you know, and you find out suddenly that there are all these people that have been through a similar experience.
One of the things that has been hard to manage is slow scar progression. You always want things to happen NOW but having someone put a timeframe on it for me of, like, three years meant that I thought I’m not going to worry. She’s turned four now so it’s three and a half years since the burn and now it’s got to a point where the pace of change is really slow. Another thing with the scar that really irritated me was six months after the burn, just after she’d turned one. She had photographs taken at nursery. She was wearing something where the top of her scar showed and, when I got the photographs back, the photographer had airbrushed the scar out. I went apoplectic! I was like, “How dare you change the appearance of my child without asking me?!” “Oh well we thought she’d look better.” I said, “What do you mean better? How on earth are people going to live with things if you airbrush them at the age of one”, and I said, “Put it back in, I’m not buying them!” what if she looked at it in the future and asked, “Where’s my scar?” “Oh we took it out because it looked ugly!”…you can’t do that! That was when I really realised myself that this is part of her and we can’t hide it. You also see people’s prejudices.
She hasn’t got to a point of dislike or hate or anything about it and that’s what we’re really conscious of trying to keep. It’s just normal, it’s her. I’ve always said if she gets to a point where she starts asking questions or starts seeing her burn as something bad then we’d look at ways of supporting her, but actually she talks about it very freely, she touches it… if people ask her about it, she says “That’s where I burnt myself when I was a baby” and sometimes she’ll say “That’s where Mummy burnt me when I was a baby” other times she’ll say “That’s where I poured tea on myself when I was a baby” so she understands the mechanics of how it happened, and I think she also knows it was my cup of tea, but she doesn’t see it as anything to be worried or shy about at the moment. We talk about it.
There are a couple of other things I’m very conscious of. One being sure it’s protected from the sun. I always say to her, I’ve got to put loads of sun cream on your chest because… and she goes “Yes Mummy, because I got burnt when I was a baby”. When you’re discharged from hospital and the outpatient department you also wonder about how easy it might be to access certain treatments. What if suddenly there’s a miracle cream for treating scars. How would I get told that?
These days, my daughter will fling herself around, injure herself, laugh it off and people say, “She never cries does she? She just gets up and laughs.” A lot of my friends say, “Gosh she’s such a trooper!” I don’t know whether that’s due to the fact that she was in hospital as a baby and she’s had tubes up her nose and been poked and prodded, and yanked, and been squeezed in pressure vests. She’s actually quite a stoic little girl and she’s more likely to cry if she doesn’t get ice cream than she is if she’s hurt herself. I think she looks at people that cry because they’ve bumped themselves as ‘woosses’! I think she’s quite aware of the fact she’s a toughie. Initially, when she was hurt, I thought, “She’s so fragile, how can she survive this?” 30% of her body burnt and she’s tiny. But they say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and I think it really has with her.
5 years on - looking back
It’s now been 5 years since the accident that led to my daughter’s burn injury, and she is rapidly heading towards her sixth birthday and Year 1 at school. We were under the care of the hospitals until late 2015, just after her third birthday. As well as the graft, she had pressure vests and dressings, creams, sticks and silicone pads. The worst bit was that, during the very hot summer of 2014, she was in a pressure vest, which must have been so hot and uncomfortable. But she never complained.
I still have unbelievable guilt over what happened. Lots of family members say they don’t even notice the scar anymore, but I do.
The scar went through stages during the recovery - hard and shiny, deep purple, weeping, and it has settled at a slightly shiner, waxy patch with a little raised ridge across it. I worry that it’s in a very obvious place and as a girl, it will show if she wears a lower cut top or V -neck. I am fastidious about applying sun cream to it, which sometimes draws attention. It’s more obvious when she has a bit of colour to her in the summer.
When my daughter started nursery, some children asked what was on her chest. We have always been completely honest and open and tell anyone who asks. At first, she didn’t like getting so many questions, so we gave her a few lines to say that succinctly describes it. Children are curious - and honesty is the best policy. Now my daughter sees it as normal to talk about it and tell others what happened. Sometimes she says she poured the tea on herself, other times she says it was Mummy. We always make sure that she knows it was an accident. She is proud of having been in an ambulance and stayed in hospital.
Recently at school, her teacher ran a session on safety in the home as part of the PHSE syllabus and asked my daughter to stand up and tell everyone about her injury and treatment. Apparently, she did very well and enjoyed answering questions from her friends (although I am led to believe that exaggeration may have come into play!).
I don’t wallow in what happened, wishing to turn back the clock or examining the ‘what ifs’. That is very draining and negative. I want my daughter to grow up and be pragmatic. She calls the scar ‘her butterfly’ because of its shape and knows that it’s part of her. She has shown amazing empathy with other children who have visible disability or scars and is incredibly kind and caring. She was recently picked to be the buddy to a little deaf girl who started school in her year.
To any other parent going through this harrowing time I would say that things will get better although I know there are times when it doesn’t seem so. The mental anguish fades as the scars do and it will become part of your life. The human body is amazing and the medical profession is always discovering and innovating and coming up with new treatments. Talk about the injury and the scar and normalise it.
I am letting my daughter take the lead in the future on what she does and doesn’t want to try in terms of treatment and concealment and if in 12 or so years that’s a tattoo - then so be it!