If you asked sisters and former Shriners Children's burn patients Lacy and Amy what makes them special, they would both offer one word: “nothing.”
They wouldn't point to the fiery boating accident 50 years ago that severely injured them, their brother, parents and grandfather. They would not talk about the scars from the second- and third-degree burns marking their skin.
Their combined months-long stays at Shriners Children’s Ohio (formerly Shriners Hospitals for Children – Cincinnati) was life changing, but it did not make them feel different than anyone else.
“Nobody in my family was special because all of us were trying to heal from these burns,” Amy said.
It was 1971 when Amy and Lacy (then 3 years old and 5 months old, respectively) their brother, parents and grandfather were boating on the Ohio River in Brown County. They hadn’t been on the water long when the boat suddenly caught fire and exploded. Amy’s grandfather pulled her from the flames and jumped into the water with the rest of the family.
The focus then turned to Lacy.
“My dad swam back to get me, burning his hands when he touched the boat,” Lacy recalled. “I think God lifted him up out of the water so he could grab me. His belt buckle was so hot that it burned me and I still have the scar on my stomach.”
Memories of Care
While Lacy is too young to really remember what happened, Amy’s memories come in flashes and impressions.
“I remember being in the ambulance and screaming because it hurt so badly,” Amy said. She had second- and third-degree burns on 80% of her body.
Not having the ability to immediately call an ambulance, a good Samaritan concerned about the critical condition of little Lacy drove her to the hospital. Nearly 40% of her tiny body sustained third-degree burns.
One of the doctors at the small rural hospital they were taken to had interned at Shriners Children's and knew he needed the expertise of the burn center in Cincinnati, but there was a problem.
“They didn’t have enough beds at the time so they could only take one of us,” Lacy explained. “My sister was older, with a better chance of survival, so they took her.”
“I remember some of my time at Shriners,” Amy said. “I remember the IVs in my scalp and the debridement, and rotating me in the bed.”
Lacy’s prognosis was not good. Her blood became infected and treatment options were limited. This time, when the doctor called Shriners Children's, the hospital was able to admit her.
“I remember I was so excited to see Lacy,” Amy exclaimed. “I think it was part of my therapy, to have me close to her so I had someone.”
No question, the Shriners hospital saved our lives. We wouldn’t be here today without the care.
A Family's Healing
Because the sisters’ mom, dad and grandfather were recovering from their own burns, their only visitor was their grandmother. Still, Amy said she was emotionally shutting down. It was a phone call and some tough love that changed her response.
“I think it was about three weeks I had been there when I got to talk to my mom on the phone,” she said. “It made a big difference. My grandmother said she saw tears coming out of the corner of my eye.”
But Amy said it was her grandmother’s tough love that set the course for how the entire family would handle their recovery. “She always said we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Amy recalled. “We had to get up, get going and do what needed to be done.” Amy recalls a nurse who had that same mentality. “At the time she seemed really mean to me, but looking back, forcing me to do the stretches, changing my bandages, is what helped save my life,” Amy said.
After two months, Lacy was released from the hospital; then a month later it was Amy’s turn to go home. However, in many ways, the sisters say their time after the hospital was actually the most difficult.
“We don’t know how our parents did it,” Lacy said. “They were still recovering from their own painful burns and now they had to take care of three kids who had their own injuries.”
It’s no surprise their recovery took a village. Lacy and Amy said neighbors would often come over to help them with water therapy and stretching. Their brother Peter turned into their personal protector, playmate and confidant. “I was wrapped up in these bandages, still in a lot of pain, and these kids would run up to me and Peter would run ahead and put his arms out to stop them from touching my skin,” Amy said.
Still, Amy and Lacy called growing up with their scars “punishing.” “Kids would tease us of course and, as I got older, people asked how I could walk around with a scar on my face,” Lacy said. No matter how cruel kids were to the sisters, their mom was always there for support and a reality check. “She would say ‘Nobody is special in this family. We’re a unit and we’ll get through this together,’” Amy remembered.
Now, 50 years after that accident, the sisters have a better perspective of their experience. “No question the Shriners [Hospital] saved our lives,” Lacy said. “We wouldn’t be here today without the care.”
As for the scars, the sisters, who are now mothers, said they have accepted, and in some cases celebrated, the permanent reminders of what happened. “I wear a scar on my face because it could have been so much worse,” Lacy explained. “My dad literally went through fire to save me and this scar from his belt buckle is a badge of love.” “I stopped caring when people stared at me because I developed self-confidence,” Amy said. “We were raised not to have a victim mentality and that’s what I taught my kids.”
The sisters are now in a position to give back to Shriners Children’s Ohio – the new name and new location of the hospital that saved their lives.
Lacy and her husband are co-owners of a fire restoration business. Lacy said the irony is obvious. “We had been looking for an organization to support and when we heard Shriners Children's moved to Dayton, it hit us like a ton of a bricks,” Lacy said. “We have a fire business and I’m a fire survivor.”
Amy works at a pottery company, located just three miles away from the hospital where she was treated, and is developing a custom ornament with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the hospital. Amy calls it a “full circle moment.”
“Everything is just sort of coming together. The accident was on the Ohio River and that put us close enough to Cincinnati and in the halo of Shriners.”
Amy and Lacy are excited to be early members of the Patient Alumni Network. The Patient Alumni Network was formed in 2022 as part of Shriners Children's 100th Anniversary Celebration. The goal of this new network is to connect former patients with each other and provide opportunities for them to share their stories and accomplishments with other patients, Shriners, donors and the public.