It took months after her accident to look in a mirror.Now Sedona resident and burn survivor Barbara Quayle speaks in front of crowds and has partnered with burn community organizations to develop programs and techniques to help survivors like herself.
A former Anaheim, Calif., junior high school teacher, Quayle said she likes to reiterate to media that she is a survivor, not a victim.
“Survivor is a word of dignity,” she said. “We are not victims anymore. Maybe at a certain point [we] were but if we’re back and working, playing golf, raising a family and doing things [we] want to do, [we] survived it.”
In February 1977 on the day Quayle had her accident, she was on a date leaving a surprise birthday party when she and her then-boyfriend were rear-ended.
“The gas tank exploded and [the perpetrators] ran from the scene,” she said. “It was a great miracle because a police officer was near us at the time and radioed for help. But I was unconscious and the police didn’t see me at first.”
A passerby ended up being the one who spotted her which was, Quayle said, another miracle.
“They ended up pulling me out and saving my life,” she said.
Quayle was taken to the University of California Irvine Health Regional Burn Center — which today treats more than 600 patients each year — and was admitted with burns covering 40 percent of her back, face, arms, hands and knees.
She would stay in the hospital for two-and-a-half months. During that time, she avoided all mirrors or any kind of reflective surface.
“In some ways, this was a huge disservice to me because I didn’t see myself until I confronted a bathroom mirror after I was discharged,” she said. “I just screamed and ran out of the room.”
The Road Ahead
Quayle said she was in absolute denial of the trauma she had faced.
“I was so despondent,” she said. “I looked like I was in a horror film and it was very frightening to me.That was the beginning of the in-depth reality of what the burn meant.”
After months of rehabilitation and several surgeries, Quayle began with her preparations to return to school. She was afraid to return at first because of her appearance and the pressure garments — apparel worn to control the scarring from burns — she had to wear. But the students and staff were welcoming and supportive which she said she is still thankful for to this day.
“No one ever said the d-word [disabled] to me,” she said. “I was so fortunate to come back and have everyone cheer me on.”
Of course, the road ahead wasn’t always easy, Quayle admits. There were a few meltdowns, especially when she learned she couldn’t play tennis anymore after having her hand amputated. But she discovered other alternatives like hiking and yoga. Quayle also learned how to do her makeup in a way to make her skin look even and draw eyebrows and a cupid’s bow on her lips.
“I worked hard on my attitude,” she said. “It was a blessing though that I was single and had to work. It gave me purpose and responsibility and I belonged again in a group. I had a lot of cheerleaders and I just couldn’t fail the people who believed in me.”
Some of the skills Quayle had developed in coping with her injury became techniques she would later use for burn support groups and programs she started. One of these tools, STEPS [smile, tone of voice, eye contact, posture, self-talk] is meant to help project self-confidence in survivors.
“It helps people get over their scars,” she said. “What you do with body language has a tremendous effect on how people respond to you.”
One person who helped in Quayle’s rehabilitation was her surgeon, Dr. David Furnas, who is now retired from being chief of plastic surgery at the Irvine medical center.
Quayle described her patient-doctor relationship with Furnas as more of a partnership. “He never pressured me to go through with a procedure I didn’t feel comfortable with,” she said.
Furnas, who took over as Quayle’s reconstructive surgeon, said something he laughs about was how she would ask him to make her beautiful.
“One thing she would always ask me to say is, ‘Barbara, I’m going to make you beautiful again.’ I would never say that; I wasn’t going to fall into the trap,” he said. “I would say, ‘Your future is great and I’m going to do my very best.’”
Over time, Furnas said, Quayle started to exceed expectations in recovery and became an inspiration for him and other burn patients. For Furnas, Quayle was special because of her impregnable spirit.
“She carried on with that spirit,” he said. “There were some difficult days at first but she always bounced back, one step after another. Some of them pretty big. Eventually she got to where she is now.”
That spirit would later help Quayle become a Patient of Courage recipient from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The program honors plastic surgery patients who are optimistic and positively affect those around them. Quayle was presented with the award on Oct. 6 in Orlando at the ASPS annual scientific meeting.
This wasn’t the first time Quayle was awarded for her tenacity, though. In 2000, Quayle was awarded the Curtis P. Artz Distinguished Service Award by the American Burn Association. This is the height of recognition by the burn community, Furnas said.
“Her major contribution was helping patients,” he said. “She really is one of my favorites.”