I’m A Survivor

Tanya. Confident and proud burn survivor. workhardbekind.com
Showing off my strength, scars and all, at my first half-marathon ever @ Disney Land.

I totally made you sing Destiny’s Child, didn’t I? Well, that was the goal. Haha!

When I was a toddler, I was severely burned on 40% of my body. I was hospitalized for months. Thank goodness I don’t have any memory of this traumatic event. I do, however, hold the memories of growing up different. I can’t tell you which one is worse, but I can tell you I have some deep emotional scars in addition to the physical ones. My family did all the right things, in my opinion. They didn’t put me in a little box, to keep me hidden from the world. They treated me like a parent treats a child. They taught me to love myself, and have confidence in myself.

"I am different. I am ugly. He (and all the others) are right about me."
Tanya Nielsen
Burn Survivor

Elementary school: the years I realized I was different. Can you remember moments in your childhood vividly? I have a handful of moments that are so deeply engrained in my memory that it feels like I am taken back to that moment in time. On the playground, I was crossing the monkey bars, and I was greeted on the other side, by a young boy who said my hands looked like poop. Looking back now, I would to tell him that his poop really shouldn’t look like that!  Haha! 

I laugh now, but that was actually a tragic moment in my childhood. How could someone be so cruel? I know now, that as a child he couldn’t have known the impact he had on me. But I carried that comment with me, as well as additional ones that occurred later in my life, and let it begin to form that view of myself. I began to think “I am different. I am ugly. He (and all the others) are right about me.”

Fast forward years down the road. I had gotten in the habit of instantly reciting the same story to anyone who asked about anything to do with my scars: “I was very young when it happened…no I don’t remember it… no, you can’t touch my scars.” That last part may seem like a weird thing to say, but you wouldn’t believe how many people asked to touch my scars. Maybe for some, it simply wouldn’t be a big deal. For me, my scars were my biggest source of insecurity and I cringed inside when people asked to touch them. 

Then, one day, I was in the middle of my pre-rehearsed story to a firefighter that came into my place of work. I barely even gave him any notice as I said it. When I was done with my canned response, designed to let people know I didn’t want to talk about it, the firefighter asked if I knew about the burn survivor program at the local hospital. What on Earth was this program he talking about? I had never even heard of anything like this. Maybe I somehow should have heard of it, but this was totally new to me. Of course, I had to investigate and learn about this program.

Cue the entrance of the University of Utah Burn Survivor program in my life. I didn’t know what to expect, and I had no idea how much I had needed this in my life. It would come to be a moment that changed my life. The group took turns sharing their burn stories. Then, it was my turn. 

I had my story ready to go. Rather than my usual three-line response, I decided to go a little deeper. I started by saying that I, too, was a burn victim. I had no sooner finished that statement when I was quickly interrupted by a man named Brad, the director of the burn program. Brad looked and me and said firmly, “you are not a victim, you are a survivor.” I didn’t know what to think. At first I thought, “I’m not a survivor!” I felt anger that he had just stripped that title from me. I earned that title! But it only took a moment for it to sink in, and it would change everything.

[He] said firmly, "you are not a victim, you are a survivor." ... it would change everything.
workhardbekind.com

What a paradigm shift that was for me! When a cancer patient overcomes their disease, they don’t refer to themselves as a cancer victim. They wear the title “survivor” with pride, as they should. Why shouldn’t I do the same? I overcame life-threatening injuries and came out on the other side. I was not weakened from tragedy, but strengthened by overcoming it, and I needed to celebrate that! Wow, what a change that made. I could be grateful, I could be strong, and my experience was a part of me. That single word, “survivor”, changed my entire outlook on life. From that moment on, I saw myself for what I was: a survivor. Survivors are still here and able to live full lives. Survivors are formed in their trials. It didn’t change for me all at once, but this new perspective would come to change me completely. I am strong. I am confident. I am grateful.

Yes, I am different. But burns or not, aren’t we all? Isn’t that what makes this world so amazing? We have all different experiences that we can use to help others around us. I feel so blessed to have joined the Burn Survivor world, and rally others to feel the same about their burn experience. They survived! My experience may have been unique to me, but we have all survived challenges unique to us, and we should recognize what fierce warriors we are.

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