‘You look like a snake. You’ll never get a boyfriend.’ I made up my mind the whole human race was beautiful, and I was ugly.’: Woman survives 4th degree burns after ‘hide and seek’ game gone wrong, learns to embrace unique beauty

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“When I was a young child, I lived in a small apartment with my four older sisters and my parents. My mother and father both worked hard, taking turns to go out to work or take care of five children. We often had power cuts or the electric turned off, leaving us without electricity to heat the house or cook food. I always remember my mom lighting candles and boiling up water to pour into the bathtub so each of us could bathe. The eldest would bathe first down to the youngest, unfortunately that was me.

One day, I was playing a game of ‘hide and seek’ with my sister Sheila and decided to hide under the bed. My mother was in the kitchen boiling pans of water to pour into bowls for our bath that evening. My mom called out to us to say that we weren’t allowed into the bathroom as she had just laid a bowl of boiling water onto the floor. But at age 4, I realized the bathroom would be the perfect place to hide from my sister.

I quickly ran into the bathroom and hid behind the door whilst my sister counted ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1…coming, ready or not!’ I stood there, waiting for her to come and find me, when suddenly I was pushed. I flew backwards into the bowl of boiling water. Screams could be heard all the way down the hallway and into the kitchen. Although I couldn’t remember anything on that day, I was told my mother and father quickly reacted and ran me under cold water. My skin was falling off as the cold water hit my back. My father called for an ambulance and, luckily for me, the hospital was minutes away.

The ambulance crew went into action as my body temperature began to drop and I went into shock. They wrapped me in cling film to keep in the heat and stop me from having any fits or seizures. My father traveled with me to the hospital while my mother looked after my other four siblings. Nobody knew the extent of my injuries as I arrived at the first hospital nearby.

Two consultants came out to meet me on arrival and told the ambulance crew and my father they had no facilities for burn injuries. One consultant frankly told my father, ‘There’s nothing we can do for her.’ I think it was at that point, my father realized how serious my injuries were. The other consultant knew of a burn specialist unit newly built, but was miles from my hometown. They suggested the police assist me in getting there as quickly as possible, so they did. Once I arrived, I was put straight onto life support but wasn’t treated immediately due to the seriousness of my small, injured body.

My father was given more upsetting news and had to call for my mother to say her goodbyes to me. The consultant told them both I wouldn’t survive the night, so my father asked for the hospital priest to pray for me and give my Last Rites, as well as baptize me. As they sat by my bedside overnight, it sunk in that they were losing me, their baby. However, miraculously I began to pick up and strengthen over the following days, exceeding doctors’ expectations. The consultants were shocked that I survived and often referred to me as the ‘miracle child.’

When I got stronger, the consultant took me off life support and removed all the tubes from my body. As they turned me, my mother was ready to scream but was told by the staff to not scare me. She was confronted with a huge, gaping hole in my back. The boiling water had caused 3rd and 4th degree burns that covered my torso, tummy, and leg. But the following days were going to be tougher than the accident itself.

I spent the following months in and out of hospital. I even caught pneumonia, which sent me back on life support and my parents had to endure almost losing their youngest daughter again. The priest was called as I was put back, but luckily I pulled through. The continuous skin grafting was extremely painful as they removed ‘good’ skin to cover the burned skin. The doctors had to take skin from my arms, legs, buttocks, and tops of my feet because I was quite small; it was difficult to find enough skin to work with. The hospital also freezed my skin so I could go back and have more procedures over the following years. My hospital appointment was really difficult because I was practically used for student doctors to examine like a guinea pig. I hated it so much because I had to strip naked and stand on a hospital bed awaiting the student doctors to examine my scarred body. I often suffered nightmares, waking up screaming as I envisioned doctors in white coats floating around my bedroom ceiling. At night, I would sit by the window looking up to the sky, talking to mister moon and asking him to take my nightmares away. I always woke up in a puddle of urine because I had no control over my body and these horrible dreams.

I remember going into school worrying I would stink of urine and be picked on for being the stinky girl, but my mother bathed me every morning before school and after. I spent a lot of time in the nursery with the babies and young children because I was ‘special’ and needed to sleep in the afternoons. When I tell you my hospital file was the biggest I’ve ever seen, it’s really not a joke. The nurse had to push my file in on a trolley of its own. By the time I reached 11, I already had well over 100 surgical procedures and operations. When I spent time in hospital, the ward was mixed with all ages and burn injuries. I would be amongst people with burned heads that were covered with bandages. I hated it so much and just wanted to be at home with my family. The hospital was miles away from home and really difficult for my family due to their busy family life and hectic work schedule.

When I entered secondary school, I was very excited, especially because my closest sister Sheila was two years above me. I couldn’t wait to see what sports education was all about although I didn’t really like the uniforms. The very first lesson was hockey. It was scary for me trying to cover my leg with my hand and arm. I couldn’t concentrate on the game, as I continually fiddled with my shorts in hopes that nobody would notice my burn scar down my leg. We were taken inside to change our clothes as the teacher wanted us all to shower. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at this point because I was scared of the teacher, so I went along with undressing. Of course, I was the last person to change and covered myself with a towel. We all had to line up and one by one go into the shower while the teacher counted. By the time I reached the teacher, I began to plead with her that I couldn’t shower, but she didn’t listen and pulled off my towel, and pushed me into the shower. I was devastated. I couldn’t think straight and remember running all the way home to tell my mom about my experience.

My mother wasn’t happy and the next day accompanied me up the school where we met with the headmistress. We were told I didn’t have to shower and I certainly didn’t have to do sports lessons anymore. But I wanted to continue with sports so I could fit in just like the others. If I didn’t go ahead with sports lessons, I knew my peers would begin to ask questions and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. After lunch that day, I spent time sitting alone, holding onto my tummy. The burn scars across my tummy were thick and made me feel like I was wearing a tight belt I couldn’t loosen. It often made me feel sick and I would lie to friends that I had period pains. I tried to avoid using the toilets in school just so I didn’t have to look at myself in the mirror. One day, I remember walking into the toilets and seeing a bunch of girls brushing their hair and complimenting each other. I quickly rushed to the toilet without approaching the sinks. I was thinking if they caught me looking at myself in the mirror, they would laugh and call me names. For some reason, I believed everyone knew I had scars and was ugly. This stuck with me for the rest of my life. In class, I would sit at the back of the class so no one could notice me. I tried my hardest to avoid putting up my hand and answering questions. I began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, worried that whenever someone came close to me, they would feel my scars and think I was disgusting. I was growing paranoid as each day passed.

My father took me to watch my sister swim at the local club. I didn’t expect to join, but yearned to swim. One day, my father introduced me to a lovely swim teacher who took me to a private pool. I was told I’d be joining the swim club, which made me feel really worried and nervous. I did share my unhappiness with my father,but he believed this could be perfect for me fitting in with other children. I asked my mother to give me a big towel so I could cover and hide my scars from the other children. I quickly learned how to stay in the changing room until everyone was swimming. I also learned how to stay in the pool until everyone got out of the pool.

I wasn’t as good a swimmer as my sister, but I was invited to attend an event where I got to compete against others. I told my sister to stay with me until I entered the water and to wait for me when I exited the pool. I jumped in the pool and swam my race, holding back from placing as I didn’t want to be seen on the winner’s podium. I managed to come fourth in the race and it suddenly hit me my sister wasn’t around. I couldn’t get out of the pool without my sister holding my big towel. I panicked and stayed in the pool whilst other swimmers climbed out. The timekeepers began whistling and calling me to climb out of the water. I completely ignored their wishes, trying to squat down under the water in the hopes no one saw me. Suddenly, a loud voice shouted over the intercom. ‘Can lane 6 please climb out of the water.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I quickly jumped out and legged it to the changing room. I sat inside the cubicle, crying, when I heard my sister’s voice. I shouted at her, ‘Where were you?!’ It was the scariest swim of my life. I didn’t want to go back out there and decided to pretend I was sick to avoid swimming any other races.

One day at the swimming club, the swim coach called us all to get out of the water. Once again, I did this thing where I would hide so I didn’t have to climb out. He noticed me so I had to join the other swimmers poolside. While I was standing there alongside my sister, I overheard some children behind me saying this:

‘Yuck, what’s that on her back?’

‘She’s a snake.’

‘A witch.’

‘It’s disgusting!’

Then they all decided to laugh.

My sister quickly turned around and cursed them out. She was never very good at holding her tongue but let off a firing round of insults towards them. She was my sister, my protector. I couldn’t do without her and relied on her for everything. Later in life, she became a firefighter, pulling people from houses and cars, my heroine.

Once I turned 15, I made the choice to stop swimming as acting and covering my body was bloody hard work. I began dating boys but that was another story altogether. I tried to avoid relationships because my confidence was low and I self- hated very badly. I remember someone once saying to me, ‘You’ll never have a boyfriend.’ Those words stuck with me throughout my life. My first boyfriend tried to tell me he loved me, so I ran away from him. The second boyfriend pointed at beds through shop windows so I made an excuse to get away from him and never returned. My friend invited me to a local nightclub where there were lots of people dancing together. Before I knew it, I was dancing with someone but their hands were rubbing up and down my back. He whispered in my ear, ‘Are you wearing a basque or a corset?’ That scared the absolute life out of me. Of course, it was my scars. The contractures on my back were deep, but could be felt through my clothing. I avoided dancing with boys again, but met a really lovely guy who befriended me. I knew I liked him, but he just seemed to like me as a friend.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

One night, I approached him and asked if he would like to go clubbing with me. He agreed, but we ended up back at his home. He asked me why a beautiful girl like me didn’t have a boyfriend, so I told him. He asked if he could see my scars, so I lifted my top and he didn’t react. In fact, he asked if he could touch them. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The person I wanted to date actually telling me I was still beautiful regardless of my scars. After this day, we went on to date and at a later date had 3 children together.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

We were both pretty messed up mentally due to his own family problems that ran deep and of course my scar problems. We began abusing alcohol regularly and it affected our two daughters. I realized that no amount of love could take away my mental scars and the way I thought about myself, my body. I hated me more and more each passing day. We hit very bad relationship difficulties that led to us both hating each other. Nonetheless, I got pregnant again and this time it was a boy. We were both so happy. I stopped drinking and concentrated on my children and giving them all the love my parents gave to me. Eventually the relationship broke down, but we remained friends which worked for all of us.

One day, I approached my doctor to see if there was any type of support or help for me. I just needed to break free from this bubble that surrounded me and be able to talk with someone about my problems. I began counseling, but found it really difficult to share how I was feeling. I stopped going and decided to deal with my problems myself. When my grandson was born, I was spending more time shutting myself away in my bedroom like a recluse. I was scared that I was being watched and people were following me. I cried so much every day that I wondered how my tears never ran out. I would stand over the kitchen sink, washing dishes and crying. My son would ask, ‘Are you crying, mom?’ I would reply, ‘No son, I have a cold.’ Other time’s I’d go with, ‘I have something in my eye.’

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

I decided to start writing my story and see if that could help me understand how I felt about myself as a person. I never looked at my scars because I just hated them so much. I never thought about photographing them and certainly didn’t wear anything to show them. Occasionally, I would wear a top that exposed some of the scars on my back. I remember standing in a supermarket and a woman with her son discussing me and scars. She told him I was a poor woman whose injuries are probably the worse anyone can endure. At no point did she think to touch me on the shoulder, but just continued to talk about me literally right behind my back. I began to feel paranoid that anyone walking past me laughing, whispering, or talking were actually referring to me. Of course, they weren’t talking about me, but I certainly felt it.

I battled suicidal thoughts and often contemplated what was the quickest way for me to end my life. I would spread out all my painkillers on the bed and work out how long it would take, if it would be peaceful. It’s hard for me to explain but the thoughts got extremely bad that I planned out every different way to take myself off this earth. The only thing that kept me here was my beautiful family who stood by me and my beautiful children. I couldn’t put my parents through the loss of their child, especially not when I was saved as a toddler.

In the summer of 2016, I wouldn’t leave the house but was coming to realize there wasn’t any support out there for people with bodily disfigurement or hidden differences. My mother invited me on holiday with my son to Bulgaria, which was much needed. I was given a bikini from my sister that I packed in my case with a sarong but never intended to wear it. The weather was getting hotter and I couldn’t keep wearing a costume, so I asked my mother over and over if she could see my scars through the sarong. Of course, my mom loves me and told me not to worry as I look beautiful. It wasn’t the words I wanted to hear because I already made up my mind years ago that the whole human race was beautiful and I was ugly.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac
Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

We spent most of our time by the pool or on the beach sunbathing, swimming, and having fun. I was still very nervous about anyone looking at me and noticing how much I lacked confidence. One day when we went to the pool, I had my bikini on with the sarong pulled up over me and noticed a man behind me filming with his phone held high in the air, pointing in my direction. I was extremely angry. The man quickly got up with his wife and friends, walking away, while I pointed my phone in their direction. ‘How does he like it now that I’m filming him?’ My lovely mom made the decision for us to leave the pool and go down to the beach. Whilst we were there, she asked me questions about my scars. ‘Do they hurt?’ She wanted to touch them and this really took me back to when I was a child. My beautiful mom always making sure I was covered and looked after. But something was different this time. She was sad.

I couldn’t let my mother carry the guilt of my accident any longer, so I got up and walked to the water’s edge. I dropped my sarong and turned to pose, calling to her, ‘Mom, look at me’ as I smiled the biggest smile to encourage her that I was OK. I made my way back over to her and put my hand on her shoulder saying, ‘Mom, please don’t worry about me anymore. Everything is going to be okay.’ She looked up and smiled at me. I knew from that smile she believed me. However, what I didn’t realize was that my bubble had busted and I was about to become the most positive, caring person. Embracing my scars and sharing my story online. I stopped being a victim to my scars and very quickly became a survivor, a thriver.

When I arrived back home, I approached one of my closest cousins who knew about my accident. I asked him if he could help me as I knew nothing about social media and I really needed to help others that were going through all the terrible life moments I went through. He helped me set up a YouTube video interview with Sally Bee and I launched it on Facebook. I was absolutely astounded at how many people I touched with my video. These people connected with me through my story and they didn’t need to have scars to be emotionally, mentally, or physically affected in some way.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

I set up a Facebook group for people with scars, health and skin conditions that affect their appearance and went on to create beautiful photo shoots, campaigns, protests, and meet-ups. My online platform quickly grew as I shared my scars in bikinis and set up talks for others to share their stories.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac
Courtesy of Sylvia Mac
Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

I received an award from the prime minister in Downing street for my voluntary services for supporting others and recently swam from Asia to Europe. I am now a Cross Continent open water swimmer (with scars!) and confronted my fears of open water.

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac
Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

A quote I use very often is this:

You cannot change your path in life but you can change the way you walk it.

And, believe me, it’s true.”

Courtesy of Sylvia Mac

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Silvia Mac. You can follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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