For children and young people who have experienced a burns injury, not all scars are visible.
Rebuilding self-confidence can sometimes seem daunting.
But over the past two decades, there has been help for those who have visited The Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital.
The Welsh Dragon Burns Club was established to offer emotional support to youngsters with burns injuries who have been treated at the Swansea centre or its previous home in Chepstow.
And over the years it has done just that.
Paediatric burns outreach lead nurse, Louise Scannell, who founded the club and remains its chairman, said: “Twenty years ago there was a national burns care review process, which concluded that burns units should have a support for young people, at no cost to them.
“A lot of patients need treatment into adulthood, or life-long treatment. But unless you have lived with a burns injury, you don’t know what it is like.
“The Welsh Dragon Burns Club brings those people together. It is about building confidence and self-esteem. They have a relationship with ourselves but away from the trauma environment of hospital, and it provides a sense of belonging without shame.”
As well as providing emotional support, the club hosts outings and week-long activity camps, and even overseas journeys.
Louise added: “Being all together gives people confidence to achieve. We choose activities to build confidence, and visit outdoor locations, and undertake challenges, and visit places like Center Parcs.
“We now have some of the older children giving advice, people who have experienced a burns injury and know what it is like.
“Also, people may not like swimming alone because they feel self-conscious, but with others it can be easier for them. We are there to help them navigate their self-esteem.”
The club isn’t funded by the NHS, but receives money from donations, Children in Need, Welsh Government grants, and also their own fundraising.
Having been forced to suspend its activities during the pandemic, its funding reserves are comfortable.
The club marks its 20th anniversary on September 28th, and is preparing to celebrate the landmark with a reunion of hundreds of former patients, hospital staff, volunteers and their families at an afternoon tea event shortly after.
They include former club member Sam Gardiner, from Gowerton.
Now aged 32, she suffered serious injuries to her legs and feet when she was still an infant.
Sam, who works for a Legionella control company, said: “I was 22 months old at the time. My family lived in a home which had an old-fashioned boiler, one without a thermostat, so it was difficult to control the temperature of the water. My mother was down the hallway collecting firewood when I snuck in the bathroom and climbed into the sink. At which time I turned the tap on and unfortunately, it was boiling. I apparently went into shock and was just sitting there when my mum found me, very luckily, seconds later.
“My mum pulled me out straight away, put me in the bath and ran the cold water before calling the ambulance. Initially, due to how small I was, they weren’t sure if I would pull through. But here I am good as new, minus a few toes.
“My feet and lower legs were the worst affected with full thickness burns and some less severe burns on my arm and top of my leg.
“I spent time at Chepstow when the burns’ centre was based there, and then moved back home to Swansea.”
“But I was young and at first, I did not think about it. When you’re a young child you just get on with it. I spent a lot of time in hospital with surgeries and skin grafts. It was when I got to comp that I became very aware of how different I was.
“I would not wear skirts or shorts, even if it was a hot sunny day. I would wear UGG boots all the time, I would be boiling, but I wouldn’t show my legs. I was embarrassed and ashamed, mostly of what other people would think of me; what judgement I would get, or nasty comments.
“But only one or two people have actually said anything. I remember in Year 8 someone said something to me. There was another girl in class at the time, and she was someone I didn’t particularly get on with, but she stood up and called the guy out. I thought that was lovely. No-one said anything again.
“I remember a time I had to have a full thickness graph over the top of my foot done, so I was off school for a few months. Some of the boys in the class asked my best friend where I was, and she told them I had been bitten by a shark. When I got back to school, I even had a scar to prove it and they all believed it. Needless to say, I did tell them the truth in the end, but it was funny.
“The Dragon Club was a game changer. You’d go out on trips and do activities together. I went to South Africa once. But the most important thing was the confidence it gave me.
“I felt accepted, and I wanted to go to the club. I started wearing shorts and skirts. Everyone there had scars, we just had them in different places, so we were all the same. We’d sometimes have competitions to see who had the best ones!
“I can’t put it into words how it made me feel, but I felt accepted and normal. It helped me massively. When some people see my scars, I can see them almost look sorry for me, which there is no need. I am no victim; I am a warrior and I will handle anything else that life throws at me. I have a sorted life – I have a wonderful fiancée; a beautiful house, a good job, amazing friends and the most adorable animals. Looking back, I think why was I like that?
“I thank the burns club for the confidence they gave me. I will forever be grateful to the club. It is wonderful to see they are still going. I do not think I would have been as strong as I am now without them, but also without my mum Judith, who is the strongest woman I know. They have made me so resilient.”
Amongst the people Sam met at the club were Shaun Thomas.
The 30-year-old video game streamer, from Penlan, was one of the first people to take advantage of what the club has to offer.
He said: “I was seven years old and downstairs in our living room early one morning. There was a lighter next to me and I was just playing around with it and caught flame, and suddenly my t-shirt was on fire. I just sat there for a few seconds as I realised what happened, and then I felt the pain.
“I ran upstairs to my mother screaming. She thought I was just having a nightmare, but then she saw me running towards her, a ball of flames of my t-shirt. She grabbed hold of me and ripped it off, burning herself doing so. I was left with burns on the left side of my chest.
“I think I was of the first to be involved with the Dragons’ Burns Club. I would go away with them to do activities and Christmas parties. It is really supportive of young children. People who go to the club spend time around people who have had similar experiences, and it is good to share those.
“The nurses are really understanding. They help you build up your confidence, and make you realise you don’t have to hide your scars away. I am lucky to have a supportive group of friends as well, and it’s helped me become a confident person. If I went to a leisure centre and I could see people staring at me, I would go and ask them if they were OK and if they wanted to know what had happened to me.
“I would tell anyone going to the club to just listen to the advice you are given. They will always be there to support you.
“I have made some good friends there who I am still in touch with, and I’m always very grateful to the nurses Louise, Karen and Sharon.”
Chloe Holpin works as a hairdresser in Merthyr Tydfil. She too was left with burns after playing with a lighter as a child.
The 19-year-old, from Fochriw, said: “I was 10-years-old and I was playing with a lighter, just messing around as you do as a child. The next thing I knew I was on fire. It went up my torso and up to my face and back.
“My mother put me in the bathtub, and she went into the street screaming for help. The air ambulance took me from Rhymney to Swansea, and after that I was taken to Bristol which had a burns unit for children. I’ve been in and out of Swansea ever since.
“I was so young, that weird as it sounds, it didn’t bother me too much as I had a chance to grow with it. I was not self-conscious until I was a teenager, which is when I started getting bullied for looking different. I’ve had friends who have come and gone, but my family has been my support system. My sister is two years older than me, and we are so close. She is my best friend, and my mother and brother are very supportive.
“I didn’t know about the club for a while, but when I was well enough I went along. My first trip with them was to Legoland. They’ve taken me to all sorts of places, and they also include the family. I’ve gone bowling with them and done all sorts of activities. I went away to stay at a cottage in Brecon with the club.
“It helped me with my anxiety. They are there to support you when you are feeling down. There are other people there with different injuries, and I realised I was not going through it alone. It helped me to cope and feel better and build my confidence, and I realised I had all this support around me.
“It is run by volunteers, and I hope to become a volunteer.
“Louise Scannell has become like a second mother to me. She has helped me when I’ve been down, or when I’ve struggled to change my dressings. She has taken time out of her day to come and see me when I’m in hospital, come and watch a film with me and to cheer me up. She has been amazing.”
The Welsh Dragon Burns Club afternoon tea event takes place at the Manor Park Country House on October 7.
(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)
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