It has been almost three years since Talia McKay suffered burns to 17 per cent of her body while working at a hunting lodge north of Fort St. John.
Routinely the 25-year-old safely ignited a smudge fire to stop bugs from bothering the lodge’s horses, but on June 18, 2018 things did not did not go as planned.
Sharing her story in Williams Lake where she lives with her boyfriend Luke Bennett, McKay said at the time she thought she was using a safe accelerant, but it turned out that it was in fact gas which had been mislabelled.
Combined with the hot conditions and quantity in the can, it caused an explosion.
Her hands caught on fire, which spread to her clothing.
“I don’t remember thinking, ‘I’m on fire this is what I need to do.’ It was a reaction that I needed to get away,” she said, describing how she started to remove her burning clothing and run.
When her boss yelled at her to get on the ground, that’s when it clicked to get on the ground and roll.
Her boyfriend also worked at the lodge, and some other crew members, came to her assistance, using horse blankets to smother the fire.
Because the lodge is three hours north of Fort St. John, her boss phoned the hospital to let them know she was coming and she was transported there by truck.
At the hospital emergency personnel hooked her up to two IVs to ensure fluids were getting back into her body and administered pain medications.
It was mostly her legs, hands and right arm, and some of her belly that was burned, but it was not until she was flown to the Lower Mainland and admitted to Vancouver General Hospital that it “clicked” how severe the burns were, she recalled.
“You definitely calm down once you are on your way to help and you feel relieved. I thought I was going to spend a little bit of time in the hospital and have some bandages.”
Three and half weeks later she moved into the Burn Fund Centre and utilized the Burn Fund’s Home Away Program for a week, along with her mom, Manny McKay, who had come up from Utah.
Having a place for her mom to stay was a big help because they did not have to worry about not being able to afford it.
“I couldn’t imagine doing it on my own. She was my support.”
McKay’s recovery involved several skin grafts.
Her left leg was burned worst so the plastic surgeon worked around the burns on her right leg and took skin and disbursed it.
“To look back on it now, it’s really amazing what the body is capable of. It healed like a wound. My right arm healed on its own — there’s some scarring and discolouration but it did not need grafts.”
Physiotherapy sessions to prevent her skin from tightening up too much were also par for course.
Today she experiences some pain and muscle fatigue due to damage caused by the burns.
“My leg strength is not quite the same as it used to be so I have to work a lot harder to keep that maintenance up with my muscles.”
Watching for different limitations and realizing when her legs have had enough are key.
Feeling did not come back where the burns were and the skin grafts are numb, with the exception of some little spots where she has some sensation.
It was a big adjustment to start wearing pants again, she explained.
In some spots she could feel pants rubbing and in others she could not.
“At least it was in the summer so I just wore skirts and dresses to not have anything touching my legs.”
For one and half years she attended follow-up appointments in Vancouver and Prince George for occupational therapy and with the plastic surgeon who did the skin grafts.
Today McKay works as a care aide at Seniors Village full-time and loves the work. Bennett is a mechanic in town.
Grateful for all the resources she has received through the Burn Fund, she said she attended the fund’s burn camp in 2019 as a junior counsellor, along other burn survivors and nurses and firefighters.
“It is for kids and young adults. It’s a week of fun and activities. Nobody looks at you different there and you are around other people who have their own stories.”
For her, the entire experience has shown her what humans are capable of overcoming.
“It’s hard to see at the time that things are going to get better and you are going to make it to the other side. I struggled with how to get back to being Talia. I thought I was going to go right back and pick up where I left off and move on and get past it and that is not how it was.”
Just being able to stand straight and walking took a lot of work.
She had to allow herself the grace to heal and be kind to herself through a difficult time and celebrate small victories.
In April VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation and the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund announced tickets were on sale for the 2021 Hometown Heroes Lottery until July 16, 2021 or until tickets sell out. Ticket purchases raise funds for urgent hospital needs and supports resilience-building programs for burn survivors and firefighters.
Lottery grand prize homes are located in Vancouver, South Surrey, Langley, Courtenay, North Vancouver, Sooke, Penticton and Kelowna.
The grand prize winner also has the option of choosing $2.1 million tax-free cash. In total, there are nine grand prize options for this year’s biggest winner to choose from. Tickets can be purchased online at www.heroeslottery.com, by phone at 604-648-4376, toll-free at 1-866-597-4376, or in-person at any London Drugs.