I’m still ashamed of the girl I was at thirteen—ashamed and embarrassed. My life was confined to superficial thoughts and materialistic desires; the one goal I had each day was to be as Barbie as I was capable of being, and unfortunately I was successful. Part of the Barbie image is of course bleach-blonde hair, which I desperately strived to maintain through highlighting.
September of my eighth grade year, I visited a local salon for a regular color treatment. Nothing was different from the usual process: a plastic cap was placed on my head, spotted with tiny holes which hair was pulled through. Then, chemicals were brushed across the separated hair, and another cap was placed over my head before I sat beneath a dryer for five minutes. I’m not sure why those five minutes are now a blur. I don’t recall the pain that surfaced a little later, just a tingling sensation that I assumed was causing my hair to alter to a shade of bombshell blonde. The timer went off and I woke from my daze. I couldn’t sit still; my entire body was shaking. I was standing up, sitting down, crossing my legs, uncrossing my legs. Finally, I barely touched my hand to the top of my head, quickly finding that the heat was unbearable. A couple of hair dressers washed out my hair, picking out pieces of plastic and noting two minor scrapes—one above each ear. One of my favorite parts about having my hair done was surprising my mom, so I typically asked her to shop in the nearby strip mall while I was in the salon. She returned early. My head was still in the sink and I was completely silent about the pain, using all the strength I could muster to not fall apart before this crowded room of strangers. The hairdressers told my mom to return in thirty minutes, and when she did I finally lost it. I was sitting in an elevated chair before a mirror, watching as strands of long, blonde hair cascaded to the floor. The workers tried to pick through the mass of tangles with a toothed comb, rubbing Neosporin over the scrapes above my ears, but it was no use. Immediately after I saw my mom walk through those doors, tears leaked uncontrollably from my eyes and I begged her to take me home. I screamed for three hours. I’m not sure if I’ll ever again endure pain that matches that capacity. I had no idea what was wrong, and the fear of not knowing only caused the physical pain to elevate. I pleaded with my parents not to take me to the emergency room; again, the last thing I wanted was for handfuls of strangers to see the ballistic state I was in. My dad treated the scrapes with a burn spray called 911, which miraculously got me through the night with no pain.
I was at school the following day; in fact, I was at school for the next two weeks, assuming that I had merely experienced an allergic reaction to the highlighting chemicals. I still woke up at five thirty to primp for the day ahead, maintaining a Barbie persona before anyone I encountered. I convinced myself that this was nothing—merely the equivalent of a bad hair day, which every girl can relate to. Over the course of two weeks, the injury worsened as a thick layer of infection outlined the wound--all of it still concealed by blonde hair. One afternoon, a guy in my class accidently hit me in the head with
his backpack as he swung it over his shoulder to go to another class. The rest of the day, infection seeped from my scalp, and it was then that my parents demanded I see a specialist. Though two doctors had already examined the injury, neither one was an expert on skin; therefore they both recommended I see a dermatologist.However, as much as the dermatologist desired to help, he explained that he had never been exposed to anything this severe. “You need to be treated by someone who sees worse than this every day,” he told my parents and me, arranging an appointment at the Shriner’s Burn Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Cincinnati is not only eight hours from my small town, but it was also at the time the biggest city I had ever visited. One of my best friends Ashton came along with me; together, we had planned a schedule consumed with shopping and silliness, despite the minor hospital visit that would probably just result in my being given an antibiotic for a month or so. The nurse called my name and we all ventured back to a tiny, white room. She examined the scrapes and immediately stated that this was not all of the injury. Dr. Warner entered the room and explained that the scrapes were only the outline of the burn. They lifted up my hair, clipped it across the top of my head and exposed the wound that had remained hidden for weeks. My scalp was peeled off and thrown in the garbage, but peculiar enough, I didn’t feel an ounce of pain. “You have third degree chemical burns,” Dr. Warner admitted. Third degree is the worst level a burn can possibly be, but on an optimistic note, the chemicals had run deep through my nerves, explaining why I hadn’t felt any pain since the accident. “You will have to have a skin graft, and the best thing we can do now is shave your head to prepare for surgery,” I was then told.
A mirror was hanging on the wall behind me, so everyone except myself had seen the severity of my burn. Ashton got up and asked to go get a drink of water, but on her way, she passed out in the hall. Meanwhile, the doctor who would perform my surgery, Dr. Kagen, explained to my mom why shaving my head would be the best option, though she fought for another solution. “The process will be less painful and her hair will grow back,” he promised. “She will be happy in the end that she chose to do this.” He outlined an alternative. The doctors and nurses could shave as much hair as was needed and use skin from my hip to place on my scalp. I was presented with both options. I remember looking at Dr. Kagen, barely able to talk through the tears as I simply said, “I want to keep as much hair as I possibly can.” The reality is, most of my long, blonde hair that I ridiculously treasured was taken that day. Though I was the only one who hadn’t seen the entire picture, I guessed from the faces around me that it was worse than I had suspected.
The following morning, I woke up earlier than everyone else and arranged the hotel mirror to examine the back of my head; truly, I couldn’t look at it for more than two seconds, completely repulsed by the reflection. I couldn’t believe how much hair was gone; I still remember crying my eyes out as Ashton carefully braided two thin braids, one on either side of my face and placed a pink ball cap on top of my head. In a matter of hours, the Barbie façade I had learned to play so well had evaporated. Two weeks stretched on before my surgeries began. Night after night, I closed the door to my room and cried to God with the single question of “why?” but He always answered me with silence; either that, or I drowned out His voice with my emotions.
I spent about ten days at the hospital that first round of surgeries, going in and out of the operating room, waking during the nights to haunting sounds of children in pain as their medication wore off, and all the while I begged God to know what we all had done to deserve this. Seasons dragged on as I attempted to balance school with regular drives to Cincinnati; not an ounce of me could pretend that I was the same person. I felt no physical adequacy and stored up bitterness towards the beautiful girls around me I had known my entire life. I remember sitting on the floor of my room one night, hugging my knees to my chest and holding my face in my hands. I finally stopped the flood of selfish thoughts that had shielded my ears from my Savior’s voice for far too long. “Betsy,” I heard Him say to me. “If you were burned 99.9% of your body, I would look at you and call you beautiful.” But there was nothing about me that was lovely, I thought to myself. My tear-stained face was caked in runny makeup; my head had hardly any blonde hair left to claim; my typical sundress ensemble was now cast aside. But quietly, I began to explore the Word of God—not out of desire necessarily, but rather out of desperateness, for as much as people wanted to understand, they couldn’t, and I was in no way vulnerable enough to confess my weakness. I’m convinced that it was the Holy Spirit who led me to this verse in 1 Peter 3:3-4: “It is not fancy hair, gold jewelry, or fine clothes that make you beautiful. No, it is the beauty that comes from within—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit that cannot be destroyed and is very precious to God.” So often as girls, we make our lives far too noisy, drowning out the gentle whisper of our beloved Savior with the chaos of how we are supposed to physically appear. And just when we think that we can juggle being skinny enough and tan enough and bleach blonde enough and made up enough and dressed perfect enough, this verse evaporates our depiction of what beauty is. My life changed after I read this verse; no longer was I spiraling into materialism and superficiality. No longer was I bitter towards my appearance I thought repulsive.
For six months, I wore a balloon under my scalp. Each week, my dad gave me a shot in the side of head and pumped salt water into the balloon, causing it to stretch the skin and hair that covered it. My head was enormous; it reached a point where I wasn’t even capable of fitting in a vehicle. Though it wasn’t necessarily comfortable, the pain wasn’t as unbearable as previous surgeries and healing procedures had been and it was almost humorous to look at how ridiculous I must appear to strangers. When the scalp expander was removed, skin and hair were stretched over the entire back of my head where hair was absent, concealing the wound nearly altogether. Since the conclusion of this surgery, my hair has grown back, covering the scar that still stretches across the bottom of my scalp.
When the healing process first began, I remember the doctors mapping out my surgeries and describing a final procedure I could have done if I desired. In this surgery, my scar that I have now would be pinched together, so there would no longer be any scarring to speak of on my scalp. I can remember thinking of this surgery and clinging tightly to the day when it would be a reality—the mere idea of no physical difference in my appearance was completely foreign several years ago; I never thought I would climb to that point. But now that this final surgery rests at my fingertips and I can have it at any time, I’m no longer so sure that I want it. Everyday I brush my hair over my scar and am reminded of God’s sovereignty; never would I want to make something so physically insignificant that I would forget this truth that has transformed who I am. Through this, He opened up the world of writing to me as I cried out to Him on paper, showing me how authentic words can be if the writer simply allows himself or herself to be real. So often we become unsatisfied by what He’s composing, so we seize the pen from His hand and scribble down our own selfish desires and insights, forgetting that He sees the full picture of our lives. Leave the pen in His hand; continue to let Him write your stories, though certain chapters will entail suffering. For without suffering, there can be no rescue from suffering. Now that is something beautiful.