Judy White spent half of her life navigating a reality few of us can imagine.
She was just two years old, asleep in her crib, when an electrical outlet in the room sparked a fire. White nearly died and was left with visible scars as a permanent reminder.
“I lost half of my hair and the tips of my fingers and sustained third-and fourth-degree burns on my face and legs. The doctors thought I would be deaf, blind and possibly an amputee,” White recalled. But she proved them wrong. “Day by day and in every period of my life, I overcame a new challenge.”
White learned to move past the stares from strangers. After more than a dozen surgeries and the certainty that she would always carry scars, White leaned on her mother, father and brothers for support.
“During those times I confided more in my mom than anyone. She never lied to me and gave me space to feel what I was feeling,” White said. “She told me to not look back, not look down, but look ahead.”
A common event, an uncommon experience
But White never looked to find another person who had experienced burn trauma themselves. Until one day when her mom, working as a float nurse at UC Davis Medical Center, came home with a flier for a burn survivors support group. White was 25 years old.
“I never considered myself a survivor. I never saw myself as a victim either. It was just language that I didn’t use,” she explained. “I wondered what I would have in common with them.”
White apprehensively went to a meeting, and then another. 27 years later, she’s still going and serves as a Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) peer supporter volunteer.
“This group is vital. Hearing others’ journeys, though they’re different, makes me appreciate mine so much more,” she said.
A safe place, a touchstone
— Judy White
“Peer support is huge. These survivors have so many feelings and quickly learn they’re not alone,” said Lauren Spink, a registered nurse and burn outreach coordinator. “We want everyone in the community to know that we’re here and this support is available to them.”
National Burn Awareness Week, observed the first full week in February, is a window of opportunity to share awareness and prevention information. Each year, over 450,000 individuals are seen in emergency departments, clinics, or physicians’ offices for the treatment of a burn injury in the United States and Canada.
As a Phoenix Society SOAR-designated facility, UC Davis Health offers monthly meetings. There, burn survivors and survivors of necrotizing fasciitis (a serious bacterial infection that destroys tissue under the skin), their families and significant others discuss issues and raise questions related to their injury.
The group has a statement that describes their shared space. It reads, in part: “This is our group. We come together in search of answers to heal. We share feelings, hopes and dreams honestly. This is our safe place. This is our touchstone.”
Weekly meetings are virtual, due to the pandemic, and range from half-hour lunch bunch gatherings to hour-long discussions with health care professions. There’s even one session devoted to yoga and mindfulness.
“It’s amazing to witness a survivor who, for instance, never leaves the house, come to a place of acceptance,” Spink said.
A source of support, a story of strength
Though White never defined herself in terms of her injury, she now openly shares that she is a survivor.
“You have to learn how to tell your story. Why wait for someone to ask?” White said. “When I was six, I’d say, ‘I wish I had died.’ Now, I’m here to show others that you can and will have a life after the experience.”
White hopes her journey illustrates for fellow survivors that how they feel about themselves will evolve in the years ahead. Last month, she completed training and is now a SOAR-certified burn supporter and ready to help anyone who needs it.
“Whenever I’m going through something that I think is the worst, I remember I literally survived a fire. I can do this,” she said. “Hearing other survivors hit milestones in their lives as well, that’s a good feeling.”
To learn more about UC Davis Health’s burn survivor support group, contact the burn outreach coordinator at (916) 734-3636 or firstname.lastname@example.org.