In 1999, my fiancé Holly and I bought a little 1908 Victorian in Durango, Colorado that was to be our home. There were a bunch of classic Victorian houses in that area originally built in the late 1800s/early 1900s. We had a dream to build a business that would specialize in wood craftsmanship and restoring these older homes. The house we bought and were working on was to be our way of putting our toes in the water.
We were actually stripping our floors when it happened. Because it was an old Victorian, it had these beautiful old hardwood floors. You can’t buy this stuff anymore, so our goal was to restore it the best we could. We had sanded the floors lightly and were using a lacquer thinner to pull all the last bits of varnish out of the floor- like where heels had made dimples and stuff like that.
We were pretty much done with the floor, but I’m a perfectionist and decided to do one more round. We were about ready to start when our dog, Pedro, comes running inside. Instead of taking the time to go out and tie him up, we just shooed him outside and shut all the doors. In doing so, we cut off a major path of our ventilation. We had the windows open, but that was the critical step that allowed the lacquer fumes to build up at a more concentrated level.
Because of when this house was built, it was retrofitted with wall mounted gas heaters. When we had done the upstairs I had checked every one of them, but they were just vents. When we moved downstairs, I assumed that they were the same and didn’t check them for pilot lights.
As I poured out the lacquer thinner, it made a big puddle and started to run across the floor towards the heater. It was at that moment when the thought ran through my head, “you know, I never really did check that thing, did I?” At that exact moment, this little flame spirals out from the bottom of the heater and hits the edge of the puddle and wraps around it. Time stood completely still. Instead of an explosion, there was like a loud WHOOSH! It was just like when a gas oven turns on, except the whole house did that. The air itself was on fire.
Everything felt surreal. The air all around us was on fire. It felt like little tongues of fire lapping against my skin. We all know what it’s like to have a hot matchstick touch our finger; we’re able to point out where exactly it hurts. Well, it was my entire body all at once. It was a bizarre sensation. I couldn’t tell if what I was experiencing was pain or ecstasy. Every nerve was being activated. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around it.
You see, lacquer thinner is known as a “hot” chemical. A fire burning with wood is going to burn around 450-550° degrees, but lacquer thinner burns at 3x that temperature instantaneously. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that lacquer thinner burns at 1500° degrees or that I was even melting. I’d been through lots of accidents being a sports enthusiast, so of course I didn’t think I was going to die right here. This certainly can’t be killing me. Death would look different than this…
Then, the 5 gallon metal can that the lacquer thinner had been in exploded. It blew my fiancé right through the glass paned front door! That snapped me out of the shock I was in. For whatever reason, I ran towards the back door even though the front door was only 5 feet away from me. The temperature had already made the doorknob so hot that when I reached out and grabbed it to open it, my skin instantly peeled back. I knew I couldn’t bust through it, so I turned around to look back where I’d come from. That’s when I nearly crapped myself. What I saw was truly terrifying. It finally hit me that I was in a life or death situation. I could see straight into the living room where everything had started. It was multi-colored: purples, oranges, yellows and greens. My brain told me that I had two choices: either find a way to get out now or curl up in a corner and die.
I ducked into a bathroom right off the kitchen and saw the little window. I reached up and lightly smacked it with my elbow. If there was anything miraculous that happened, it’s that the window just disappeared. I jumped up on the toilet and leapt through the window. I landed on my belly halfway through. Right at that moment my neighbor, Angelo, was pulling into his driveway. I screamed, “Angelo! Help us! We’re dying!” At that same moment, the flames raced through the window I was hanging out of. I could feel them lapping up my back and my right leg. I pulled myself out of the window and hit the ground 7 or 8 ft below me. Surprisingly, I was still conscious at that point. I was relieved that I had survived, but had no idea how badly I was injured. I stood up and started walking towards the backyard where our water spigot was. I wanted to hose myself off to cool my burns. This neighbor kid ran over to see what the commotion was about. Angelo was tending to Holly in the front yard, so this kid ran around back to help me out. I could see by the look in his eyes that I wasn’t in good shape.
When the first paramedic got there, he started asking the kid questions about me, but when I answered, I saw his shock. That’s when I thought to myself, Oh shit. I must not be in very good shape! No one wanted to touch me. They put a plastic sheet down on the stretcher and had me lay myself down. That’s when I blacked out.
They took Holly and I to the small local hospital and somehow they had the right physicians and knowledge to know what to do with us. There’s something called the “golden hour” with a burn injury where there are specific steps that need to happen, like an escharotomy where they basically filet you like a fish.
From there, they put us on Flight for Life and flew us down to the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque. There, we were put into medically induced comas. Once again, this was 1999 when the big Y2K scare was going on. We were put into comas right before Halloween, but they started waking us up around Christmastime because they weren’t sure what was going to happen with all the clocks and equipment. They were prepared to evacuate the hospital “just in case.”
I woke up in a morphine fog. I had no idea how bad my injuries were. I couldn’t communicate, my eyes were sewn shut, and I was intubated so I couldn’t talk. At one point, I remember them putting me on a scale to weigh me. Now, the last thing I remember is being a really fit and athletic 175lbs. I didn’t have an ounce of fat on my body. But when they weighed me, I only weighed 130. I couldn’t comprehend where a whole 45lbs would go! I had atrophied so bad that I totally shrunk.
In mid January, the doctors saw that we were going to be okay. At that time, they had unstitched my eyes, so I could see to some degree. The nurses took me into a shower room and it was there I saw my legs for the first time. They were these tiny little toothpicks that were purple and all these other bizarre colors. I couldn’t believe these were my legs! My legs had always been fat with muscle because I was a cyclist and super healthy, but now they looked like little old man toothpick legs. That was a shocking moment, but I was an avid athlete all growing up and injuries weren’t a new thing to me. Scars were more like badges of honor.
Then the day came where they let me see my face for the first time. My sister was visiting, so she sat down with me beforehand and described what had changed: “The tops of your ears are missing. Your nose is somewhat different. Your eyebrows are gone.” In hearing what she shared with me, it didn’t sound too bad. I felt ready. The next day, they took me into the therapy room and handed me a little mirror. The life drained out of me in that instant. I didn’t see myself; I saw Freddy Kruger. My first thought was “the world is going to reject me. I don’t have a chance like this.” In a few small moments I went from thinking I could conquer all of this to wanting to throw in the towel. I totally shut down. They took me back to my room and as soon as the next nurse came in, I start begging her to do me a favor: Get a gun and help me shoot myself. I didn’t want to live. I wanted to die right then.
Immediately after, a social worker comes in my room and starts whispering in my ear: “Life is hard. Bad things happen. You just got a tough draw early in life. But what makes you so special that you’re not going to suffer any tragedy or go through any challenges in this life?” I kept asking, “Why me?” and she reversed that question to me: “Why not you? You’re not so special as to escape the challenges in this life. You just got them early and all at once.”
It was hard, but I needed to hear that. As tough as the questions and circumstances were at that point, I needed the answer to be equally as tough. And, why not me? It was the beginning of me realizing that we all suffer in life, but it was up to me to make the best out of it. It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it. That’s where I had to choose: Do I want the gun or do I want to try? And I guess I chose to try.
Meanwhile, a reporter from my hometown had been following our stories the whole time. Holly was already home and back to work and our community in Durango was throwing a party for her. I was just barely out of the hospital, but this reporter had the idea to get me back there and surprise everyone. The expectation was that Holly and I would have this wonderful reunion.
I hadn’t actually seen her in months. I just assumed that when I got back to Durango we would pick back up where we left off. Nonetheless, I show up for this party. I walk in the front door and see Holly. She looks like she just shit herself.
Some time passes and she shares with me that she feels insecure financially. I tell her I’ll do whatever she needs, so we go to a lawyer and I sign the house and the business over to her. If she just needed peace, I was more than happy to get all the business stuff out of the way so we could just focus on us.
A few weeks later during a counseling session, Holly tells me that she’s leaving me. She was very unemotional about it. It felt more like a business contract than ending a long-term relationship. I panicked. If she didn’t love me then who would? Who could? I got desperate and started spewing stuff like, “F you!” and “You’re all going to die!” The counselor made a call and reported that I threatened Holly’s life. I tried to take it back, but it was too late. She signed a 72-hour lock up order on me. I was put on a plane that flew me to the mental hospital in Pueblo, CO.
By the time I got back to town, there were restraining orders against me. I couldn’t go to my house. I couldn’t even go to the house I was renting because it was too close to my house! So I pack my stuff and head to Oregon. At this point, my life just sucks and I don’t have any coping skills, so I turn to drugs, alcohol, crime, etc. I felt invisible to the world and I was mad as hell. I’m mad about losing my love; I’m just mad about everything. But to everyone else, I’m this happy go-lucky burned up dude.
I can’t do anything by myself like tie a shoe or button a shirt, but strap me to a snowboard and I could cruise down the hill. So, over New Years, my brother and I head back to Colorado for a snowboard trip. While there, a friend of mine asks me if I knew what was going on. “You know about Holly and Ben, right?”
I didn’t. Ben had been one of my best friends.
“Ben runs your business now. Drives your truck. In fact, they’re on vacation in Hawaii.” Up until this point, I had still believed that Holly and I would get back together. I guess I was wrong.
Later that night we’re all at a bar partying. The clock strikes midnight and everyone toasts then turns to kiss their partner. I suddenly felt more alone than I’ve ever felt in my life. It broke my heart, literally. The next morning I got up and just wanted some part of my old life back. I decided if I could get my business back, I’d be okay. So I go over to the house (because I know Ben and Holly are on vacation) and steal my contracts and computer back. While I was there, I saw her purse lying on the bed. I figured I’d get in there and get the checkbook, but when I opened it, I found a loaded .38. Stupidly, I took it with me. My neighbors all saw me taking my stuff back and called the cops. When they come, they find me with the gun and somehow it gets spun that I went there to kill her. They arrest me and charge me with burglary. I take a plea bargain and get 4 years.
I spent the next 3 years and a couple months in prison. When I got out, I started volunteering for the Red Cross, which eventually turned into a job. During that time, I had gotten involved with The Phoenix Society, which is an organization that helps burn survivors. I had become a fan of their website, where people could post their profiles and tell their stories. I liked to go on there and leave encouraging words for people. Well, one day I come across this bizarre, white trash, nonsensical story. I couldn’t come up with one nice thing to say to this person. And I really struggled with it, because I could encourage anybody. Finally, I gave up and tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t. It stuck with me and I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Every year, the Phoenix Society hosts The World Burn Congress where people from the burn community come together to learn from each other, etc. That year it was in Baltimore and the first night they had this dance/opening reception. I’m there, catching up with old friends and even though my vision is still impaired, this person on the dance floor catches my eye. It’s almost like a spotlight is on her or something. There is just this joy and happiness radiating from her. I start thinking I should go dance with her, but when I get out to the dance floor, she’s gone.
The next morning, I spotted her and immediately went up and introduced myself. Knowing that the conference had a pretty jam-packed schedule, I asked her if I’d see her at that night’s event – at the aquarium. She said I would, so we met up later that night. As the night wore on, Melisa and I ended up on a bench by the bay telling each other our stories. As she’s telling me hers, it starts to sound strangely familiar. I suddenly realize that her story is that one I had read on the website – the one I couldn’t find anything nice to say about. I couldn’t believe it was her story!
After that night, Melisa and I dated long distance until she moved to Denver where I was living and working at the Red Cross. It wasn’t long before we got married. Life is going really well for me at this point. Work at the Red Cross was going great, I had a nice house, nice cars, and a beautiful wife, but I felt empty inside.
Melisa had been seeing a counselor for some time and invited me to go. After a few sessions, the counselor turns to me and says, “What about you? What’s going on in your world?” I opened up and told her about feeling empty despite all the good things in my life. She told me that she believed there were four main pillars in life: family, business, our place in the community and faith. It seemed to her like I had family, business and community, but was lacking in the area of faith.
Well, Melisa was one of those crazy Christians who loved Jesus and I couldn’t stand it. The stuff she listened to on the radio drove me nuts and I wanted nothing to do with it. During prison, I did the whole get-down-on-my-knees-and-ask-Jesus-into-my-heart thing and nothing happened. I also saw a lot of hypocrites- guys who said they were Christians, but then talked about how they’d get their hoes back when they got out. So for the next year, I made it my prerogative to prove that there is no God and certainly not this Jesus character.
This takes us to November 17th, 2010. That night, I went to see a friend who was a New Age counselor. I tell her about my crazy Christian wife and am seeking how to bring balance to our marriage, etc. I leave that session with a plan, like cleansing my chakras and channeling my Hindu god. When I get home, I tell Melisa all about it then call my crazy cousin Billy. He’s the guy who will tell you all about alien abductions and so on. I put him on speaker and chase Melisa around the house. I want her to see that I’m not the only crazy person out there. She gets sick of me harassing her and goes into the bathroom to take a sleeping aid.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, crazy Billy says to me, “You know what the most important thing you need to do is don’t you?” And I’m expecting him to say “dig a hole and fill it with gold” or something. But he says, “You need to get on your knees and ask Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior.”
Those words pierced all the way to the core of my being. Instantly, I was in the presence of God. It’s hard to explain, but I felt the fear of a holy God and I knew how horrible I’d been to him. I almost expected him to strike me down with lightning! I had no idea what to do, so I go grab Melisa because she knows how to pray. I was bawling, begging her to pray for me, but she wasn’t responding. The lights were on, but nobody was home. She likes to blame it on the Ambien, but she had only taken it moments before. There’s no way it could have worked so fast. I felt like God was saying, “No Erin. This has to be between you and me. She can’t save you.”
I didn’t say anything eloquent. I just simply surrendered my heart to the God who loved me and had been with me all along. God changed everything in me that night. It was as though a whole world was opened up to me. I thought I was so open-minded before this, but my mind was blown wide open that night and has been ever since.
My journey as a burn survivor and my journey with God have shaped every little part of my life. Melisa and I currently own our own business called A Home For Life where we care for “people in need of care.” Simply, we care for elders and persons with disabilities who need it.
In today’s world, we try to live a life without suffering, but God clearly tells us that we will encounter trials and tribulations. I spent so much of my life trying to numb my pain through drugs and alcohol. Now, I want to encourage people to embrace suffering, not in the negative sense but in the joy of it – the joy of experiencing life. Whether it’s physical or mental, we all get wounds and scars along this journey. And though none of it’s wasted, if we continue to numb ourselves, they won’t have the same effect they were meant to have. Even in dying. If we jack ourselves up on morphine we’re going to go peacefully, but is that really the way we want to go? I believe God uses suffering in our lives to shape us and to lead us somewhere. And I want to find out where that leads.