As I forced my eyes open, I saw the florescent lights above my bed. I could hear the beeping machines and I knew I was in hospital. But I couldn’t move and couldn’t speak because I had a tracheostomy tube down my throat.
It took a while for me to know where I was but doctors explained that I’d been in a coma for a month. My boyfriend of two years, Michael Hoskin, leaned into my view. There was such sadness in his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. “I love you, darling. Aren’t you happy to be alive?’’
If I could have answered him, I would’ve said ‘no’. I closed my eyes, remembering the fire, and the excruciating pain as flames engulfed my body. The last thoughts I recalled having were of total fear and intense pain. I was sure I would die and never get to see Michael or my family again.
But now I wished I had died because I couldn’t move or talk. I knew I’d been in the belly of a fire and seriously injured so if I had survived then life was going to be horrible. Trying to forget my present condition, I attempted to think of the happy moments in my life – sitting around in the evening sun, having long dinners with friends and family, laughing, talking…
Until the day of the fire, which was September 2, 2011, I was the girl who had everything. I’d always been told I was pretty. I was a model during my university days but I modelled only so I could earn some money. Looks were not important to me because I believed personality is more important. I was proud that I could make the most of any circumstance and was a high achiever. To me, being blessed with looks was just luck.
Everything seemed wonderful. I was 23, had just landed a great job as a mining engineer at Argyle Diamond mine in North West Australia, after graduating with a double honours degree in mining engineering and science. I had an amazing boyfriend Michael, 29, a mine technician who I lived with Kununurra, Western Australia. He was a calm and peaceful guy, a contrast to me.
We loved riding bikes, surfing, running, anything outdoorsy. We enjoyed each others’ company and were planning to get married, have children, travel the world…
I was sporty – so much so that I decided to take part in a 100km ultra-marathon in the Australian outback. I never expected to complete the race, but entered it because I enjoyed challenging myself.
On the morning of the race, I scraped my hair into a ponytail and threw on my running kit. Michael was away in Darwin on business. As I waited for the race to start, I made friends with some of the runners.
Just before we were flagged off, I plugged in my earphones – I enjoyed listening to music as I ran – and then set off. The landscape was green and lush with vegetation and there was plenty of scenery to soak up and keep me entertained. I was well hydrated and doing well in the race. I was with a group of five runners and I was happy with my pace.
I was about 25km into the race, two hours since starting, and as I followed the course into a gorge, I spotted a bush fire heading towards us from the right, about 50m away. The organisers had not known about it because bush fires start naturally, quickly, and spread fast.
I used to volunteer as a paramedic and I’d seen bush fires before. So at first I didn’t panic. But this fire was angry, out of control, escalating, feeding off everything in its path. And it was racing towards us, the dry grass fuelling the combustion. It crackled and roared, as loud as a thunderstorm. Even as I was watching the fire, I began focusing on survival. The fire was racing towards us and there was no time to think of a plan.
‘Run’, I said to myself, and along with the other runners I raced up a steep rocky cliff – that was the only place to go. I knew fire travels faster uphill and to be above a fire is to be in the hottest place possible. But I had no choice, I couldn’t out-run it.
The heat was enough to melt hard plastic and was crackling and spitting ferociously. Even before the fire reached me, I could feel my skin beginning to burn. The acrid smell of burning vegetation and grass, plus the smoke was making me weak and I struggled to make it to a ledge about 10m above where we were. Even as I was climbing I could feel the fire licking at my heels and I was terrified and thought it was all over. Once on the ledge, there was nowhere to go and I curled up in a ball, hoping to save some parts of my body. But the heat was intense, the thick smoke making it impossible to breathe.
Then the flames got me.
My arms were on fire as I fell back to the ground, burning and screaming in pain. The air was hot and smoky and the pain of the fire searing my arms was unbearable.
The noise of the fire pierced my ears as it thundered and crackled. My hair and clothes were on fire and I couldn’t think straight.
Within seconds, the fire had passed over. As the air cleared, I forced my eyes open. I hoped the other runners were OK, but couldn’t stand up to find out. I’d been in the belly of the fire and had gone into shock and couldn’t move. Or scream.
I knew I shouldn’t try to move because that might worsen my condition. All the while I could hear sounds of other runners screaming and crying.
One of them came up to me and asked if I was OK, but I could hardly speak. I then heard her tell somebody that I needed help immediately.
I had no idea how bad my injuries were but I would later know that I had lost the skin on my face, fingers, neck, arms, legs and chest. Almost my entire body was charred and nerve endings burnt away. The pain was intense. Every inch of my body was searing as if it had been cooked.
Anybody who has been burnt by the shelf of an oven, for instance, knows how the pain sears into the skin. Now multiply that by 100 and that was how I was feeling. My body had gone into shock and I was not sure where I was or what was happening. I lay silent, almost as if I was awaiting death.
I couldn’t see anything as even opening my eyes was painful. Thankfully, four of the other runners I was with were miraculously not injured and somebody came and offered me water and painkillers. But one of the girls, Kate Sanderson, had also suffered life-threatening 65 per cent burns and two guys had around 25 per cent burns and injuries.
I could hear some of the runners telling me not to worry and that everything would be fine. They kept talking to me to keep me conscious. I kept thinking about Michael and the lovely times we’d had.
Meanwhile, somebody tried to call for an ambulance but there was no signal out there. Finally, somebody was able to get through and four hours after the incident a rescue team reached us.
All the while the other runners sat with me and tried to distract me from my injuries by talking about work and families. “So, what does a mining engineer do?” they’d ask me, while I told them all about my work.
The pain was relentless. I hurt all over – not just from the burns but the sun that was beating down on me, burning my raw flesh.
When paramedics finally arrived via helicopter, I recognised one of them, Bonny, from my days as a volunteer. I’d always enjoyed giving back to the community so used to help some charities and got to know a few paramedics in the area.
I tried to smile but it was too painful. “It’s me, Turia,” I said softly. Bonny looked closely then burst into tears. That’s when I realised how bad my injuries were. But I was not thinking about the long-term repercussions because my mind was not functioning properly.
I was flown to Kununurra Hospital, which was 15 minutes by helicopter. We were silent in the helicopter and I was given some basic first aid to numb the pain.
At the hospital I was put in an induced coma before I was transferred to Darwin Hospital. My parents and Michael were told to expect the worst. Doctors fought to save my life as I had burns to 64 per cent of my body. My face swelled to twice its normal size. Cartilage in my nose had burnt off and my ears were severely damaged.
I didn’t have enough skin left for skin grafts, so skin was imported from America to be grafted on to my face, arms and legs. Doctors in Darwin sliced me from the top of my legs to my feet, and the top of my arms to my hands because burns survivors swell up like pufferfish. Slicing helps the blood flow to the extremities. It helped because that saved my feet and hands, although I lost four fingers on my right hand and two on my left.
I was woken a month later. My skin felt stiff and I could barely bend my arms. I saw Michael and my parents at my bed. Although I wanted to smile and talk to them, I couldn’t because of the tube down my throat.
“Don’t worry, you are going to be fine,” my dad said. Michael was telling me how much he loved me, while my mother looked like she was going to burst into tears.
They would come to my bedside every day and cheer me up but it was two months before doctors felt confident I would survive.
Michael and my mum, Celestine, 45, were my rocks. They would talk to me every day, but I found it frustrating that I couldn’t respond.
“You are looking beautiful today Turia,’’ Michael would say when he arrived at hospital. “What are you going to achieve today?’’
I had a board of letters I could point to, but my hands were bandaged so even that was difficult. Moving any part of my body even an inch took all my strength and determination as the skin was too tight. I felt locked in.
It was when they started to take me off painkillers that I needed to find my inner strength because I knew that was the only thing that would see me through.
I’d get frustrated every day. Once, two physiotherapists were trying to help me climb a tiny step. Michael was cheering and clapping like I’d just completed a triathlon. But I was embarrassed and found myself losing my temper with him. I couldn’t speak so I’d scowl at him, wishing he’d just give up on me. But he never did. He’d be at my bedside 7am to 7pm every day, week after week, month after month. If he believed in me, I had to believe in myself, I thought.
Slowly I began to rehabilitate. Dressings had to be changed every day. It took hours and was agonising. I began to push myself to do things. Even small tasks like raising my hand to 90 degrees, climbing a step, learning to shut my lips were strenuous.
Slowly, I realised how lucky I was. I had a lot of time to think while in hospital and I realised I was fortunate to be blessed with such loving parents and a boyfriend like Michael.
Every painful moment was for me another hurdle to overcome. With the help of Michael and my mother, I knew I could get back on my feet.
I slowly learned to talk again. I could barely move my tongue or use my facial muscles and had to undergo physiotherapy and occupational therapy for a month before I could make some progress.
I had to go through the alphabet learning how to pronounce each letter, familiarising my mouth and tongue with actions.
Although every day felt like I was wading through thick sticky mud, I slowly began to feel like me again. “I love your beautiful eyes,’’ Michael would say every day. My eyes were saved because I had closed them while in the fire.
More than four months later, I still had no idea what I looked like. Mum didn’t want me to see my reflection and I am glad as I needed to build my strength up first before I could endure any more emotional shocks.
I knew there were more important things in life than looks, but when I first saw my reflection in an iPad, I couldn’t help but cry.
I was annoyed as I didn’t want to care about my looks, but the new me was going to take some adjusting to. I knew I had been burned, of course, and Michael had explained that I did look different. But seeing my image was truly shocking. However, I began to realise I had to accept that this was the new me.
“You’re beautiful,’’ Michael would tell me every day. “You’re still my girl.’’
With unwavering love like that, I felt I just had to push myself to get better. The day I left hospital, I was emotional. But it was just another step in the long journey to a new life. Each day brought a new achievement and that helped me move forward.
I had to wear a mask – deep burns remove the pressure the skin naturally provides to tissue and a mask helps to replicate this pressure to help prevent extreme scarring – for 23 hours a day for two years to help smooth my facial scarring.
I also had to wear a full-body compression suit over my dressings to help with healing.
I’ve had 28 operations since the incident, with surgeons working on as many as 15 parts of my body in any one op. I will need more surgery for the next five years to improve my condition.
I’ve just had surgery on my right hand to improve function. In October I will have an operation on my nose so I will be able to breathe properly.
There were days I didn’t know if I could still be Turia. Michael and I had been so outgoing, loving exercise and adventure. I couldn’t see myself sharing the same experiences with him anymore. But Michael still saw ‘me’ and was sure I would be able to get back to my usual self.
I realised that never once did Michael treat me differently. He was in love with my personality before, and that’s something I’ve still got.
A fter six months I was discharged from hospital. Michael had given up work to care of me. He’d been taught how to change my dressings and feed me, and he knew exactly when I had to take each of my many pills.
Together, we built a new life.
When I see old pictures of me, I do feel nostalgic but I don’t linger over them because I know it is futile to wish for a time that has passed.
When I look in the mirror, I see the beautiful girl Michael sees because like Michael, I know beauty comes from within and what really matters is who we are, not what we look like.
I’ve met several other burns victims and I find that very helpful. It makes me come to terms with my injuries better.
In 2012, I started a masters in mining engineering, as well as a masters in business administration. My friends, like Michael, know I just cannot remain tied to a bed. I like achieving, even overachieving.
I give motivational talks in schools and have pushed myself to get my fitness back. This year I’m walking part of the Great Wall of China to raise money for the charity Interplast, which provides free reconstructive surgery for the poor.
People often ask me if I’d change things if I could. There is no point thinking like that. Instead, I think of all the people who don’t have access to the kind of medical care I had. That’s why I’m devoted to Interplast.
Michael and I are planning to get married but not immediately. I count myself lucky. I am lucky I survived, I’m lucky I have Michael. I wish I could go back to that day in hospital when Michael asked me if I was glad to be alive and I wanted to say ‘no’. I’d tell myself life was going to be better than all right – life was going to be amazing.
Turia, 26, lives in Ulladulla, New South Wales, Australia.