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Charlie’s Story…burned by boiling water in the kitchen

In 2010, Charlie was 15 months old when he was burned in an accident in his kitchen at home. A pan of boiling water spilt and he sustained burns to 10% to his body. Here, Charlie’s mum Michelle shares her experience of that day and the journey Charlie and his family have been on together.

Family life with young children is busy and can sometimes feel like a circus act where we are spinning plates.  I want to tell you our story, and in doing so, I hope that I can encourage you to stop for a second and consider your actions, which might just prevent an accident like ours.

It was January 14th 2010, a typically busy family day.  My husband and I were both in work.  Our eldest son, Ollie, was 4 years old and in reception class at school and our youngest son, Charlie, was 15 months old and at nursery.  It was a particularly hectic day as we were going on holiday that night.

After work I picked up Ollie from school then went to Charlie’s nursery.  They told me Charlie had not been very well so I managed to get him an appointment with our doctor. He had a chest infection and was prescribed antibiotics.  We got home around 4.30pm. You know how it is – numerous bags were dumped at the front door.  I had 2 hungry little boys and lots of jobs to get done before our holiday.  Priority was tea.  I decided to use just 1 big pan.  In went the potatoes, then the carrots, then peas.  4 minutes till tea time.  I then thought about Charlie’s medicine, which was in my handbag by the front door, and I wondered if he needed to have it before food.  I left the kitchen to get it and when I got to my front door I heard the most horrific scream I have ever heard.  12 years on it still gives me chills to remember the sound.  I knew it was Charlie, my baby boy.  The scream was so agonising that I thought he’d cut off a limb.  I ran to the screams and there he was on my kitchen floor with the pan and vegetables next to him.  In my haste, and with my preoccupied mind, I had been careless and left the handle of a large pan full of boiling water within reach of my baby.

My instinct was to strip him of his clothes and get cold water onto him, but as I took his clothes off, his skin was just peeling off.  I knew I had to ring for an ambulance and felt so utterly torn about what was the most important thing to do.  I put Charlie in the bath under the cold tap and went for the phone.  But he was screaming for me and not staying under the tap.  At that moment, my husband came in from work. He put the shower on and took over on the phone while I stood under the cold shower forcing Charlie under it, knowing I had to cool his body down.  It was the most frightening moment of our lives.  As a family we were all hysterical.  It took just 4 minutes for an ambulance to come.

At the local hospital, it also felt like there was panic.  His bed was surrounded by Doctors and Nurses.  The staff were excellent, but had no answers at the time – they could not tell me that Charlie was going to survive.  They also did not know exactly how to handle the severity of the burn – faxes were being sent to and fro to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, and we were told that as soon as he was stable, Charlie would be transferred to Manchester.  Charlie was wrapped in cling film and fluid was drilled into his bones as his little body was shutting down; there were no veins on his arms or legs to get a line into.  He had become silent and stopped crying, which was frightening.  The only time he made a sound was when I left his side to go and change into some dry clothes, and I could hear him crying “mummy” through A&E.  I had been in cold wet clothes for hours, but hadn’t even realised.  I was consumed with comforting Charlie and praying he’d survive.  At 10.30pm Charlie was stable enough to travel, and we were blue-lighted in an ambulance 100 miles from our home to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

We entered the Burns Unit and there was a calm and a confidence amongst the staff.  I felt immediately at peace that Charlie was going to be OK, and that he was in expert hands. 

I was not in any way prepared for what the treatment of burns involved.  Charlie was photographed and taken to a treatment room called “the bathroom” where he was wrapped in 5 layers of creams, dressings and bandages then laid in a cot in an isolation high dependency room.  This treatment took place every day.  I went into that room with Charlie for 7 consecutive days and witnessed the remarkable work of doctors and nurses as they worked with skill and care to keep Charlie’s body free from infection and did their best to promote healing of new skin.  I tried to distract Charlie with songs and books while also seeing the full extent of his injury, seeing his pain, and feeling my own guilt for putting him in this horrendous situation.  Charlie had full thickness burns to 10% of his body.  The 7 layers of skin over his right shoulder, upper right arm and right torso were fully burnt away, and he had further burns, but not full thickness, all down his right arm, right hand and his neck.  Charlie was fully conscious during this part of his treatment and it was the most difficult time of the recovery journey for him and for me.

After a week, Charlie had skin graft surgery, where skin was taken from his right thigh and placed over his injury.  Visitors could only look at Charlie through the door, which was upsetting for everyone. Ollie moved in with my parents whilst Charlie was in hospital, and continued to go to school to try and keep his routine the same.  Charlie’s dad had to return home to work, but would drive the 200-mile round trip after work every night to come and visit Charlie.  I slept on a put-up bed next to Charlie’s cot.

As a mum I struggle to put into words what this time was like for me.  I thought I had ruined Charlie’s life and that our family life was forever altered.  I felt consumed with guilt for the pain Charlie was going through, and realising he was going to be scarred for the rest of his life was deeply upsetting.  I couldn’t sleep or eat, and needed help from the Burns Psychology Service.

3 weeks after being admitted, we were allowed home.  But we were still at the very beginning of Charlie’s recovery.  His wound was not yet healed and he was now under Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy.

The recovery process for burn injuries can be a long road.  Charlie was an inpatient for 3 weeks but then spent many months as an outpatient 3 times a week doing the 200-mile round trip to Manchester each time.  And his treatment continued for years. Charlie’s neck took 4 months to heal, and the risk of infection continued to be high for him as his wound kept breaking down.  We couldn’t go into any public place beyond the burns and plastic outpatient’s department at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.  So, no shops, toddler groups, friends and family houses.  I didn’t leave Charlie’s side for a long time, and found separating from him difficult when he could eventually return to nursery.  I was able to work from home and managed all my work around Charlie’s sleeping.

Grafted and burnt skin does not heal and grow in the same way as uninjured skin.  Charlie’s scar needed to be washed, massaged and stretched 3 times a day.  We did this for 8 years. This was to help the scar heal as flat as possible, to prevent skin tags, and also to enable Charlie to have full function of his shoulder joint as his body grew. 

Charlie also had to wear a pressure garment for 2 years, which was a tight-fitting piece of clothing with one arm, for his right arm that was burnt, to keep the new skin healing flat.  He wore it all the time, even to sleep in.  Outpatient visits are now only every 2 years and the massage and stretching have also stopped.  

Charlie is now 14 and he is thriving! He loves life and is living it to the full.  He is scarred for life, but he is not ashamed of his scar and is happy and confident to tell his story.  I am so proud of his resilience.  I hope that by sharing our story we can maybe prevent an accident happening in another home.  We are forever grateful to the incredible skill and kindness shown to us by the NHS staff at both Furness General Hospital and the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.  Charlie received world class treatment.  We want to give back, to say thank you, but also to spare another child and family from going through the pain and trauma that we have experienced.

My warning for other parents…

Please take care in your kitchens. It is scary how damaging hot liquid is, how painful and long lasting the treatments, and the scarring is for life.  Keep your pans on the back burners and your handles tucked away and well out of reach of inquisitive minds.

Charlie’s Story – find out more

Charlie’s Story is a newly published book which has been written by Charlie’s mother Michelle as a resource to support and inspire other children and their families. It is available to order via Children’s Burns Trust here.

Charlie's Story

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