Written by James A. Bosch MA, LMFT on November 25, 2019
In Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of pivotal includes “very important; critical.” A moment is described as “a precise point in time.” Pivotal moments are big moments and little moments of clarity that provide us with new perspectives and opportunities to change our lives. In turn, this transformation puts us in a position to help others change their lives. As you read, see if you can think of any pivotal or defining moments in your own life. Ask yourself if they were painful or exhilarating and think about how they changed you.
Burn survivor Tony Gonzalez recalls several important moments that led to his “pivotal” one.
Tony had sustained burns to 95% of his body in a propane explosion. While being treated at Loyola Burn Center near Chicago, he was visited by Phoenix Society founder Alan Breslau and his wife, Delwyn. The couple were at the burn center to speak to the staff there.
Tony remembers that the Breslaus were very relaxed as they sat and chatted with him for almost an hour. They introduced him to the Phoenix Society, but more importantly, they introduced him to the possibility of a life after his devastating injury. That visit led to Tony’s decision to attend the 1999 Phoenix World Burn Congress—and to his primary pivotal moment.
Tony had been struggling his way through a very tough process—re-entering the community in a wheelchair, wearing a plastic facemask, and having virtually all of his exposed skin in some stage of scarring and healing. Despite his extreme nervousness, he headed to Phoenix WBC in Atlanta—alone. “I wanted to see what else was out there!” he recalls.
His big moment happened on the way to the conference hotel. Once the firefighters had picked him up at the airport, Tony found himself in a van full of other burn survivors.
Tony Gonzalez realized at his first Phoenix WBC "if they could do it, I could do it."
“Here I was ninety-plus percent burned, with fingers missing, and I shared the ride with five or six people who were missing limbs and had all kinds of prosthetics,” Tony says. He remembers chatting and getting to know them during the ride.
But once they arrived at the hotel, Tony immediately went to his room and didn’t venture out for quite a while. He knew he should head down to the conference, but without the protective and loving bubble of his family, he was feeling completely overwhelmed. After grounding himself, Tony decided to take a risk and finally go to dinner. While sitting with another survivor who had missing limbs, he realized that, as the evening progressed, his new friend’s prosthetics and injuries had “disappeared.”
“These people became my heroes,” says Tony about the survivors he met at that Phoenix WBC. “I realized that if they could do it, I could do it.”
His next pivotal moment occurred upon his return to the hospital—this time for a burn support group meeting. He arrived to find only three people in attendance and didn’t feel much of a connection to the group, but he decided to try again—this time taking his mother. His second experience was not any better. He felt there was a lot of complaining, and not a lot of support. But then he had the inspiration that led to his transformation.
“The pivotal moment for me was when I decided to stop just sitting there and listening, and start sharing!” Tony says. He recognized that all of the participants had a lot of problems, but he wanted to start talking about solutions.
Tony realized that if he wanted to get something out of the support experience, if the conversations were going to change, he was going to have to start contributing. This is the spirit he continues to bring to his current activities as a Phoenix SOAR® coordinator and peer supporter at Loyola Burn Center, and also as a community organizer, a fundraiser, and a leader in the burn community.
If you are a burn survivor who is still struggling, Tony wants you to remember who you were before your injury and then to find your “new normal." “Things will never be exactly like they used to be,” Tony says, “but things can be as good and different.”
Jamie Nieto also attended the support group at Loyola Burn Center and he too reached a turning point there. He had been a patient at the hospital after sustaining burns to 55% of his body in a fire pit accident on the morning of his 20th birthday. Although he credits his mother and sister for being his “rocks” and saving his life, it was in those support group meetings that he became open to the potential of a life after burns.
That support group also led Jamie to travel to Baltimore, Maryland, in 2005 for his first Phoenix World Burn Congress. While there, he experienced a pivotal moment that was very subtle and occurred in what seemed like an unlikely place.
“I remember sitting around the bar talking and meeting everyone,” Jamie says about his second night at Phoenix WBC. “At that moment, there were no burn injuries or prosthetic legs among us; we were all just extremely connected and present with each other. All the scars fell away and we were just having fun. Looking back, I see I was more connected to the burn survivors doing a non-burn-recovery related activity.”
Jamie’s experience was not unusual. Many who are healing from a trauma find that important moments can come organically and in social environments.
“Don’t get me wrong, the support groups are great and the recovery programming is amazing and so healing,” says Jamie, “but the times I feel most connected to other burn survivors are when we are not talking about our burns, but just talking about life.”
After that first trip to Phoenix WBC, Jamie moved beyond thinking “Why me?” to “Why not me?” He has become extremely active in his hospital’s burn support group. He is a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter and, along with Tony, he raises money for burn recovery. Jamie attributes much of his success to support from Tony, as well as Barry Bennett, the social worker on the unit and the drive behind their support program.
“Surviving is the first victory,” says Jamie, and he believes it begins the day you live through your injury. “Instead of being victims,” he says, “we are victors.”
Jamie wants others on this journey to know that the healing never stops. Recovery is definitely not the easiest road to travel, he admits, but it is “doable.”
“I know it is an old cliché that what does not kill you will make you stronger,” he says, “but indeed I am a stronger person today than before my accident.”
Angie Merritt’s big pivotal moment resulted from a meeting 25 years ago with someone who would become her inspiration.
Angie had been the victim of a violent crime that left 75% of her body burned. As she was recovering from these injuries, she couldn’t imagine how she was going to reenter society. She recalls being rolled down the hall on a hospital gurney and passing a mirror. She made the nurse stop and go back. She remembers saying, “I want to see that person in the mirror. I know that is not me.” After that first look, she was terrified at the thought of facing people again.
Then, while in a rehabilitation hospital, Angie met Barbara Kammerer Quayle, a burn-survivor, educator, and long-time teacher of image enhancement for burn survivors. Barbara came to share her creative cosmetics techniques and social skills training with Angie. She taught her how to use makeup to deal with the skin discoloration caused by her burns. This simple tool gave Angie much hope and was a turning point for her. She enthusiastically recalls thinking that this woman was her heroine, saying, “Her fingers were burned worse than mine, yet she walked so proud! She was my Angelina Jolie! I really admired her.”
Angie moved to Las Vegas shortly after that. She continued to undergo surgeries at University Medical Center - Las Vegas. She became a volunteer in the burn unit, spending so much time there that she felt like an employee. However, she realized that to further her recovery she had to transfer that commitment to a paying job and get back into the world.
Angie recalls initially walking with her head down and often dreaming that the burns never happened. But utilizing the tools she learned from her mentor, Barbara, and thinking of herself as an actress helped her get through. She says she decided to act the part of someone proud and confident until she actually started to feel that way.
“In the morning, I put on my make-up like an actress and headed out in the world,” she say. “At night, I would take off my makeup like removing war paint and relax, having made it through the day and hopefully having been a model for other struggling people.”
Today, Angie feels proud when people notice her on the bus or in public. “I want people to see me, to see that you can survive and be happy,” she states. “If I can make someone happy, my work is done.”
Yes, there are still days that are difficult for her, days when she feels down, but more often than not she is positive. “I am happy today,” she says. “I have a home, a job and, am blessed with a wonderful family. I have God in my heart. What else could I ask for?”
Angie took another big step in her recovery when she decided to volunteer as a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter. That also led to her next transformative moment, one that was beautifully connected to the first.
Now Angie can do for others what Barbara once did for her, serve as a teacher and an inspiration. She advises burn survivors who are struggling to have faith that it will get better. She encourages them to hold their heads up and take advantage of every opportunity for growth. She cautions them not to always rely on others, but to instead get up and do things for themselves. Most importantly, she suggests, they should remember to laugh often.
By reflecting on these three inspirational stories, we can deduce some of the basic “ingredients” that help transformational moments occur.
The first is contact with others who share a similar journey and who understand our story. This is the power of peer support and programs like the Phoenix World Burn Congress.
The second is environment. You have to get on that van, be in that social setting, attend that support group, or go to that make-up class. Getting there is most of the battle—taking the leap and venturing somewhere that frightens you or makes you hesitant is an important step.
The third is change. For some of us, the injury itself is the thing that changes our lives for the better by forcing us to make big changes and perhaps to look at ways in which we were previously living in sedentary or unhealthy ways. However, creating change often requires you to struggle a bit on your own and take risks.
Each person’s pivotal moment will be as different as their scars, yet by hearing one another’s stories we can find hope. It is important to remember that there are many struggles leading up to these Aha! moments and those moments cannot be forced. However, by embracing windows of opportunity and acting on change we can live beyond our wildest dreams.
As author Elizabeth Norris so eloquently says in her book Unbroken, “The pivotal moments in your life are always made up of smaller pieces, things that seemed insignificant at the time but in fact brought you to where you needed to be.”
Tony, Jamie, and Angie definitely prove her point.
James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and a consultant.