When Whitney Burnand’s family was about to launch a cabin cruiser on Vancouver Island for a boating getaway 23 years ago, they had no reason to suspect anything could go wrong. It was the May long weekend, the forecast was good, and they were ready for an adventure. She was five years old when her life changed before they had even made it a few feet from the dock.
“When the boat got turned on, it exploded,” Burnand says in a phone call. “It was a bit of a freak accident.
“I got the worst of it in terms of burns: over half of my body was burned with third-degree burns,” says the 28-year-old Nanaimo native, who has burns on her arms, legs, back, and face and now lives in Vancouver. “I was really lucky to have made it through. It was pretty much touch-and-go for a while.”
Her father experienced internal injuries, her stepmom had a head injury, and her little brother suffered second-degree burns to 30 percent of his body. They all went on to recover. Whitney, meanwhile, was in a coma and spent two months in hospital in Vancouver.
Her family had to rent an apartment to be with her while she was being treated. There was nowhere for family members of burn survivors to go. Now there is somewhere.
Centre will help burn survivors and their families
On Friday afternoon (March 18), the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund officially opens the doors to its new Burn Fund Centre at 3891 Main Street (at East 23rd Avenue).
Similar to the Ronald McDonald House for seriously ill children and their families, the Burn Fund Centre is a home away from home for patients undergoing treatment, going through a discharge transition, or returning for follow-up treatment and for their families. It addresses a critical shortfall of suitable short-term accommodation for people in these situations.
The Burn Fund Centre is much more than an eight-bedroom temporary residence complete with a kitchen, children’s play area, library, and laundry facilities. It’s also the new home of The Future Is Mine, a program for adult burn survivors that provides them with support and a place to connect. Launched 12 years ago by program director Ann Coombs, it’s unlike anything else in the world.
“We serve a community of long-time or newly discharged burn survivors,” Coombs tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “Many were burned at birth and have moved through life without imagining there is any lasting trauma, which isn’t always the case; sometimes it comes out years later.
“The advantage and joy of the opening of the new Burn Fund Centre is that there is now a home for burn survivors to come and meet,” says Coombs, noting the Future is Mine program offers everything from guest speakers to educational workshops to group activities, like cooking classes and day trips.
VGH and Children's Hospital treat people with most serious burns
Every year, more than 1,600 children and adults from around B.C. are admitted to the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Burns, Trauma, and High Acuity Unit at Vancouver General Hospital or B.C. Children’s Hospital’s burn program suffering from serious burns or trauma. Those are only the most serious cases; many more people with burns are treated in their home communities. The burn fund’s prevention and support programs are funded entirely by community support.
Coombs is hopeful that the Burn Fund Centre will raise awareness of burns and burn survivors; she’s also hoping that burn survivors from anywhere in B.C. who weren’t aware of the Future Is Mine program will reach out and join.
“We know there are burn survivors who have been missed, because when we started the program 12 years ago, we didn’t have a database,” she explains. “There are no restrictions, whether you’re a long-time burn survivor or you have burns over three percent of your body or if you’ve been drastically burned. We have burns that come from electrical burns, car crashes, spousal abuse, kitchen fires, house fires—it’s a broad spectrum of trauma. We’re embarking on something very powerful and exciting in this city and for the province with this new extraordinary facility that includes the families that walk that journey with survivors. They are very, very, very important, not only in the healing process but also in receiving support as well. Life is never the same after a burn.”
Leanne Strachan can attest to that. The Melfort, Saskatchewan, native was also just five years old when she was burned. Now living in Vancouver, she remembers herself and her brother lighting tissues on fire in the bathroom and throwing them in a bucket to watch them burn. Her dad lectured them about the dangers of fire, but she found the flames mesmerizing.
“I was a pyromaniac,” Strachan says by phone.
One night, ready for bed and dressed in her nightgown, she ran to her family’s car to get some toys her brother had promised her. Once inside the vehicle, she noticed a pack of matches. She began lighting them one by one, watching them glow. A single flame got too close to her fingers, and she dropped the match. The fire ignited her polyester nightie in an instant.
“It [the nightgown] lit, and then of course it stuck to my skin, which burned me…and things went downhill from there,” Strachan recalls. “My parents rushed me to the hospital and then the nightmare began.
“I can still smell the sulphur,” she says. “I can go back to that moment and I can feel that pain.”
Now 52, Strachan went through some difficult times, but she turned to sports as an outlet. Now she’s a sales representative for Martha Sturdy, which she calls a dream job. She loves being a part of the Future Is Mine program and wants to help others.
“It breaks my heart when I see young children who are really burned; it strikes a chord,” she says. “The messages I want to share are to not give up, to keep going. Whatever passion you can find, whether it’s athletics or the arts, if you can really embrace it, it really helps you get through.
“We’re so fortunate to have this world-class centre to make connections,” she adds. “Families are really going to benefit from this.”