Shortly after I turned two years old I sustained a scald from a freshly poured, boiling cup of tea. It was a third degree burn, and required a skin graft followed by more than a year of wearing burn pressure garments. It’s something I’ve spoken about little here on the blog, yet, growing up, it defined me. October 14th is National Burn Awareness Day, so today I’m sharing my story.
With any kind of disfigurement, the trauma is life-changing: first the incident itself which carries with it pain, horror, and fear; then the treatment and rehabilitation. And finally, the inevitable lifelong changes to our bodies.
National Burn Awareness Day
October 14th is National Burn Awareness Day and in 2019 the SafeTea campaign was launched on this day. Every single day 30 babies and toddlers go to A&E with a hot drink burn, and shockingly 60% of all under 3 burn attendances are caused by hot drinks.
In my case, with a little foresight it was preventable. In far too many cases however, it’s preventable with just a little common sense…
How to Prevent Childhood Scalds With SafeTea Rules
These are the three most important rules to preventing these avoidable, yet devastating accidents:
- Keep hot drinks out of the reach of small children,
- Never carry a hot drink whilst holding a baby,
And my personal favourite, because I see this happen almost every time I go into a coffee shop:
3. Never pass a hot drink over a baby’s head!
This last one is often strangers in coffee shops squeezing through crowds of people (less so in recent times – there’s one benefit to COVID!) and it makes me mad. It is so irresponsible – with other people’s babies! Please be aware.
I’ll also just add, people waiting tables either seem to be excellent with this or completely oblivious when setting down hot drinks; again, they must not be placed within reach, even if the baby is on the parent’s lap and it means the parent has to stretch. That’s okay – far better than the alternative.
Note in the photo above you can just about make out where my face is healing. There’s some redness under my eye, and my face is still puffy.
For any parents who may be experiencing this right now, I want you to know that I have no scars on my face.
Apparently this is quite typical – the doctors told my parents my face would not scar from the beginning, as soon as it happened. They struggled to believe it at the time, but the doctors were spot on.
Scalded As a Toddler
My scald was a freak accident: a chopping board was standing upright on the kitchen side leaning against the tiled wall and, while my nan was pouring tea, it slipped. As it fell the board made contact with the cups containing freshly boiled water, and they were knocked over. I was on the floor, directly below.
Mercifully, I don’t recall that moment. Nor the next, when my dad ripped my clothes from my body, tearing the melting skin from my arm, which would later be replaced by a graft; nor the one after that when he hastily shoved me under the cold kitchen tap and watched as his baby’s face fell like sheets of paper into the sink.
Memories of a Traumatic Childhood Accident
But I do remember shortly after, when I was wrapped up in a tea towel on my mum’s lap, waiting for the ambulance; the paramedics on the phone had instructed her to use something sterile, and the tea towels had been ironed.
I remember snatches of time in the back of the ambulance (an ugly orange interior), and some of the time I spent in the hospital later.
I remember the plastic, wrapped around my legs following surgery, being removed in the bath (the grafts taken for my arm came from my thighs). I remember because of the pain.
I remember having my hair brushed afterwards, and for weeks ‘tea’ (scabs) falling out as they came away from my head.
Burn Pressure Garments For Compression Therapy
And I remember the burn pressure garments I had to wear for more than a year, in an attempt to flatten the scars forming beneath.
I remember feeling ugly. I remember losing my confidence and feeling unsightly and wishing, wishing I could be the same as everyone else.
I remember the vivid red/purple of my arm, and the indentations in the scar where it looked like somebody had pushed their fingers into play dough. Except it wasn’t a piece of artwork; it was my arm.
I remember hiding myself, and the shame when anybody ever noticed and asked about it. I remember the burning all over again, this time creeping up my neck and my cheeks because I was so mortified.
I remember it all.
First Aid For Scalds
Should the worst happen, these are the current recommendations for treating a scald in a young child:
Cool, Call, Cover
1. Remove all clothing and jewellery (unless it has melted or is firmly stuck to the wound), and cool the burn with running cold tap water for 20 minutes.
2. Call 111 for advice for any burn larger than a 50p coin. In an emergency call 999.
3. Cover with cling film or a sterile, non- fluffy dressing or cloth (we used a tea towel which had been ironed).
Note that nappies hold hot water for a prolonged period. If ever a baby or toddler sustains a scald make sure to remove their nappy immediately.
Be aware that for small children in particular, one potential complication of a serious burn (covering >20% of total body area) is the potential of going into shock. Keep the patient warm, but do not cover the face or burn. In cases serious enough for shock to occur, you should have already called for an ambulance.
How Scars Affect Self Esteem and Confidence
I’m sure that who I am and how I am today (self-conscious, paranoid, anxious, shy) stems from those experiences as a young child. I felt so out of place for so long, it was probably a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end.
And yet, all these years on, I’m a different person: my scars no longer define me, I’ve come to terms with them.
As I write, I’m in the midst of an epiphany of sorts. Having not consciously been affected by my scarring for many years now, it’s something I simply don’t think about. But with my little girl having recently gone through surgery, I’ve been reminded of my own scars, and the enormous impact they had on my mental health as a child.
It’s undeniable that the experience of being scarred has shaped my personality, yet it’s something I’ve never really taken the time as an adult to acknowledge, work through, and reconcile.
But, as Pixie talks about her own (minor) scars, I’ve been forced to confront something I never have before. And guiding my daughter through her own journey of coming to terms with her scars has been somewhat cathartic for me:
I hear myself telling her all the things I needed to hear myself when I was her age; things that I’ve come to believe to be true.
The subtext running through everything we discuss is that we can choose how we perceive (and perhaps therefore project?) our scars. As a young child I felt disfigured; I now accept that while my scars will always be a part of my body, that is no longer the case – I don’t, now, feel disfigured by them.
How to Help Your Child Accept Their Scars
With the benefit of my own experience and hindsight, I wanted to provide some suggestions for helping your child, should the unthinkable happen. Here are the things I’ve been telling/asking Pixie:
- Scars are not ugly;
- Our scars tell a story;
- What is inside of us is more important than the way we look;
- Does she think my scars are ugly?
- Aren’t we lucky that the doctors could make us better?
- Aren’t our bodies absolutely incredible!
7. She’s allowed to grieve her unscarred skin, but she must also embrace and be proud of herself as she is.
Improving Your Scars – and Then Accepting Them
While I wholeheartedly believe in accepting our flaws and being kind to ourselves, I also understand the desire to fit in with our peers and be ‘normal’. So I feel it’s appropriate to mention a treatment I underwent, which I believe was hugely beneficial to the appearance of my scars – and therefore my mental health.
The scarring on my arm is relatively extensive. The majority of the front of my arm is affected, though as I’ve grown, so the scar has somewhat contracted. The lumpy, vivid purple of my younger years has matured to mostly flat, pale skin; milk bottle white like the rest of me, it’s less noticeable than it once was, which has definitely helped me make peace with my differences.
People do still ask me about it in the summer when my arms are exposed – but whereas once it horrified me, now it simply surprises me that they’ve noticed. But it never offends or bothers me.
Silicone Gel Treatment For Scars
I was a teen when I became aware of a new therapy available for raised and angry scars. It is so simple, and yet so incredibly effective – medically proven up to 90%. And it can be used on scars up to 20 years old!
A self-adhesive silicone gel sheet is worn over the scar for several weeks. Permanent improvements can be seen after 2 – 4 months. I’m not sponsored by the manufacturers of this product – I simply know that it can achieve incredible results. And the best part? At less than thirty quid, it’s not even very expensive, especially given the potential results.
I don’t recall the brand I used, but if it interests you, there are several you can choose from:
Learning to Live With Imperfections
If I now had the opportunity to be rid of my scars, I wouldn’t do it. I’ve lived with them for far longer than I did without, and I was so young at the time of my accident that I have no memory of life before them. And so, for me, being without my scars would mean losing a piece of my identity.
While it’s true that we have to live with our flaws, I’ve learned that it is not mandatory to live with our insecurities; we can choose not to be defined by the way we look.
Children’s Burn Trust
Every day there are others sustaining far worse injuries than mine. The wonderful burns unit that cared for me no longer has a dedicated charity, but I am in contact with the Children’s Burn Trust (look out for my guest post coming soon) should you wish to make a donation.
Please spare a few moments to visit the site and consider gifting whatever you are able, however small.