There were no screams, no pain. Pamela Elliott can’t even recall the smoke or flames that enveloped her bedroom inside her West Virginia home as she awoke that April day in 1959. Elliott does remember a young man, a stranger who saw the fire from the highway, wrapping her in his navy-blue jacket and whisking her to safety.
Elliott, then five, screamed only when she assumed the man carrying her was going to throw her into a nearby rose bush. Instead, he gently placed her in his car and sped to the nearest hospital.
Third-degree burns covered half her body, but they hardly fazed her. Neither did the realization that the fire had fused the end joints of her fingers; the digits, while altered, were fully functional. “My mother instilled in me that I was just like any other little girl and I can do anything other little girls can do,” says Elliott, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She spent more than a decade undergoing reconstructive surgery during her elementary and high school years, she says, but not a single peer poked fun at her appearance.
Then came college. She had her heart set on becoming a physician’s assistant, but Elliott was told by medical personnel that her appearance “would instill in patients a deeper fear” of doctors. “Honey, what happened to you?” was a common query while she attended Piedmont International University. “That’s when I became acutely aware of my appearance,” says Elliott. “I became an angry, snotty, bitter woman.”