One year after: Tiffany Bates's accident leads to growth 2010.11.03

with_j.r.jpgBy DAVID GREEN

A year has passed since Tiffany Bates experienced a life-changing accident.

An incident with the family’s corn-burning furnace sent her on a five-week stay in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center burn care unit. During the hospitalization she had surgery on her right arm and neck.

That was followed by more than four months of therapy, starting off on a five-days-a-week schedule and finishing with visits three days a week.

Additional surgery was scheduled in May, followed by therapy that ended in August.

She’s scheduled to visit her surgeon once again in December because of the skin contracting on her neck.

“That surgery will probably be in the beginning of January,” Tiffany said. “Just enough time to get ready for softball.”

Nothing stopped her from joining Fayette’s softball team last year as a freshman.

“My surgeon told me that he would clear me for softball last spring, but he didn’t think I would be able to do it,” she said. “Well, I worked harder than I have ever worked before and I played.”

She didn’t just play; she put in time on the pitcher’s mound and threw a complete game.

“I like it when people prove me wrong,” her surgeon told her later.

Tiffany’s severe burns weren’t life-changing only in the trauma, pain and scarring she experienced. The incident also altered her outlook on herself and changed the way she approaches challenges.

The healing goes far beyond the physical scarring that everyone sees.

Angel Faces

Tiffany’s first healing experience occurred last June when she traveled to California for a one-week session at Angel Faces—a retreat for adolescent girls with facial disfigurements.

The program reaches “mind, heart and spirit” to help girls return home with new skills to create the life they want and to overcome challenges.

“I was completely shut off from the outside world,” Tiffany said. “No computers, no TVs, no cell phones, no calls to home, no nothing. It was truly a week to be focused on nothing but me.”

angel_faces.jpgThat focus produced some important changes.

“Angel Faces was just amazing,” Tiffany said.

In addition to some pampering—spa day, hair day, make-up day—there was important work for the girls’ return to regular life.

“There were sessions to help us with staring, teasing, questions and other things that we face each and every day,” Tiffany said. “I learned so much.”

“I don’t really face teasing that much, but there was definitely a lot that I held in because I didn’t want my parents to hurt even more.”

Angel Face founder Lesia Cartelli had a suggestion for her: Write a letter to your parents to tell them everything that you want them to know.

“So I wrote a letter to my mom and a letter to my dad and that helped a lot,” Tiffany said. “It was such a huge healing process for me. I really don’t know if I would be doing as well as I’m doing if I hadn’t attended Angel Faces.”

Tiffany’s parents, Dale and Jenny Bates, noticed the difference. They knew she was often worrying about their feelings.

“When she went to Angel Faces, she spent the week finally focussing on herself,” Jenny said. “She came home refreshed and strengthened.”

World Burn Conference

Tiffany and her mother attended the World Burn Conference last month in Galveston, Texas. Once again, the trip was a transformative experience.

The Phoenix Society’s annual conference brings together burn survivors, caregivers, surgeons and rescue personnel to share stories, provide support and increase knowledge of burn recovery.

For many in attendance, it’s their first opportunity to meet with others who have experienced burn trauma.

Tiffany saw several acquaintances from Angel Faces, but she witnessed so much more that really opened her eyes.

“It was very overwhelming for mom and me,” she said. “There were so many people there with severe burns. Seeing so many people so much worse than me made me really grateful.”

Her burns covered 18 percent of her body—only 18 percent, she says now.

 “It really hit me how lucky I was. There were so many people that were missing ears, legs and arms. Yet all those people had smiles on their faces. It was amazing to see them so happy, when you would think that they should be so upset.”

Jenny attended a parent program that offered support to other adults with children who suffered burns. Tiffany went to the UBelong program that focused on helping youngsters face challenges in their lives.

Among the guest speakers at the conference was J.R. Martinez, an actor who experienced burns over 40 percent of his body while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army.

J.R. tells people his has changed for the better since his accident. What’s inside a person is what matters the most, he discovered. In his motivational talks, he helps others find the value in making the most of every situation.

The burn conference fell on the anniversary of Tiffany’s accident, Oct. 23. She had decided ahead of time that she wasn’t going to do much that day, maybe just stay in the room.

Then she heard J.R. speak and she thought about something Lesia Cartelli said at Angel Faces: “Girls, the day your accident happened was the day your soul was born. So celebrate your soul’s birthday.”

Tiffany did just that.

After the Martinez talk, she introduced herself and he told her, “Tiffany, you are beautiful and don’t let anyone tell you different.” It meant the world to me.

Jenny remembers her daughter telling her something like this: “Today is the one-year anniversary of what some people call a terrible, tragic accident.”

But she was looking at it in a positive light, as an important part of her life.

“I’ve learned so much and I’ve grown up a lot. Look at all the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been able to go. I’m lucky to be alive and there’s a reason this happened to me.”

She took on the attitude that the World Burn Conference was throwing a big party for her soul’s birthday party and she attended the closing dance party on her anniversary.

She had the opportunity to speak with J.R. one more time and he asked about her injury. Tiffany talked about the accident and mentioned that it happened one year ago that day.

J.R. gave her a hug and whispered in her ear, “Happy anniversary, sweetie.”


A few thoughts from Tiffany's mother, Jenny Bates...


•  From that first night on the debriding table [when unhealthy tissue is removed] through her entire hospital stay, she told her nurses that on a pain scale of 1-10, they would never get a 9 or 10 out of her.
She informed them that her best friend (Kellen Keiser) had leukemia, and he had been through chemo, radiation, poking and prodding, and more pain than she would ever go through.
When we heard that, we somehow knew she was going to be OK. She was in this horrible pain and yet she had the strength to offer up her pain for someone else. That’s something I never expected from my 14-year-old.
• I remember asking the nurses if I would recognize my baby when they took the bandages off her face. They assured me that I would. At the World Burn Conference, I was in the minority (not being burned). There were people missing arms, legs, eyes, noses,  burned over 80-90% of their bodies. Kids as young as 4 and 5 years old with hardly any faces, no hair.
I felt horrible to think how their parents couldn’t recognize their babies when the bandages came off. It was truly eye-opening to a world I never knew existed. I’m so thankful we still have Tiffany with us and in one piece. We are so blessed.
• Dale and I are so very proud of Tiffany. Her strength, and outlook on life inspire me every day. I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle everything she’s been through when I was a kid, or even now as an adult. 

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