In a meeting space at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati, nearly three dozen hotel housekeepers are focused on the 62-year-old Cold Spring woman, whose face and hands are like no others in the room.
She’s helping lead sensitivity training in advance of the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress, which runs Wednesday through Saturday at the Hyatt and Duke Energy Convention Center. It will be hosted by Shriners Hospital for Children – Cincinnati, and is being held here for the first time.
She’s come to prepare the hotel staff for a conference that will draw hundreds of burn survivors from around the country, as well as family members, burn care professionals and firefighters. And, she’s come to tell her story.
“I was burned 11 years ago …” she begins.
It was July 9, 2000, a Sunday. Sharon, then 51, was returning home from a grocery store. Her shopping bags, which she had placed on the floorboard behind the car’s driver’s seat, included chemical products for a backyard pool.
As she pulled into the driveway, the car’s interior suddenly burst into flames. Fire officials said the blaze ignited when the pool chemicals apparently leaked and mixed with other grocery products.
The Everetts lived in Fort Thomas at the time. Sharon’s husband, George, who is 63, was home that day. He’s an Army veteran who did a tour of Vietnam in 1968-69.
“I’ve seen people hit with napalm,” he says. “And that’s what I saw (with Sharon).
“I thought I lost her. I thought she was gone.”
Doctors thought so, too, at first, saying she had virtually no chance to survive. When Fort Thomas firefighters pulled her from the car, third-degree burns had ravaged nearly 60 percent of her body.
Her head and face were most severely burned. Her nose, lips, eyelids, ears and hair were gone.
Sharon, who was a project manager for AT&T, remembers nothing of the fire. At University Hospital, she was in a drug-induced coma for five months so skin grafts could take.
“Her body had to work so hard to heal,” says Patty Scharf, 35, of Alexandria, the youngest of the Everetts’ five children. They all live within a few miles of each other in Northern Kentucky.
The family lost track of the number of surgeries Sharon endured.
After seven months at University Hospital and two at Drake Center, she came home. That was cause for celebration, but it also meant the responsibility of providing ongoing care would fall to her family.
They changed dressings. Massaged scar tissue. Put on pressure garments to reduce scarring.
“We took turns breaking down,” says the Everetts’ oldest child, Katie Zembrodt, 40, of Melbourne, who quit her kindergarten teaching job to help care for her mother.
“Overwhelmed, you know?” says George.
“We’re glad she had five kids,” Patty says.
“So when one person was feeling down,” adds Katie, “somebody else was always there to pick us up.
“And Mom was always the perfect patient. She was never complaining.”
Sharon, who had to relearn simple tasks such as how to feed herself, was bolstered by her family. “It’s kind of like I had to live up to their expectations,” she says. “It was the strength in them that helped me do it.”
The Everetts say they were lucky to have the support of their family, community and church, St. Joseph in Cold Spring. Because of the generosity of others, they didn’t have to make a meal for about a year after the accident.
Still, “you feel so helpless,” Katie says, “like you’re the only ones who’ve ever been through this traumatic injury.”
She searched the Internet and found the Phoenix Society, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based burn support organization. It takes its name from the legendary bird that is consumed by flame but rises again.
The society’s 2001 World Burn Congress was in Grand Rapids. At Katie’s urging, the family rented a large van and headed north, less than a year after the accident.
“I was anxious about going,” Sharon says, “because I didn’t know what to expect. I was also excited about going. I knew we would learn something.”
They learned that to survive was not enough.
They met “so many people who had been through similar injuries, which was hard to believe,” Katie says. “They were surviving, and thriving, and having a good life.”
Says Sharon: “It was amazing to see people and what they had accomplished, and to see them having a good time. Laughing. Dancing.”
She hasn’t missed a conference since. She and George and various family members have traveled to Vancouver, Sacramento, Phoenix, New York and other cities.
The Everetts liken the conference to a family reunion where people share stories.
“When you hear a story, it’s not only healing for the person telling it,” George says, “it’s also healing for those that are listening, because a lot of them have been through similar circumstances.”
“You don’t feel so alone,” Katie says.
Sharon has never felt alone. Her family made sure of that.
The burn conferences have helped her meet other challenges. She’s no longer uncomfortable when going out to restaurants and the like. She’s no longer preoccupied with people staring at her.
She’s still bothered, though, when a child sees her and is visibly upset. She doesn’t like it when an inquisitive child is shushed by a parent.
“I would rather people ask than wonder. Especially children. I make my answer very simple – ‘I was burned, but I’m fine now.’ I don’t want them to worry about me.”
She acknowledges sometimes feeling discouraged. Recovery, she has learned, is a lifelong process.
“I have to look at this face in the mirror every day,” she says before her second sensitivity training of the day, this one at the Millennium Hotel. “Most days, that’s fine, I can deal with it. But there are days I get down.”
She knows nobody goes through life unscarred, whether emotionally or physically. Sometimes the scars are hidden. For burn survivors, often they’re not.
She tells other survivors: “You’re going to have a bad day. Don’t let that become your way of life. You’ll get past it. Your life may be changed, but it’s not over. And in some ways, it’s going to be so much better than it was before.”
Eleven years after fire almost consumed her, Sharon volunteers weekly at University Hospital’s burn clinic, where she visits patients that need someone to talk to.
The lilies, roses, petunias and other flowers in her yard attest to her gardening skill.
She and George volunteer at church. This year they began taking ballroom dancing lessons.
And, “I’m really enjoying my grandchildren,” she says. She and George have 12.
Cindy DeSerna, social work manager for Shriners Hospital for Children – Cincinnati, leads the sensitivity training with Sharon. DeSerna tells the Hyatt housekeepers they’ll see survivors from all walks of life – children, adults, Iraqi veterans.
Some, like Sharon, will have very visible scars and amputations; some will be wearing pressure suits and face masks.
Sharon, offering a closing thought, says: “I think you’ll see people that will really inspire you.”
They already have.
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