A trauma that must be faced

This article, written by myself, appeared in the Cork Examiner on May 15, 1992. As you can see, I had the wrong facts about the accident. I wasn’t lighting matches – I had been given different accounts at various times.

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A box of matches did the damage. Small slivers of wood with sulphur tips. They looked so innocent to a two-year-old who discovered them one January day in 1956. What happened next merited a couple of paragraphs in The Cork Examiner, but changed the lives of both the child and his family.

I remember nothing of the fire, so I don’t recall striking a match, nor dropping them on my clothes. Screaming as they were set ablaze and my body burned. My sister, just a year older, recalls the accident vividly, but my memories are blotted out, as are the following two years spent in hospital.

Last month I travelled to Belfast with Mary Casey, a social worker with the Social Work Department at Cork University Hospital, and Bart Kenny, who was burned in a work-related accident some years ago. The reasons for our visit were two-fold: to attend a meeting of the city’s Let’s Face It group, and to meet a quite remarkable woman, Christine Piff, who founded the organisation.

I first heard of Let’s Face It when they launched a branch in Dublin, and my immediate thought was: what a wonderful idea. And then I promptly forgot. When Bart rang to find out if I would be interested in helping start a branch in Cork I didn’t hesitate. By a happy coincidence we learned of Christine’s visit to Belfast a couple of weeks later, hence our journey.

Christine Piff was, by her own admission, happily married for 14 years, and blessed with three children, when in December 1976, she noticed her face was becoming uncomfortable. The pain did not go away, and when she was examined by a consultant the horrible truth was revealed – it was cancer. The remedy was radical and painful, and almost as terrifying, with part of her face being removed.

It wasn’t enough. Another tumour developed and she lost her left eye. More serious than such surgery was the trauma that accompanied it. Firstly coming to terms with cancer, and then the physical consequences.

For Christine the horror of the unfolding events was bad enough, but accepting that she would never look ‘normal’ again was frightening. With the aid of a prosthesis she now has a plastic cheekbone and eye which she takes off every night and puts on in the morning. But, in the wake of surgery her immediate fears were for her family and friends, and how they would react.

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In Let’s Face it, her touching account of the experience, she writes with great candour and good humour of how she resolved those fears.

As a result of her experience she founded Let’s Face It, a network for the facially disfigured. The causes of such a disability include road accidents, burns, cancer and birth defects. Unlike other self-help groups, Let’s Face It is dedicated to helping the victims, their loved ones, the professionals who care for them and the communities in which they live, to understand and solve the problems of living with the disability.

The aims are to offer the hand of friendship on a one-to-one basis, linking families, friends and professionals; to assist the facially disfigured to share their experiences, struggles and hopes; to help them build the courage to face life again; and to provide continuing education to medical, nursing and allied health professionals, concerning the lifelong needs of people with facial disfigurements.

Meeting Christine Piff I was struck by her ability, not alone to talk easily and frankly, but to listen. At the meeting she spoke of her shock on discovering the cancer and how she came to terms with it and her new face.

Afterwards, over tea and sandwiches, we got to know one another better. Christine conversed easily with everyone, and we began to appreciate each other’s courage in facing whatever problems each of us had had in in his/her life. Thirty-six years after the accident for me it was an extraordinarily moving experience to be among such an unique group.

I should add that those present ranged from about 13 to mid-60s, but our common bond removed any natural reserve we may have had. I remember about 10 years ago someone saying to me that it was great I was able to lead a normal life and wasn’t bothered about being a burns victim. I realised then how little he knew about me, and how successful I had been in camouflaging my own feelings.

To be facially disfigured can traumatise you in several respects. It can, for instance, affect the way you handle relationships with the opposite sex, and frighten you to the extent that you are afraid to go out because you feel people are always staring. Feelings of inadequacy, anger and resentment can frequently be difficult to overcome.

For burns victims, especially those who may be married at the time of the accident, the support of family and friends is crucial. To suddenly look different adds to an already painful burden, and makes recovery a much longer process. It saps morale and eats away at your own confidence. And it also takes time for both yourself and others to accept your new face.

Christine believes laughter is a great weapon in dealing with facial disfigurement, and she’s right. She also emphasises that we are special people – our uniqueness often being a burden, but one we should turn to our advantage.

On Monday next the inaugural meeting of the Cork branch of Let’s Face It will be held in the Social Work Department (main entrance) of Cork Regional Hospital at 9pm. For further information ring the Social Work Department (tel. 021-546400) today between 10.30am and 12.30pm.

I hope those of you who are disfigured, or know someone who is, will go to Monday’s meeting which will also be attended by a plastic surgeon.

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