After Trudy Evans spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a 1,700-degree flash flame that burned 33 percent of her body, she returned to a life in which children would cling to their mothers when they saw her face.
“I think the thing that really concerned me was I frightened little children,” said Evans, 52, of Rocky Point. “And I love kids.”
Evans was of about 280 people who gathered at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill for the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center 24th annual reunion. The event brought together 40 burn survivors, their families and friends, first responders and treatment providers. The reunion is one of several post-treatment programs offered by the burn center at UNC Hospitals to help survivors cope with lifelong challenges, such as pain management, social isolation, and addressing stigmas and staring.
Around 10 a.m. on July 16, 2004, Evans and others were cleaning up at a nuclear energy plant in Castle Hayne, north of Wilmington. Evans was vacuuming when dust shavings from nuclear tubing clogged the vacuum cleaner, and it exploded.
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“It was like I was engulfed in a ball of fire,” Evans said.
Evans was taken to the Jaycee Burn Center, where she remained in a medically induced coma for a month and a week. After she woke up, it was nearly a week before she saw a face that she didn’t recognize.
“They had to remove all of the skin from my face, so my face was just white,” said Evans, who is African-American. “So I blinked my eyes. I said ‘Well, it’s my eyes, so I guess it was my face.’ ”
Evans, a mother of 10, went home after nearly three months, but her mental and physical healing had just begun. Five surgeries followed along with two years of emotional and physical support from families, friends and staff at the burn center.
The annual reunion, Evans said, is an opportunity to spend time with the family she developed during the recovery process.
Saturday started at 9 a.m. with survivors, family members and treatment staff reconnecting over muffins and coffee. Evans mingled, hugged and posed for pictures.
Then came a program with speaker Justina Page. Page lost her Houston home and her 22-month-old son in 1999 to a fire. Page and her four surviving children were injured in the blaze.
“Focus on the direction you want to go. If you want to move toward healing, don’t look at the pain,” said Page, who has become an advocate and author. “It’s not what happened that matters. It is what you can do with it.”
Lunch and support group sessions followed the presentation.
Evans learned to address the children she scared. Now, the ones at her church don’t see the scars, they just see “Ms. Trudy,” she said.
An important part of the reunion, Evans said, is helping new survivors realize their world doesn’t have to stop.
That’s why Evans picked up Margaret Gaona, 58, in Clinton and brought her to the event.
Gaona spent 362 days at the burn center after a fire that started from a candle at her bedside burned 54 percent of her body in February 2013. On Saturday, she spoke softly, as she held herself steady on a walker with hands that were covered with bandages.
“This is something special to me,” Gaona whispered. “It’s nice to know so many people are supporting you.”