That face above is mine. So what do you see when you look at it, especially if you have never met me before? Go on, be honest. The truth won’t hurt me. At least not now.
I’m facially disfigured. In truth I’d like to look like someone else – Brad Pitt and George Clooney ideally, but I’d have settled for something more normal and less noticeable than my own. I’m 60 now so I know that’s never going to happen. This is who I am now, scars and all. Physical scars are one thing, psychological ones something else. More about that in another blog, but for the moment here’s a little biographical detail.
Fifty-eight years ago this month I was with my sister alone in our home. Lorraine is just one year and four days older than me. Mum was across in the shop buying groceries, about 20 yards away. It seems Lorraine was holding pieces of paper close to the fire then tossing them in once they lit up. I was obviously watching my big sister, so when she left the room for a moment I reached for the paper and held it close to the fire too. Once I saw the flame I must have panicked, dropped the paper on my plastic bib and set the plastic alight. Lorraine remembers flames shooting up from my chest and neck as I screamed in agony trying to run out the front door. But there was no escape. We were both too small to open it, but our screams reached my mum’s ears and within minutes the fire brigade arrived.
I spent two and a half years in hospital following the accident and I don’t have one single memory. My left hand was badly burned and the fingers twisted and web-like in appearance. I had special cutlery that looked more akin to surgical instruments than a knife and fork. I was 12 when those fingers were finally separated and I could hold my hands together so that the fingers touched properly.
Unfortunately, my facial injuries were a lot worse than you see above. For example, my chin had fused into my chest to give me a quite horrendous appearance. As the years passed and there was no sign of major reconstructive surgery, dad decided the best option was to take me home before I became too institutionalised. Eventually he donated a skin graft to provide me with a chin. The operation was a failure. There was no option but to take the graft from my stomach and attach it to my chin, so I’m the only man with three chins.
It may not be so obvious from the picture but my ears were also burned: the right one has lost most of its fleshy flap, the left a bit. I grew my hair long to hide them initially, but then realised people rarely noticed the ears anyway.
The throat area is a patchwork quilt of skin grafts. Some areas there are soft, others hard, and the pigmentation varies. The sides of my face are a host of brown shades, but are basically scorch and burn marks. They give my face a somewhat tanned look.
And then there’s the chin. Because it’s a skin graft the skin tone doesn’t sit well with the rest of my face. It’s the most obvious feature people notice because it has been stitched on and has a bulky appearance. My bottom lip is also stitched to the chin and looks swollen as the lip itself looks very large. I always have the sensation that my lower lip is inflamed, and keeping my mouth closed for more than a minute causes aching pains and discomfort to this day. I also tend to drool because I have little muscle control. Loss of muscles and nerve tissue led to an attempt at one stage to transplant some from my left hand onto my face and chin. I still drooled.
So now you know. So far I have had more than 40 operations associated with the accident, mostly skin grafts. The last one was a real horror experience that finally ended whatever slight hope I had that I might look more normal.
Welcome to my face.