Victoria firefighter Kirk Corby and Langford resident Barbara Monteith shared their experiences with the Burn Fund and other programs that benefit from the Hometown Heroes Lottery proceeds. (Katherine Engqvist/News Gazette staff)

Emotional trauma the hardest, says burn survivor

Burn Camp helps young survivors wear their scars as ‘badges of honour’

Barbara Monteith is a survivor. But it hasn’t been an easy journey to get to where she is today.

“I hope to never hear that blood-curdling sound come out of my body again,” Monteith said, recalling the 2011 accident. “I was making coffee one morning, I reached across the the stove to turn the element off and my sleeve caught on fire.”

But the house coat she was wearing was wrapped tightly around her and she couldn’t get it off. Dropping and rolling also wasn’t an option in the small galley kitchen.

“Every little move I made, made it worse,” she recalled. “I had to stand there and take it.”

Monteith’s boyfriend heard her screams and came running to help.

She suffered second- and third-degree burns to her right hand and arm and spent four days in hospital. While she was prepped for surgery twice, she didn’t need to undergo skin graphs. “I got lucky on a few things,” Monteith said. “The physical recovering, I’m good at that … but I ignored the emotional.”

After a year in compression and countless bandages later, she thought her wounds were healing. But it was not a happy time in her life with other emotional traumas pilling on and a vertigo problem that developed after the fire. In the end, it cost her her career as she wasn’t able to continue working.

People would ask how she was doing, but the looks they gave her when she told them made her avoid the subject. “I just stopped telling my story and that’s not very helpful,” she added.

That’s when Monteith decided to attend a burn survivors meeting. As a high school counsellor by profession, she decided to go, thinking she could help others with her training. But she still didn’t understand the toll the fire had taken on her.

“I was so in denial … I struggled a long time and I still do,” she explained. “For me the emotional trauma was the worst.”

Looking back at her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Monteith said she was depressed for two years, suffered panic attacks and didn’t recognize the person she had become.

“I just couldn’t settle my nervous system … It’s like your body betrays you,” she said, adding stimuli in the city can still overwhelm her system. She decided to uproot her life and move away from the mainland, landing in Langford.

Now as she continues on her road to recovery she hopes to raise awareness about the emotional impacts burn can have on survivors and help others with their recovery.

RELATED: B.C. woman praises Burn Fund after boat explosion in 1978

That’s where the Hometown Heroes Lottery comes in, to help with moving from surviving to thriving. Tickets are on sale now until July 12 with approximately 3,000 prizes worth more than $3.2 million including luxury homes, vacations and cars. Proceeds from ticket sales go to specialized adult health services and research for British Columbians.

“It doesn’t sound like much but they mean a lot,” Monteith said, adding those supports are crucial for recovery as it can be a long, expensive journey.

Funds also help support the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Association’s Burn Fund. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Burn Fund was established in 1978 and provides life saving supports and enriching services to British Columbians.

Victoria firefighter Kirk Corby sits on the board of directors and has been volunteering with the Burn Fund for 13 of his 15 years as firefighter.

He started by helping out at Bright Nights in Stanley Park, the Burn Fund’s other major fundraiser, but quickly found his passion in working with young survivors at Burn Camp.

Burn Camp is a week-long summer camp, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, for roughly 70 campers ranging in age from six to 18. It’s put on by roughly 70 volunteers and while it is free to attend, it costs the Burn Fund almost $3,000 per camper. Thanks to donations, the fund is able to cover campers’ travel costs, accommodations and camp operations.

During his first year at camp, Corby was assigned two of the youngest campers. One of whom, couldn’t wait to go swimming. But when the pool day finally arrived, Corby noticed the boy’s enthusiasm falter. “He was dragging his feet looking for his sun shirt,” Corby remembered but hustled him out the door anyways.

When they arrived at the pool it was chaos, filled with kids and floating toys. But amidst all of the noise, one of the kids in the pool yelled out to the little boy and asked why he was wearing his sun shirt.

Corby said you could have heard a pin drop as silence fell over the pool. The little boy lifted his shirt to reveal where he had been burned on his tummy. He pointed to his scars “and he said ‘nobody wants to see this.’”

The roughly 30 kids in the pool starred back at the little boy and in unison yelled, “nobody cares here.”

“That kid took off his shirt and threw it over the fence,” Corby said with a smile – and that’s one of the reasons he goes back every year.

“It’s very powerful for them to feel that sense of normalcy – everyone is like them,” Corby said. “They wear their scars like a badge of honour, where in their school, they might not do that.”

And that’s just camp, the Burn Fund has a number of programs that support survivors of all ages. “I see the impact that we’re making,” Corby said. “I believe in it, I’m not going to stop.”

For more information on resources go to burnfund.org or learn more about the contest at heroeslottery.com.


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editor@goldstreamgazette.com

BC Professional Firefighters Burn Fund

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