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A FAMILY’S COURAGE

How compassion, care and a bond of love helped a Saint John couple and their daughter recover from trauma

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Preparing a big breakfast on a rainy Saturday morning in August 2017 at a campground on the Kingston Peninsula, Belinda Humphrey had no idea the most horrifying moments of her life were about to begin. 

She lit a burner on the propane stove in her family's travel trailer to reheat some sausages. 

"As soon as I lit it, it blew up in my face," she says. "It was a huge, incredible bang." 

Belinda felt fire on her hands and fell to the floor. The blast was so powerful it blew her husband, Michael, out the door of the trailer. Their 14-year-old daughter, Michaela, had been sitting on a bench by the stove, and flames burned her bare legs as she sprang to her feet to escape. 

"I was hysterical, and screaming," Belinda says. 

Belinda and Michaela managed to get out of the trailer as black smoke billowed to the sky. Michael, staggering and in shock, had burns on half of his body. 

And then, in the excruciating minutes of waiting for help to arrive, a kind of magic started to happen. Two women who were staying at nearby campsites rushed to the family. Believing she was going to die, Michaela asked them to sing Amazing Grace and Take Me Home, Country Roads.

"Those two ladies sat in between us and were like angels calming us down," Belinda says. "They were incredible."

Later, as the family was taken away in three ambulances, Belinda didn't know whether her husband and daughter would survive. The paramedic soothed her by sprinkling sterile water on her burned hands, arms and face. And, like the compassionate strangers at the campground, he sang to her. 

"I remember the ambulance attendant being incredible," she says. "I wish I knew his name because I would love to see him." 

As her stretcher rolled into the emergency room at Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital, Belinda felt like she was in a tunnel - but there was also a sense of having come home. She has worked in the hospital as a pharmacy assistant for ten years and is often in the E.R. delivering reports and medications, so the people treating her injuries were comfortingly familiar. 

"One of the doctors was coming around," she says, "and I could see all the faces and I was like, 'I know you.'" 

Michael and Michaela were taken to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. Michael had burns on his back, abdomen, legs and arms, while Michaela's worst burns were on her legs. Belinda, meanwhile, was moved to the hospital's Burns, Plastics, Surgery Unit. At first, she couldn't recognize her own hands.

"Basically, they looked like Freddy Krueger," she says. "I had no fingertips or anything. It was just completely gross."  

The day after the explosion, the family was reunited. Instead of going to pediatrics, Michaela was given special permission to move into her mother's room, and Michael was next door. Still, life seemed bleak. Nurses kept saying things would get better, but it was hard for the family to believe it. And as Belinda and Michael coped with their own burns, they lived with the even deeper pain of knowing their daughter was suffering and scarred. 

"To have her beside me was the worst and best," Belinda says. "The best, of course, because I could keep my eye on her and see things. But she was begging me to just let her die, and the screaming… but I'm glad it was me that got to be with her." 

Then, in the midst of misery, the magic started again. Belinda's hospital colleagues visited every day, often bringing home-cooked meals and sweets. One of Horizon's renowned plastic surgeons, Dr. Donald Lalonde, took time to sit and talk with Michaela, and another Horizon employee told her the story of how he had survived burns as a child. Staff organized 50-50 draws, a chili sale and a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the family. One day, when Belinda was feeling low, co-workers delivered a huge poster covered with inspiring cards. 

"I did cry," she says. "But it was out of the kindness shown." 

Eventually, there were smiles, even laughter. Belinda started taking Michaela for walks in the hospital, and they'd call it "going to town." The teenager grew stronger, getting through the wound cleansings, dressing changes and agonizing debridement (removal of dead skin) with maturity. Young nurses in the unit sang with her in the shower, painted her fingernails and styled her hair. When Michaela was finally ready to dress in regular clothes, staff organized a 'big reveal' in the corridor and cheered her on. 

"They don't really get kids a lot (in Burns, Plastics, Surgery), so they were trying really hard to make me feel OK," Michaela says. "When you're in the hospital, you feel really gross, so doing your hair makes you feel a little prettier. They were like more than nurses."

From the start, staff could see the tight, healing bond that Belinda, Michael and Michaela share. "They are an amazingly resilient family," says Cindy Goggan, Nurse Manager in the unit. "Whenever one was struggling, the other two were ready to prop them up. It's truly who they were as a family that I think got them through it and got them the outcomes that they achieved."

In October 2017, six weeks after being wheeled in, Belinda was released from the hospital and started receiving treatment at home from nurses with the Extra-Mural Program. Michael went home two weeks later. Michaela, the last to leave the hospital, started Grade 9 at Harbour View High School in Saint John before Christmas. Her legs were still in bandages, and friends walked with her as she carefully made her way from class to class. The school surprised her with the gift of an iPhone. 

"Even with three months lost from school, she graded to Grade 10," Belinda says. "We are so proud of her. Her attitude has been inspiring. She has been so brave." 

Belinda has been back at work at the hospital since the beginning of 2018. Her Horizon colleagues gave her such a warm welcome she almost felt like a celebrity.

She has a new parking spot closer to the building, and some of her tasks have been modified to make them less strenuous. 

"Every day that I come into work, that I have the opportunity to work, that physically I can work, I feel incredibly blessed," she says. "The ambulances coming in and out still give me that little bit of a cringe, but seeing the people that were so helpful still brings me joy." 

August 12 was the first anniversary of the explosion. The family may face plastic surgery in the years ahead, and coping with the emotional aftermath of the trauma can be hard. But looking back on their ordeal, they gush with gratitude for the treatment they received from the nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, psychologists, housekeeping workers and other Horizon staff. 

"I have never felt luckier and more blessed to have come through this, and I will never forget the kindness shown to our family," she says. "I'm proud to have my Horizon family by my side."

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