ife Beyond the Flames
Burn Survivor Story: Winson Chen
I met my challenge driving home from Atlanta on October 26, 2002. It came in the form of a high-speed collision with an eighteenwheeler. I am unsure who was at fault. I burned alive for fifteen minutes before the fire truck arrived. I was rushed to the hospital and announced dead on arrival, but the burn unit revived me and kept me in a morphine coma for two months.
My body was asleep, but I lived in my dreams. I went to school, visited my parents, dated my girlfriend; everything felt real. I imagined I went west with a gang of credit cards, charged mansions, yachts and parties, and then skipped out on the bill.
The cops chased me down and sent me to jail. I awoke to my father telling me it had all been a figment of my imagination. I was confused and frightened. My pain was indescribably intense. After much explaining from loved ones, I slowly became aware of my situation.
I was mad—mad at the truck driver, mad at the world, mad at God. How had I been named the delegate to suffer? I contemplated suicide daily. The hospital staff had to tie my hands down. Then the denial kicked in. I thought, if I could dream in color for two months and believe it was real, who’s to say that being here like this wasn’t just another chapter? This wasn’t happening to me. I still dream of one day awakening from the nightmare into my old life.
Embarrassment overwhelmed me. I couldn’t do anything for myself. In the hospital, I had to be walked, fed and wiped. At home, my mother had to bathe, clothe and bandage me. Then depression took its turn. I wasn’t a bad-looking guy before the accident. True, appearances aren’t everything, but they are something. We more easily accept those we perceive as aesthetically pleasing than those we see as deformed or challenged.
I had to take my grief by the horns. Complaining changes nothing. I am alive, I have family and friends who care for me, and I have purpose. I still get looks of distaste and bewilderment, but I don’t hold individuals accountable for their responses. It’s human nature to look at what’s different. Everyone worries about what to say to survivors, but often it’s not about what you say. Just being there and listening can help more than you expect.
My name is Winson Chen.
(Courtesy of the Phoenix Society and Steve Lobel, author of “Recognition Beyond Burned: Portraits of Survival, Rebirth & Hope”)