Aroha Andrew knows how almost totally unbearable the pain of being burnt is.
The grief, the lack of dignity, loss of self confidence, denial, isolation, the horrible hallucinations brought on by heavy duty painkillers and the desire to make it all stop.
As news of the number of burns victims following the Whakaari/White Island eruption broke, the 25-year-old watched on in horror remembering her own painful experience when 62 per cent of her body was burnt in a Timaru house fire on August 21, 2016.
She was 21 and staying at a friend’s house when a heater caught fire. She awoke to find the room she was sleeping in engulfed in flames. Putting her hands over over face to stop the intense heat she managed to find her way outside.
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She is still undergoing therapy to stretch her skin and move her hands properly.
On December 9 at 2.11pm Whakaari/White Island erupted killing and injuring tourists sight seeing on the active volcano. Sixteen died, 14 patients with severe burns remained in hospital a week later and two are still missing.
Andrew’s message to the injured is: “You can overcome”.
“So very grateful to be alive”, Andrew wants to use her experience to help others like the Whakaari/White Island victims and their families.
“I have been given the gift of life. I shouldn’t have survived . . . I am so lucky.”
Every small win during her almost year long stay in hospital gave her a smidgen of hope to carry on.
Andrew’s mother Jackie gave up her job to support her daughter despite another daughter expecting her grandchild.
Andrew was in Middlemore for five months then Christchurch Hospital for five months and finally Timaru Hospital for a month.
She said, as well as the physical pain, the patients’ mental health would be effected as they come to terms with how their life had changed.
Her own changed from day to day along with experiencing anxiety, she said.
“It was so hard to fathom this had happened to me . . . Why me? . . I couldn’t accept it. I thought ‘I’m going to wake up from this horrible dream’.”
During that time Andrew could not cope with any visitors other than her mother, though some had flown to Auckland to see her in Middlemore Hospital.
It was not about rejecting other people and their love and support she just could not focus on anything other than each moment of her pain, she said.
“Give victims and their family time.”
Her days had been made up of rounds of sedation, procedures to dress wounds and being moved to prevent pressure points. Each, offering a challenge to overcome while every orifice had a tube to feed her or remove toxins – something no one wants to talk about, she said.
She had felt an intense sense of loss at not being able to shower, brush her teeth, eat, or even drink a glass of water.
The Ketamine she was on induced anaesthesia but also caused horrific hallucinations.
“I thought the doctors and nurses were people from Timaru who were holding me down and burning me more.”
There were also no hugs for a long time to prevent the risk of infection.
Little achievements such as getting out of bed for the first time or drinking a glass of water were huge for her.
Feeling water on her skin once again and wind in her face were the “best feelings in the world”.
“I’m grateful every day I can eat food, put my own socks on, go to the toilet by myself. I’m grateful for the little things.”
Aroha is working in customer service in Washdyke, Timaru, and talks about her scars as a patchwork quilt.
“It shows me how much I have triumphed.”
She hopes the Whakaari patients will one day also feel the victory she has.
The Timaru Herald
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