Every year there are more than 280,000 children who suffer severe burns in the U.S. Many of them go into hiding because the physical and emotional scars are so traumatic.
But an organization in Seattle is offering them hope and healing so they can live life to the fullest.
For burn survivors, one of the hardest things to do is to look in the mirror and see your injuries for the first time.
“Everything’s missing, your ears, your eyes, your lips. Everything is pulled down and contracted and you’re so embarrassed of yourself and how you look,” says Michael Mathis, the President of the Burned Children Recovery Foundation.
He knows the pain all too well because he is a burn survivor. When Mathis was 11-years-old, he was camping with a friend who made the mistake of throwing gasoline into the campfire.
“I tried to save him and the next thing I knew, I turned and looked at the fire and saw the gas can laying on its side. All of a sudden, I saw a white flash, it blew up and knocked me down to the ground,” he says.
Mathis ended up with third-degree burns over most of his body. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center where he spent three months in rehab. Over the years, he’s had 64 surgeries. He knows what it’s like to get the stares and to hear the whispers and the negative comments.
“As soon as someone says “eww,” or “ick” you feel extreme embarrassment, and it eventually turns into post-traumatic stress disorder,” he says.
But as painful as that was, he was determined not to let his scars keep him from doing what he wanted to do. In 1989, he quit his job at Boeing and started the Foundation, knowing that he could also help other burned children live full and active lives.
The Foundation runs the Phoenix House where the most severely burned kids can have a home away from home and get counseling and emotional support during their recovery. Every summer, they also host Camp Phoenix where burn survivors make friends with other kids who are going through the same experience.
“We try to capture their passion. What do they care about? Do they like trumpets, do they like drawing, do they like riding bikes, BMX, we find that and we fund that,” he says.
The Foundation also offers support to the parents of burned children so they are equipped to deal with the new realities. He says it’s critical that parents can help their kid adjust, especially when it comes to the negative comments.
“You’re going to get responses to your kids that are not very appropriate, but how you respond is going to teach your child how to handle it. If you respond angry, swearing and cussing, you just taught your child that any time someone reacts [to their burns], you’re going to be angry,” Mathis says.
The Foundation also works with schools so that kids can go back to class and not get traumatized even further when they’re suddenly rejected by their classmates.
Mathis says life after disfiguring burns is not easy and there are some days you don’t want to get out of bed. But their goal is to make sure kids realize that their burns don’t define who they are.
“As a burn survivor, you can’t allow the world to make you feel bad about the way you look because that’s not really what’s important. The most important thing is the person inside,” he says.