While extremely shy, 14-year-old Jacob Sessions, of Jacksonville, pressed on through the East Texas Burn Resource Center fashion show. As he loosened up, his smile widened and he tossed his hair amid cheers from the crowd.
"It feels weird being acknowledged," said Jacob, the group's 2015 prince, a title designated to youth under 18 who have experienced a burn.
The masquerade-themed dinner and community awards last Sunday marked the organization's first major event. During the fashion show highlighting burn survivors, the first of its kind in East Texas, survivors were encouraged to "show some skin" in an effort to revive positive feelings about their body image.
"They did an encouraging thing today!" announcer Sherry Johnson shouted.
Toliver Thirkill, 13, also was nervous before his catwalk debut, but seconds into his introduction, he gave a big smile and struck a pose for cameras.
Health professionals who work with burn patients say programs like these are beneficial in getting burn survivors back into the normalcy of life.
Some burn patients never leave their houses for fear of what some may think or say. Being surrounded by others with similar injuries helps in the healing.
"Anytime a burn patient can be around other burn patients and aren't judged for showing their skin, that's a great thing," said Kathleen Doherty, director of nursing, surgical services at Parkland Health and Hospital System. "Whether in a one hour every month setting or something such as a fashion show or retreat, they get the opportunity to let their guard down and be who they are."
The event also honored members of ETMC EMS and members of Tyler and Lindale firefighters for their service. Advocates and burn survivors also were recognized.
"This organization cares," said Neal Franklin, general manager at ETMC EMS. "They care about people."
AN EMOTIONAL TIME
Jacob was burned April 5, 2014, when a gas can fell into a campfire and exploded.
He suffered burns to 71 percent of his body, from his neck to the knees.
He spent six months at Zale Lipshy University Hospital next to Parkland, six weeks of it in a burn intensive care unit.
Jacob said his recovery was painful and included wearing a facemask to heal the scars on his chin.
"It was the most uncomfortable thing in the world," he said.
Certain treatments were worse than others, his father David Sessions said.
"He'd go into hysteria," Sessions said. "I'd have to manhandle him to get him on the table."
Sessions said the impact on the entire family was great, as they'd stress about their son's intense anxiety, their own time away from work and securing housing in the Dallas area while Jacob received treatment.
"It was very emotional," he said.
But assistance from a child life specialist, a support group and the hospital staff helped Jacob get back on track.
Recovering from a significant burn involves much more than the physical, which is why psychologists, psychiatrics and other mental health professionals also are on hand at Parkland to help with the emotional healing.
Navigating through society post-burn looks different for everyone, Ms. Doherty said, but there are some constants in recovery.
"We tend to use a lot of humor through recovery," she said. "If you can laugh at yourself, it really does change your perspective and outlook on things. Everyone can share in the laughter of a good joke."
Jacob participated in Parkland's re-entry program, which helped him address questions from his peers and other issues associated with the burns.
"We humanize the burn patient so people look past the burn," Ms. Doherty said. "That's really the work of re-entry - giving survivors the skill set to speak to that and being comfortable with it."
SELF ESTEEM, BODY IMAGE
Sarah Conner, 38, traveled to Tyler from Anna, Texas, to be a part of the fashion show. She'd met Jennifer Bell, East Texas Burn Resource Center's founder, at Parkland's burn support group.
Ms. Conner has burns on 30 percent of her body resulting from a 2011 camping accident.
Having modeled swimsuits before the accident, her scars affected her self-esteem. Last weekend, she rediscovered the passion for modeling and got a boost in confidence when she pranced in athletic wear, and later, a two-piece swimsuit.
"I thought I was going to throw up, but when people started clapping, it was pretty comforting," she said. "I thought, ‘I can do this.' It's neat to get back into it."
She said the support gave her confidence, perhaps to wear a swimsuit again.
"It's nice to have people to support you no matter what," Ms. Conner said. "They see you for who you are and not the scars."