Burn Survivor’s Childhood Injury Leads Her to Help Others

Thereasa Abrams, burn survivorThereasa Abrams, PhD, LCSW, understands what many of the burn patients in Memorial Medical Center’s Regional Burn Center are experiencing. When she was 6 years old, the research assistant professor with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Institute of Plastic Surgery suffered burn injuries over 35 percent of her body.

Thereasa and her siblings were playing with matches in the backyard. Their plan was to melt some crayons in the barbecue grill. Thereasa, the youngest, was instructed to sneak into the house and secure a crayon without their mother noticing. Her 11-year-old brother built a small fire with twigs and leaves in the grill. She clutched a green crayon as her brother came out of the garage with a tin can of gasoline. That was the last thing she fully remembers.

The rest is a blur. The fireball that erupted and engulfed her. The faces of her horrified siblings. The charcoal gray skin on her right hand lifting like the layers of a burning newspaper. Most of all, she recalls the screaming, but doesn’t know if she was the one screaming or someone else.

Her mother and brother caught her and smothered the flames with a beach towel from the backyard clothesline. Her father, who owned a dry goods store, rushed home and drove her to a hospital more than 30 miles from their home in their small Michigan farming community.

Thereasa sustained first-, second- and third-degree burns over a third of her body, mostly her face, back and arms. A doctor told her parents that it was unlikely she would live through the night.

But she did survive. She remained in the hospital for the next three-and-a-half months, her parents taking turns holding vigils outside her room. They weren’t immediately allowed in because the young plastic surgeon caring for her had set up a sterile environment to decrease the risk of infection.

Over the next 12 years, Thereasa went through numerous reconstructive surgeries. She’s been told that the scars are barely visible, but they still feel all too obvious to her. It’s a reminder that the one scar that’s not visible – the emotional and psychological one – is perhaps the deepest.

Since that injury, she has dedicated her life to supporting other burn-injury survivors. She became increasingly involved with them – organizing and running support groups and speaking at conferences – and earned her doctorate in health education.

She currently leads a burn survivors’ support group, Survivors Helping Survivors, which meets on the third Thursday of each month in the Baylis Medical Building. The group is open to anyone who has been affected by burn injuries, including friends and families. For more information, call 217-545-8129.

The annual Color Blaze 5K will provide a portion of its proceeds to support Memorial Medical Center’s Regional Burn Center and its patient education and community outreach efforts. This year’s event will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 18, in Southwind Park in Springfield. To register, visit ColorBlaze5K.com.