During a routine bath in a kitchen sink, a fifteen-month old Jen Hartley reached to the faucet knob above her head and turned it, eager to release the stream of cool water onto her skin. But what she received instead would change her life forever.
“Our hot water heater was all the way up, at about 180 degrees in temperature. At that temperature, a third-degree burn can happen in under five seconds.”
For Jen, those five seconds were all it took.
She suffered third–degree burns over 56 percent of her body. Her burns were to her stomach, her buttocks, and the front and back of both legs and feet. The rest of her body was spared, but the damage was serious enough to classify Jen’s condition as critical. Her burns were so severe that doctors doubted that she would survive her injuries.
The first few days of a burn injury are all-important in determining a patient’s chances for survival. In 1972, at the time of Jen’s unintentional injury, patients with a high body percentage of severe burns often died as a result of their injuries. After several days in the hospital, her vital signs stabilized. Jen’s family knew she was out of danger, but had to face the next challenge.
“Doctors told my parents that my legs were burned to the point that I’d never walk again.” Jen paused for a moment, and laughed dryly before announcing, “I’ve been walking since I was eighteen months old!”
The sense of irony in Jen’s proclamation reflects the attitude of a young woman who has grown up to believe that life is a blessing, and that it is her duty to share her enthusiasm and wisdom with everyone she meets. As a child, she recalls the presence of people who made it tough for her, but determined that it was up to her to make people accept her. In her mind, the key to acceptance comes from self-acceptance. “I’m the kind of person that could just hide my burns with a pair of jeans—but I just don’t feel like I have anything to hide. I’m proud of the way I turned out. If you hide yourself from the world, the world will stay away. So I wear my shorts, and if people have questions, they can ask.”
Jen’s experiences as a person with burns prompted her to write an award-winning essay called “Stare With Care”. In it, she calls for people to look beyond each other’s appearances and respect and accept each other as they are. Jen participates in several burn survivor communities, encouraging people with burns to have a positive attitude about their injuries. “God has a reason for everything. I believe my reason is to help others who have been burned to have a positive attitude, particularly children.”
Today Jen is twenty-eight years old, and living in Albany, Georgia. Her burn injuries left full-thickness hypertrophic scars. She recently entered the hospital for her next procedure in a series of scar revisions she has undergone to relieve contractures.
Contractures are areas of increased scar tissue that contract and tighten the skin. When contractures happen around a joint, they can limit the joint’s mobility and render it inflexible. Jen has had seven surgical procedures to fix contractures in the last year, but she takes the hospital stays and procedures in stride. “With each surgical procedure, I walk a little stronger, stand a little straighter and hold my head a little higher.”
These days, Jen is writing a book, detailing her story. She envisions it as a self-help guide for people with burns who may have difficulty sharing her outlook. “Burns are just scars—they’re not on your mind. You are still capable of doing anything.”
And that seems to be exactly what Jen is doing.