Articles Posted in How to Encourage Others

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As a follow-up to my August 9 blog, I found a late-July article in The Los Angeles Times about 19-year-old Derek Thomas, a burn victim whose strong determination, positive attitude and faith have helped him to get out of the hospital and go home even though he was given just a 1 percent chance of survival when he suffered third-degree burns last year.

Nearly 300 people in Encinitas, CA welcomed home Derek, who was burned over 85 percent of his body in a car crash a year ago. The crowd of friends that gathered from the local high school, church and the YMCA where Derek once worked lined up along the driveway at Scripps Rehabilitation Services, where Derek is expected to continue physical therapy for several more weeks.

Upon his arrival from the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital & Medical Center the crowd began cheering, shaking pom-poms and waving signs that said, “We love you D-Rock!” and “I am not a body. I am a soul!”

Earlier, at the Grossman Burn Center, Derek met with some of his rescuers for the first time: the men who helped him right after the car wreck, the emergency room personnel, and the medical staff who flew him via emergency jet to Los Angeles.

During his 11-month stay at the burn center, Derek underwent 42 surgeries and had to have every inch of his burned skin scraped off. As he was leaving for good, much of the staff was in tears as they wished Derek farewell with a pot-luck dinner of homemade dishes, including some of Derek’s favorites.

At about 10 a.m. the next day, Derek sat in a chair flashing a victorious smile during a news conference. He rose briefly to speak to a room full of reporters. What he said that day should serve as an inspiration for anyone who is severely burned, or who suffers some other physical or emotional trauma and hardship in life:

“There are times when you’re going to be down and you’re going to think that there’s nothing in you that can keep on going, But if you have faith and you believe you’re not alone, then you’ll come out on top.”

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A story on the pro-golf website caught my eye this week, and it has almost nothing to do with the golf that is being played by the top male professionals.

This past week in Irving, TX, a burn victim who has had 52 surgeries, and who has just five working fingers out of ten, and who was blind for eight months, and who had to undergo intensive therapy sessions just to walk, talk, and eat again, took on a central role in the HP Byron Nelson Golf Championship, a big event in pro golf. That man, Jason Schechterle, carried the golf bag for his high-school friend Ted Purdy, who is a pro golfer.

Ten years ago, such a role would never have been dreamed of by Jason, Ted, or any of his doctors. Back then, Schechterle was a rookie police officer in Phoenix. One night, his squad car was struck from behind by a taxi driver traveling more than 100 miles per hour. Schechterle’s car burst into flames and for eight agonizing minutes, he was trapped inside.

Once he was freed, his life was changed forever. He suffered third-degree burns and even fourth-degree burns to more than 50 percent of his body. The skin on his face, head, and hands were simply gone.

Ted Purdy, who has won just one event in his years on the pro golf tour, is grateful to have Schechterle by his side as he plays. “I knew if I had him carrying my bag, I’d be inspired,” Purdy said. “But he turned me down initially.”

Why? Because “this is pretty serious business,” Schechterle says. “This is Ted’s job.”

Schechterle eventually changed his mind because he knew he would enjoy it. He also knew that caddying at a pro golf event would help get the word out about his non-profit foundation, Beyond The Flames, which raises money for people who have suffered a loss or tragedy or need inspiration as they seek to return to a normal life.

He also knows one other thing — golf. Not only did Purdy and Schechterle play together in high school, they continue to play together now. Last year, at a two-man team event held in Scottsdale, AZ, they finished 13th out of 62 teams.

Schechterle, amazingly, has improved as a golfer since the crash. He plays at least twice a week and regularly shoots in the low 70s, which is close to being a pro. He plays with special clubs made by John Solheim at PING, a leading golf-club maker; the clubs include oversized grips, and he uses fingerless gloves to help secure the grip.

Getting back to the course and playing a sport he loves was one of the motivation factors Schechterle used in his desire to return to a normal life. “I’ve played golf my whole life. And I wasn’t going to accept shooting 90 or 100. I wanted to play well again.”

As more people learn about Schechterle’s story, he’s become a fan favorite. Purdy said that after he hit his ball near the crowd a couple of times during one round at the tournament, the fans surrounding his ball wanted to shake Schechterle’s hand.

Although there are no specific commitments to team up again beyond this week, it’s likely that Schechterle will carry the bag for Purdy on a few other occasions. Purdy says that “he’s excellent at it. Jason reads the greens well when I am putting.”

As much fun as Schechterle is having, he’s intent on increasing his motivational speaking engagements and spreading the word about his organization. He expects to give 100 or more speeches this year.

Does Schechterle’s motivation work? It did for Purdy. He had played poorly for much of 2011, but he made the cut at this event.

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A very informative and heart-warming story came from the local newspaper in Portland, Oregon last week, related to the difficult process of emotional healing for victims of disfiguring third-degree burns.

The article explained the uplifting happenings that take place during a regular gathering of a group called Portland Burn Survivors Inc. In fact, the writer of the story seemed to be moved by one of the very first things the group does once everyone arrives at the restaurant–they make a toast that goes, “Cheers for being alive!”

The article goes on to say that until about 30 years ago, surviving a severe burn meant constant pain and medical complications that usually led to premature death. But technological advances mean that many more people today survive severe burns. The problem is, the emotional trauma of living with bad scars and other complications are very recent too, so there is not a lot of research about exactly how burn victims need to think and act in order to lead happy lives.

As for the regular meetings, “It’s better than hanging out around the house with my cats, watching TV, being isolated,” said one person. “When you almost die and then you come back, you think: I want to live.” But living normally will take a lot of mental strength every day.

The first week in February is National Burn Awareness Week. The American Burn Association encourages these type of meetings so that people make the first efforts to step out into the world again. The Portland Burn Survivors also tries to raise thousands of dollars each year to help survivors, whose care costs often exceed their insurance.

One member whose hands and fingers were severely damaged said what many in the group, and many other burn victims around the country, are surely thinking:
“People avert their eyes when they see me,” she said. But “I’d rather converse and have people talk to me,” which is part of the reason why she comes to the group. Then again, another member disagreed with her. “I’d prefer that they avert their eyes. I don’t want to see [them] gawking at me.”

Clearly, each burn victim is going to approach their condition differently in their minds, but it really helps that they are able to talk about the emotional aspects of having an injury that everyone can see, even years after the incident.

That member who wants people to not look at her much is a woman who escaped a fiery car crash. She was disfigured across her whole body, and surgeons reconstructed her face with grafts, and she wears a wig. What she has experienced from others is cruel, even if it is not usually intentional. People don’t just gawk, she said–instead, they blurt out, “What the hell happened to you?” Other members nodded about this, because they have had to endure that thoughtless reaction as well.

But these people are helping each other move forward, and do things they wanted to do before they were burned. One man is now volunteering at the local Humane Society, and is also writing a book. He’d also like to go to college one day. One woman adds that she is “so glad for today. The purpose, I think, is to be grateful for my family and my friends and to live with what you have the day you have it.”

There are some subjects that will always be difficult for members, like going on romantic dates again. One member said, “It’s hard to flirt when you’re the subject of pity.” This might be true, but each time these people come together and talk, they each get a little bit stronger, which will always make them attractive to people.

To read the complete article, which is outstanding, please click here.

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When meeting a burn survivor, there are things that everyone can do to encourage and support burn survivors by having the right approach. Offering a listening ear will help theses survivors know that you are there to listen to them and make them feel at ease. Sometimes all that a survivor needs is to feel that someone is there to listen to him/her. Avoid giving advice and listen until the survivor finishes what he/she wants to say. If you feel that the survivor doesn’t want to talk now, don’t push them.

In difficult circumstances, a person who has been exposed to trauma will appreciate the presence of friends and family. Sometimes the best gift you can give a patient is an encouraging word. By being there even for a few minutes trying to help and comfort that person, your support will not be forgotten. During these visits, avoid showing pity, feeling sorry or blaming the survivor for what has happened as your purpose of being there is to strengthen, encourage and guide that person to get through the hard times. Don’t speak about your past trauma; make it about that person as this is the purpose of the visit.