Burnt alive

Our happy family barbeque was about to turn to horror

Published by: Lucy Laing and Jean Jollands
Published on: 30 August 2012

Sun beating down, lazing in the back garden, surrounded by family. Perfect.
It was a balmy afternoon and me and my husband Erwin, 39, had decided to have a barbeque.
‘Mummy, watch!' my two year-old daughter Pippie squealed excitedly, skipping up and down on the grass. Her thick, blonde curls gleamed in the sun. ‘Well done!' I grinned, clapping.
Her six-month-old baby brother Arno was asleep in his cot, but I knew it wouldn't be long before Pippie was asking me to wake him up so they could play together.
She was so protective, there were times when you'd have thought Pippie was Arno's mummy! The last time we had visitors, someone had gone to pick him up.
‘No! Arno's mine!' Pippie scolded, her little face frowning. I couldn't help smiling now as I remembered it.
‘Won't be long now ‘til we can tuck into those burgers...' Erwin said as he lit the barbeque.
I quickly nipped indoors to record a TV show I wanted to watch later. But suddenly there was an almighty bang! ‘Oh my god!' I cried. The house almost seemed to shake. Frantic, I rushed outside to find Pippie sprawled out on the grass, furious yellow flames engulfing her
from head to toe.
‘Pippie!' I screamed, as Erwin desperately fought to beat out the flames. I rushed back in and grabbed a towel, then raced over to Pippie.
‘It's okay, darling!' I cried
as we tried to smother the fire with a towel. It felt like an eternity, but finally we did it.
‘The firelighter fuel suddenly exploded...' Erwin panted helplessly. ‘The backlash hit Pippie...' The flames had burnt the clothes from her body and the hair from her head.
All that was left now was charred, blackened flesh. It was like she'd been skinned alive.
‘We have to get to a hospital... now,' Erwin said, as I gingerly scooped Pippie into my arms.
‘I'm sleepy, Mummy,' she murmured. ‘So sleepy.' Praying her shock would numb the pain, I got into the car with her as Erwin got Arno.
We raced to the hospital and as we rushed into A&E, paramedics and nurses surrounded us. ‘My daughter's been badly burned,'
I wailed. ‘Please help her...'
They rushed her to intensive care, where a doctor ushered us inside.
‘I'm afraid Pippie has suffered 90 per cent burns all over her body,' he explained.
‘Please, no...' I gasped, clutching Erwin's hand. ‘I'm afraid her burns are so serious that we don't think she'll survive,' he trailed off.
‘No!' I howled. ‘ I can't lose her!'
Not my little Pippie, who doted on her brother and told people off from picking him up. Not my Pippie who spent hours drawing her favourite animals.
‘Please save her,' Erwin pleaded.
‘We'll do our best,' the doctor insisted. ‘But you will have to prepare for the worst.'
My hand clutched my open mouth in shock as we went to Pippie's bedside.
Under anaesthetic, she was covered in bandages from head to toe, like a mummy out of a horror film. The only bit of her entire skin showing was the space between her eyes, and even that was charred.
‘She just looks so tiny lying there,' I sobbed. ‘I wish it was me instead of her.'
All we could do was pray, and someone must have been listening to us...
‘We've managed to take the only bit of Pippie's skin that wasn't burnt. It was underneath her nappy,' a consultant explained. ‘These skin cells are her only chance of having
a skin graft.'
Thank god she was wearing a nappy that day. We listened, stunned, as he explained how the skin cells would be cloned in a lab in the hope they'd produce enough new skin to cover all of Pippie's burns.
Despite the doctor's grim forecast, my girl fought on and clung to life. Day after day, as doctors changed her dressings, I shuddered at the raw flesh I saw beneath them.
‘It's okay, darling, Mummy's here,' I hushed as doctors put Pippie on morphine.
She couldn't even call out, her voice was just a tiny croak.
‘The fire damaged her tongue and windpipe,' a nurse explained.
As I looked at her lying there, I thought back to when Erwin and I had married after four years together, when Pippie was just a year old. She'd been the cutest bridesmaid ever, her skin pink and healthy in her little dress.
‘What if she's scarred for life?'
I fretted now, placing her favourite Hello Kitty cuddly toy on the table beside her.
I kept a vigil at the hospital. Whenever I dashed back home, Arno would look round expectantly at the door as if he was waiting for his big sis to come bouncing in.
‘She'll be back soon, little man,' I promised. But would she?
Over those next weeks, there were so many times we could have lost Pippie. She endured four cardiac arrests, a collapsed lung and even kidney failure, but still battled on.
‘She's a real fighter, isn't she?' a nurse smiled one day. ‘Yes, she's a stubborn little thing...' I said, remembering how she always insisted on getting dressed by herself in the mornings. ‘I can do it, Mummy,' she'd say.
‘I refuse to believe she's going to die,' I told Erwin.
‘Not our Pippie,' he whispered. ‘She's too strong.'
And she was. Over those next few months, she got stronger and stronger and, finally, six months after the accident, we had a breakthrough.
‘Pippie's cloned skin's arrived from the lab,' her consultant announced.
Scientists had grown enough skin to cover her burns, just from those few little cells taken from her nappy area!
‘But...' the consultant added. ‘It's a painstaking operation and there's no guarantees her skin grafts will take.'
We paced the hospital corridors as the doctors went to work. But finally there was news.
‘We've managed to attach 29 skin grafts over Pippie's body,' the consultant said.
‘She'll have to be under sedation for the next week to ensure she doesn't tear her fragile new skin.'
Just two weeks later though, they confirmed the operation had been a success. ‘There's no reason her skin shouldn't grow back strong and healthy,' her consultant said. ‘Thank you...' I wept, slumping in relief. Now out of danger, Pippie was moved to a rehabilitation ward.
Though she was still covered in bandages, it was amazing to see her sat up in a chair, her little arms and legs set rigid in front of her to help her heal.
‘Well done little lady,' I grinned, as she gave a faint
smile back.
Eight months after the accident, Pippie is back home. She still can't speak, but we are hoping speech therapy will change that.
The thought of not hearing my little chatterbox again is heartbreaking and I know she finds it frustrating, too.
Pippie only has plasters on the sensitive parts of her body now, but she'll need more skin grafts as she grows. She also needs physiotherapy, as her skin is so stretched. Like a newborn baby, she's learning everything again, and it's her younger brother Arno who looks out for her, now.
We're suing the company that provided the firelighter fuel. But we're just relieved that despite her terrible injuries, our strong little girl has been given a second
chance at life.
Anice Kruger, 27, Ellisras, South Africa