Although the event that forever changed her life occurred 26 years ago, Sissy Norris still vividly recalls the details of the day.
“I was working on a van that needed a new electric fuel pump,” said Sissy, who with 6 older brothers was well versed in car mechanics. “I accidently slammed the hood shut with the cables still on the battery and the wires hit the gas tank and it exploded in my face.”
At first, Sissy didn’t realize the severity of her injuries.
“I was walking around knocking on my neighbor’s door asking for water because the fire had gone down my throat,” she said. “I had burns on my face, arms, neck, chest and legs.”
Initially transported to St. Elizabeth’s in Youngstown to be stabilized, she was then life flighted to Akron Children’s burn center where she was placed in a medically induced coma.
During her 3 month inpatient stay, Sissy endured countless dressing changes, wound debridement, surgeries and skin grafts.
“I looked like a monster,” she said. “My face was discolored, burnt and bloody and I had no hair. But what I remember most is the kindness of my nurses and my surgeons Dr. Robert Klein (retired) and Dr. David Andrews.”
At that time, Sissy was 40 years old and in the throes of addiction. She said it was her stay in the burn center that helped kickstart her sobriety. Now age 66, Sissy is a regular figure at local burn survivor conventions, retreats and meetings.
“Once a month, Akron Children’s hosts an adult burn survivor support group where we share testimonies, listen to speakers and comfort one another,” said Sissy. “Even after all these years, I still get frustrated with my burns so having people who have experienced what I have been through is a lifesaver.”
Mary Mondozzi, nursing professional development specialist and burn center education/outreach coordinator, said the burn survivor support group provides an ideal environment for exchanging ideas, educational topics and sharing feelings.
“Burn injuries present a unique set of circumstances due to the acute and chronic nature of treatment,” she said. “The support group is a way for them to provide each other with emotional support and mutual encouragement for daily issues they deal with like pressure garments, splints, itching, sleep difficulties, changes in appearance and returning to work.”
Each month features a different topic and expert.
“We bring in a variety of speakers to address things like spiritual and physical well-being, fire safety and prevention, overcoming loss, dealing with anxiety and stress, and new therapies in burn care,” said Mary. “We also bring in a humorist to make them laugh, since laughter can be a healing medicine.”
In addition to the support group, Aluminum Cans for Burned Children hosts a yearly burn retreat held at Mohican State Park.
“These meetings and retreats are a safe space to share your story. No one condemns you or looks at you differently,” said Sissy. “I’ve met different people through the years and these people have become my family.”
Sissy marvels at the improvements that have occurred in burn treatments since she was initially burned two decades ago.
“With the advent of spray-on skin and laser treatments sometimes you can’t even tell that someone was burned,” she said.
Sissy believes her burns were God’s way of waking her up from her life of addiction. She said one of the best things about being a part of the adult burn survivor community is just knowing she isn’t alone.
“It doesn’t matter if you were burned recently or a long time ago, recovery is a long journey,” she said. “Knowing there are people who will be by your side is empowering.”
Today, Sissy spends her time loving on her grandchildren, and enjoying her adult children, Woody, Joshua and Nicole and her husband, Kenny.
“I wouldn’t be enjoying the life I am today if it wasn’t for this group and the care I received at Akron Children’s,” she said.
The Adult Burn Survivor’s Support Group meets monthly at Akron Children’s. For more information, contact Mary Mondozzi at 330-543-8813.