It was 1972 and Janet Cusick was driving her Volkswagen bug down the highway in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her friend sat next to her in the car; they were seventeen years old, and their lives were about to change.
At a stoplight, Janet hit a car, and the gas tank in her car exploded. The two girls were trapped in the burning car. A truck driver passing in the opposite direction saw it happen, and stopped to pull the girls out of the car. The second person on the scene was Janet’s father.
“He just happened to be driving down the highway in the opposite direction and saw it happen.” Janet recalls. “So my parents didn’t receive that horrible phone call telling them I was in the hospital.”
Janet was lucky, considering the extent of the crash. She received full and partial thickness burns to fifteen percent of her body. The areas with burns included her face, neck, chest and hands. Her friend was less fortunate, receiving serious burns as well as internal injuries.
In 1972, burn treatments were significantly less advanced than they are today. Janet was taken to a hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska that did not have a burn center, so she received her initial treatment in the Intensive Care Unit and the general floor. Her initial treatment consisted of packing the burns in ice, “which is no longer considered acceptable”, according to Janet.
Janet is fairly knowledgeable about acceptable burn treatments, as she has spent over twenty years as a burn nurse, practicing now at the Via Christi Hospital in Wichita, Kansas. She calls her decision to become a nurse a result of the crash.
“I was a junior in high school when this happened, and I spent a couple of years not knowing what I wanted to do and feeling sorry for myself. Finally, my family and friends gently persuaded me that it was time to get over it, and I decided to go to nursing school. When I got through nursing school, I decided that the only place I wanted to work was I the burn unit.”
Janet was an empathetic resource for her patients, having experienced many of the same emotions they felt. “Everyone is going to respond differently, due to a number of different factors. Whether it was an unintentional injury, an assault or a suicide attempt—the responses are so different. The main thing is to say ‘I’m still okay on the inside’. You make your choices as life goes on, and you can choose whether to be a victim or a survivor.”
After nine years as a burn nurse, Janet chose to become a firefighter. “At the time, there were no women in the fire department in Lincoln, Nebraska. I got to know many of them while working on statewide fire prevention programs, and they all talked about heir jobs like they really liked it. So I decided to go for it. I had a good healthy respect for fire because I knew what it could do. Part of it was about conquering my own fears and demons—fire cannot get the best of me!
After three years as a full-time firefighter, Janet returned to nursing to pursue outreach education. Today, Janet is an outreach educator, specializing in prevention education. She teaches primary and secondary prevention strategies to children, senior citizen groups and health fairs. “Prevention is my love,” she says. “I would love it if nobody ever had to go through a burn injury, but I know realistically that fires and burns will occur.” Janet stresses the importance of primary prevention, such as preventing fire in the first place, but emphasizes that children need to know secondary prevention as well. “If a child does play with a lighter and his clothes catch on fire, he needs to know to stop, drop, and roll.”
Beyond prevention techniques for children, Janet emphasizes the role of responsible adults. “Teaching other adults and caregivers who have the authority to make decisions in the home is important. Talking to children about scald prevention doesn’t do a lot of good, because they cannot change their environment.”
Janet took her experience as a person with burns and chose to dedicate her life to helping others with burns. “We don’t talk about accidents anymore. The word accident implies that something is unavoidable—and most of the scenarios we are talking about are avoidable.” With Janet’s help, the people of Wichita, Kansas are learning ways of avoiding fires and burns in their lives.