Despair of facial disfigurement lifted by love

THAT face on the right is mine. So what do you see when you look at it, especially if we have never met? 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 a more normal face, less noticeable than my own. Just like yours. I’m 60 now, so I know that’s never going to happen. This is who I am, scars and all, inside and out. Physical scars are one thing, psychological ones something else.

Fifty-seven years ago last month, I was with my sister playing alone in our home. I was a fair-haired 27-month-old youngster, Lorraine one year and four days older.

Mum was across in the shop buying washing powder 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 new long plastic bib, then full of starch, and set the plastic alight. Lorraine was the only witness. She remembers flames shooting up from my chest and neck as I screamed in agony trying to run out the front door and escape. But there was no escape. We were both too small to open the door, but our screams reached my mum’s ears and she rushed across to find me engulfed in flames.

Imagine hearing those terrified screams and the unbelievable sight that awaited you: her little boy was in mortal danger.

She remembers a repair man rushing to help and offering to grab a blanket to smother the flames. In the midst of this horrific sight, her son burning, little daughter convulsed in tears and shock, she remembered advice she had read in a book just weeks before cautioning against using a blanket to cover somebody with burns. The blanket would stick to rotten flesh and the flesh would come off when removed.

So she shouted at the man to get sheets instead. Within minutes, the badly burned little boy and his heartbroken mother were loaded into an ambulance and taken away.

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 with 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 13 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 constructive surgery, Dad decided 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, 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. Muscle from my left foot was transplanted into my face and chin.

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 deeply traumatic experience that finally ended whatever slight hope I had that I might look more normal. Growing up with facial disfigurement was a difficult life journey. From my adolescence onward, my world changed gradually until I arrived at a point where I had, apart from family, and a couple of friends, become socially isolated. I developed a dual existence, outwardly normal to workmates, family and a few friends, but afraid to go out on my own.

I internalised my real feelings and despaired of finding someone who would love me for more than just my face and judged me on who I was. And then along came Trish, a woman who opened the door to a world of happiness I thought would never arrive. We have two beautiful children, Daire and Sarah Jane, who are a great joy to us. With support like that, you can face anything.

Welcome to my face.

Follow Tom at: @1tomhickey


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