Nie

Posted on | June 25, 2011 | 1 Comment

as written by NieNieDialogues. As read by me December 16, 2009

Stephanie Nielson, who was in a near fatal plane crash, and was burned over 85% of her body. After being in a coma for months, she awoke. Only to go through the excruciating agony of missing all her skin, and the pain that accompanies that. For me, reading her story, I felt an acute sense of empathy and emotional understanding. While I did not physically lose what she did, emotionally I absolutely felt the same. This entry, written by her, especially hit home. I was so cold, for so long…because I also had lost my skin. My protective cover to the outside world. My barrier and boundaries between “right and wrong, bad and good.” I was open to the elements, and the pain was indeed, excruciating.

“Meanwhile, in the operating room, Caruso and Dr. Marc Matthews were still at work. They began the day after Stephanie arrived at the hospital. Using an electric knife and a straight blade called a Weck, they spent a total of 14 hours cutting and scraping the dead, burned tissue from Stephanie’s body – a process called excision. They cut until they reached living tissue that bled. Where the fire had burned bone, they used a fine drill bit to degrade it until they reached the deep place where the bone bled, too.

They would think they had finished, only to find new patches of gray as the burns settled in. They put pins into her fingers to hold the shape of her hands. They stopped at her face. For a long moment, the doctors were still. Three times they had to excise her face. It hurt them to do it.

In the recovery room, Caruso didn’t think Stephanie would live another three days. Her body battled hypothermia, blood clots, pneumonia. Stephanie had surgery every other day for three weeks. Doctors began to cover her body with skin grafts. The body responds best to its own skin, and Stephanie didn’t have much left. Caruso and his team cut a silver-dollar-size piece of Stephanie’s remaining skin and sent it to a lab in Boston, where it was harvested and grown for grafting. The lab sent back skin in 75-centimeter-square sheets. Each sheet cost about $2,000. Doctors used more than 200.

They shaved Stephanie’s head and used a thin layer of skin from her scalp to cover her face. Her hair would grow back later. They sewed her eyes shut until she was well enough for a surgeon to reconstruct her eyelids. They took more good skin from her back and put it through a perforating machine, turning it into a web that they stretched over her arms. The perforation helped the skin cover more surface area. Scar tissue would fill in the web, and cover her arms.

Her body was pumped full of drugs: morphine and methadone for pain, a Vecuronium drip to paralyze her while she healed, and Versed, a sedative that would help her forget. There were medications for nausea and nerve repair, an entire alphabet’s worth of antibiotics: Cipro and imipenum, tobramyacin and linezolid.

The doctors waited for complications that never came. They started to talk about miracles. From Aug. 16 to Oct. 31, Stephanie remembered only the moment that the doctors cut off her hair. It had taken years to grow past her shoulders. Even deep in a coma, she could hear the razor buzzing.

She turned the mirror over in her lap and took a split-second peek.”It’s not that bad,” she thought, thinking of the faces in the hallway. Then she looked again, slowly. First, the chin. It seemed to be missing, she thought. Her skin was pulled so tightly between her lips and her neck that her chin was only a splotch of spider-web scars in between.

Then her lips — wide and flat.. They hurt. “What are those?” she thought. “Why are they so big? What’s making them look like that?” The scar tissue around them had been shrinking and contracting as it healed, pulling her lips open, almost inside-out. “I hate them,” she thought.

Her nose — she saw purple patches, small dents below the nostrils. “At least I have a nose,” she thought. She’d been worried. She looked at her cheeks. She could see scabs and open wounds where the grafts had yet to take. The healed skin was covered in hatch-mark scars, one side worse than the other. Her eyes: At least they were the same green. “There I am,” she thought.

Her forehead was smooth, formed from a single piece of thin, pale skin. Her eyebrows were gone. She lifted the mirror higher. Her hair was shaved close. She turned the mirror over and set it down. Her husband Christian came back in. “Did you do it?” he asked her. “Yes,” she said. “Do you promise?” he asked. “Yes,” she said.

They were quiet for a long time. That night, after Christian left, Stephanie cried in bed alone. She thought about how Christian used to call her Snow White. She had loved to put on red lipstick and curl her hair. She felt haunted by her old self, by the music on her iPod that she used to listen to while running, by the beautiful smiling mother in the family pictures on the wall. She felt trapped in her body. In her dreams, she was the old Stephanie – swimming, having a picnic, wearing her favorite black dress for a date with Christian. Her old dresses still hung in her sister Courtney’s closet. One day, while visiting, Stephanie ran her hand over the fabric. It felt like she was touching a dead woman’s clothes. She left the dresses there.

Her thoughts now turned to the words of Washington Irving she had taped to her fridge: “There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

Christian couldn’t stop apologizing. What if he had never started flying? he would say. What if he had opened the burning door? “I’m so sorry for what happened. I’m so sorry I left. I thought you were behind me,” he repeated. “Leave it,” Stephanie told him. She needed him to move forward, to let her forget. But later, when Stephanie and Christian told the story of the crash to others, they would explain it differently. She wouldn’t mention the moment when she woke in the plane, alone. She would talk instead about the way that her husband kicked a path for her. It would sound like he had saved her. She wanted to think only about how he had tried. Christian would let her tell it that way – on her blog, even on national television.

Maybe her memory was trying to save her. Maybe, in the revision, in the excision of their memory, she was trying to save him. “I think it’s just something we do for the ones we love,” Christian said. Her climb up the mountain would “be the beginning and also the end,” Stephanie had decided, “a letting go.” She would greet her old self during the climb – the teenager who sat on a rock and dreamed of baby names, the woman who went up the trail the morning she gave birth. At the pinnacle, Stephanie would also tell that woman goodbye.

She is breathing heavy. It took 40 minutes to get here – 40 minutes and 365 days.

Stephanie imagines the photo she is going to post on her blog tomorrow. Her whole face, for the first time. Scars and everything.”

Scars…and everything. She gives me courage. She makes me humble. She encourages me…to show mine. Scars, and everything.

Keep reading…

Comments

One Response to “Nie”

  1. Kathryn Nelson
    January 12th, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    Stephanie,
    I know your story a little from a friend who followed you during your amazing trial. I just read how you had medication for nerve pain. I actually have a bad nerve from a cyst in my shoulder. How is your nerve pain now? What do you do for it?

    kathy

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