It all happened in a flash. A closed door unexpectedly swings open. A pot of boiling water and wax. Splash.
The first thing Elaina Meier recalls of the accident is the taste of her lips blistering off. The two-gallons of boiling water and molten wax streamed down her face, arm and chest, leaving a trail of destruction.
“Every sensory piece came in one at a time,” she says. “The first responder in me knew it was bad, but the athlete in me said I was fine.”
Elaina was rushed to a nearby hospital that dressed the wounds then transferred her to Columbia St. May’s Regional Burn Center, where Dr. Thomas Schneider, a burn and vascular surgeon, took over her care. Elaina, however, was not willing to stay long enough to allow Schneider and the team at the Burn Center do all that they needed to.
It was the summer before her sophomore year of college, and Elaina was working as a camp program coordinator and lifeguard at the time of the accident. Camp was her refuge, her home, and despite the pain and the rational part of her brain that was screaming at her to stay in the hospital and recover, she just had to get back to camp.
Additionally, since she was 9 years old she had been an athlete, and a first-class one at that – she was recruited to play soccer and as a sophomore she was the starting goalkeeper and team captain – so the idea of giving in to the injury was simply not a part of her psyche. Walk it off, play through the pain, never show weakness – those are the instinctive reactions of a serious athlete. Besides, the training camp for soccer season started in three weeks and there was no way she was going to miss that.
“I needed to play,” she says. “Going back was about knowing I’d be okay. On the surface it was an unwise decision, but I needed to heal my head before I could heal my body. Part of my recovery was continuing to pursue the dreams that had been important before the burn.”
Dr. Schneider certainly didn’t approve of Elaina leaving the hospital, but he understood. Elaina spent a few nights on her father’s couch and then returned to camp. And three weeks later she was back at school and on the soccer field. With still-fresh wounds that needed regular attention and caused constant pain, Elaina somehow played the entire season – she even set some conference records. But between soccer, school, her work as editor in chief of the school newspaper and the normal social life of a 19-year-old college student, her injuries were not getting the attention they needed.
“I was stubborn. I made some mistakes, some youthful, prideful mistakes,” Elaina says, “but the important lesson for me was knowing I was still who I was. The outside might be a little different, but it’s still possible to live life.”
Once the season ended, Elaina started coming around to the realization that these injuries were something she needed to take seriously. That summer she came back to Milwaukee and finally went through skin grafting (something that typically would have been done almost immediately after the burn happened). For the following school year she transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to be closer to the Burn Center and Dr. Schneider and began healing her body, which included surgery.
“It was the beginning of perspective,” she says. “My healing was more important than another season.”
Though her physical healing was finally properly underway, there was still a lot of emotional work to do. Elaina has what is called a “hidden burn,” meaning it’s not clearly visible to the general public. With scars limited to her torso and arm, Elaina can easily conceal them with a long-sleeved shirt, if she so chooses. While that may seem preferable to an outsider, hidden burns carry their own set of unique challenges and dangers.
“It’s a blessing and a curse. The danger in a hidden burn is nobody knows and you can get away with not talking about it, which is not healthy. Hiding can be really dangerous and it can be really self-destructive,” Elaina says. “I don’t know that there is any way you can measure the suffering of one burn compared to another and say one’s easier or harder. The challenges are different.”
It took Elaina a while to open up about her burns. But a moment of cosmic serendipity helped push her. Two years after her burn, she was working at a different camp, which just happened to be the host of that year’s Wisconsin Summer Camp for Youth Burn Survivors. Though she was a lifeguard and was surrounded by other young survivors, she still kept her burns a secret. Until one day at the waterfront.
As Elaina stood on patrol by the water’s edge, hordes of little kids came pouring down to the lake – their burns exposed for the whole world to see – without an ounce of self-consciousness or judgment. Elaina broke down. She quickly jumped into the water to help camouflage the tears running down her face. The courage and acceptance of those children struck a very deep and personal chord with her.
“I saw in those kids what I hadn’t accomplished yet in my recovery,” she says. “Until that moment, seeing those kids in their swimsuits, seeing those kids not thinking twice about their scars, I didn’t think that was possible for me. I was 21-years-old thinking I’m going to be wearing long sleeves for the rest of my life. And that was a hard place to live.”
Twelve years later, Elaina, now 31, is a high school teacher, soccer coach and a tireless advocate for burn survivors – and it all started that one day at the dock. She is deeply involved with the Phoenix Society, serving as a moderator for the online chat sessions and helping to plan World Burn Congress, and is a volunteer with Columbia St. Mary’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) program and the Burn Survivor Support Group.
Elaina brings a unique perspective to burn support groups. She would be the first to admit that her way is not the best way for most – it probably wasn’t even the best way for her. For more than 10 years she was a goalkeeper, the last line of defense, isolated and self-reliant – and that was very much how she lived her life. But by going it alone and keeping her pain quiet for as long as she did, she was able to learn the importance of asking for and accepting help. And that’s the singular lesson she is able to pass along to fellow burn survivors.
“Don’t go it alone,” Elaina says. “Grab the hand that’s offered and then turn around and offer a hand.”