Injured as a tot, burn survivor details immediate and lifelong realities of home fires

Blog Post created by freddurso Employee on Aug 8, 2016

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Introducing Cindy Rutter, a burn survivor and home fire sprinkler advocate now blogging for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. Her story is a lesson in home fires--the lives altered, injuries endured, and endless hope from those impacted that these tragedies finally come to an end:


There is something horrific about home fires resulting in death or burn injury. It certainly is something that I never brush off when I hear about one, as it brings back memories.


This is my story, which was featured in a 1959 newspaper article:


Tot Burned In Accident

Tragedy whistled a warning early yesterday and a Coolidge disc-jockey’s six-year-old daughter was burned critically when it went unheeded.


Cindy Ellen Holliday was brought to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix with burns on 85 percent of her body, suffered in a water heater explosion and fire so intense it disintegrated concrete slabs in the home.


Her Father, Lee Holliday, who has a music program twice daily on Radio Station KCKY, was burned on both hands tearing flaming clothing from his daughter while fire raged through their house near Coolidge.


Holliday said he was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a whistling noise. Just then Cindy appeared in his bedroom.


“Daddy, she asked, “What is that whistling noise?” Holliday thought it might be coming from a nearby farm. He told the child: “I don’t know. Go back to bed.”


The tot passed the heater in an alcove in the hallway, and had just stepped into her bedroom when the heater blew up. All the windows in the house were shattered.


Holliday scrabbled out of bed and raced for his daughter.


“She was on the bed in flames,” he said.


He smothered the fire and carried her from the house. His wife Loretta also fled the flames saving nothing.


Holliday said he believed the heater’s thermostat failed and the pressure built up.


The fire had a devastating impact on me, the tot in this story. Six years old at the time, I would have little recollection of the initial trauma my small body endured. I soon learned that the flames that had also destroyed my home had ravaged my body. I sustained burns on 85 percent of my body, the majority of which were third-degree and required skin grafting.


From April to October 1959, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, was my home. Initially, I was in a pediatric isolation room, as they did not have a burn unit in Arizona in 1959. Soon after the fire, I had surgery every couple of days just to keep me alive and to try and cover my skin that had been destroyed. I was in and out of hospitals every Christmas and summer until I turned 18. The number of surgeries reached 100.


I was the first burn case for Dr. Rex Peterson, my physician. Receiving a great deal of criticism for his actions, Dr. Peterson tried saving my life while others questioned whether I was a life worth saving. Needless to say, my family was grateful for his actions.


However, they had their own emotional impact from my injuries. Since the fire demolished our home, they lost everything they owned. Gone forever were not only all of their worldly possessions but also any memories that they had garnished over their lifetimes. The impact of all that had happened led to my biological father leaving our family four months after the house fire. For many years, I couldn’t grasp his departure. I could not understand, as a young child, why he made this decision. But the saying “when one door closes another opens” rang true.


The man my mom married two years after my injury would become instrumental in helping me find a “normal life” (if there is such a thing). He and my mom were determined to make me realize that although I looked different, my life had endless possibilities.


That’s not to say I didn’t have a difficult road ahead. I was out shopping with my grandmother one day and two ladies said to her, “Why would you bring a child that looks like that out in public?” I thought my grandmother was going to punch them. When I returned to school, I still had some dressing on my legs and my face had some large, keloid scars. Several of the kids gathered around me, called me ugly, and said I should go back to the hospital and “get fixed.”


The support from my immediate family got me through those dark days. My one aunt would always say to me, “When life throws you a curve ball, what do you do?” My response? “Hit a home run.”


I firmly believe I have hit a lot of home runs in my life—and plan to hit a few more.


Cindy Rutter is a burn survivor who has spent most of her life advocating for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. She spent her professional career ascending the nursing ladder, becoming a burn nurse and eventually the nurse manager of the University of California, San Diego Regional Burn Center. She's also a member of the Phoenix Society's Aftercare Committee, a joint project with the American Burn Association that aims to establish standards for aftercare in the areas of rehabilitation and reintegration for those impacted by burn trauma. Cindy will tell you the best thing in her life is being a mom and grandmother.


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