When 31-year-old Jennifer Bell strutted out to the pop hit "I'm a Survivor," she was met with shouts and applause.

Wearing denim shorts and a gray tank top, she exuded confidence.

Not only was she displaying a casual outfit and self-assuredness, but her burn scars were also on display during a recent event that honored burn survivors and rescue workers. The scars, from head to toe, are the result of first-, second- and third-degree burns she received following an incident at her former Waco home in 2010.

The fire was steeped in controversy and made headlines, as she was accused of setting the fire that resulted in her being burned over 93 percent of her body.

She doesn't remember what happened and doesn't believe what has been reported. Today, she's striving to press forward in life and help others along the way.

In 2013, she established East Texas Burn Resource Center, an organization that helps burn survivors with wound care, emotional support, and accessing local resources. The group, teaming with local fire departments, also advocates fire prevention safety.

 

RECOVERY

Ms. Bell was so severely burned that, at first, she didn't want to live through the physical and emotional pain. She welcomed death.

"That's what I wanted," she said. "I didn't need to think about it. That's what I prayed for."

But she continued on the rehabilitation journey.

"After being burned that much, I had to learn to do everything all over again," she said. "I couldn't walk. I had a (tracheotomy) and my arms didn't move unless I was in therapy."

She also had two catheters to help her go to the bathroom.

"It takes away from who you are and your self-esteem when you go from being independent to having someone taking you to the bathroom and wiping you when you're done, having to feed you because your hands don't go to your mouth," she said.

When Ms. Bell returned to East Texas, recovery was still in full effect. With more than 56 surgeries, she experienced excruciating pain and difficulty adjusting to therapies. For patients with significant burns, on more than 20 percent of their body, recovery is constant.

"It's the ongoing care," said Kathleen Doherty, director of nursing, surgical services at Parkland Health and Hospital System. "Unlike a trauma patient who breaks a leg, a burn injury is lifelong. A burn survivor will be dealing with the after effects of their burn for the rest of their life."

With these burns, patients can experience metabolic changes. Sometimes it's temporary, but it can also last for years. For example, Ms. Bell now has problems with her thyroid gland. In addition, bone spurs and arthritis are among several health problems brought on by the burns.

"Everything that can go wrong with the body has gone wrong with mine," she said. "You have to deal with it."

Patients have to protect their skin from the sun to prevent cancer. They also don't have the ability to sweat in areas where there is scar tissue. Staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter is critical, as their bodies can't control temperature.

Patients who had previous conditions such as diabetes must also be vigilant about their health, as some conditions could worsen post-burn.

Scar management is important, as scar tissue is not as viable as regular tissue.

"If you're burned on a joint, skin can contract and you lose range of motion," Ms. Doherty said. "It's a lot of work to manage scars."

 

‘MY LIFE WASN'T OVER'

In 2012, things began to change when Ms. Bell received a visit from members of a local church.

"When they talked to me, they didn't talk to the physical me," Ms. Bell said. "They talked to the inner me - the beautiful person I was - and all of the things God had in store for me. They didn't look at me crazy. They laughed and I laughed, which was something I hadn't done in months."

With sweatpants and burn gloves, she attended that church for the first time after the incident.

"From that point on, that was when I first started thinking, ‘OK, I'm going to be OK. I'm going to make it through this.'… My pastors were right. My life wasn't over."

Today, she wants to expand her organization to highlight fire safety and advocacy by hosting events and fundraisers. When she hears news about a house fire or of a person getting severely burned, her group steps in to get wound care supplies or to direct them to the group, which also lends emotional support. She's applied for a nonprofit status and hopes to become an official 501c3 by February.

"I've got to do something to change the way things are and to have resources here in Tyler," she said. "People don't have to drive for hours to Dallas or Houston just to get help."

Meanwhile, Ms. Bell feels good about where she is in life.

"The worst of it is over," she said. "Emotionally, I am probably on top of the world. My life hasn't always been peachy, but right now it's definitely an ice cream sundae with cherry on top because I get to help others."

 

Twitter: @cdillard_TMT

 

 

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