Mother of burn victim finds healing through memoir
‘ I want people to know that if I can make it, they can too’
Patricia Perry’s life changed forever on a cold night on Dec. 22, 1987.
Her five year-old daughter, Trakesha, pleaded with her to let her sleep over at her cousin’s house in West Memphis.
With the exception of staying with their grandmother, she and her husband had never let any of their children stay anywhere overnight before.
A few hours later she received a call that any parent would dread.
Get to the hospital. Your baby has been burned.
Perry rushed to Crittenden Memorial Hospital thinking it was only a minor burn on her finger or leg or arm from touching the stove or heater.
But when she got there she was met by a paramedic who gave her the news.
It was bad.
Trakesha was burned over 75 percent of her body when a butane cigarette lighter she was playing with caught her nightgown on fire.
Her face was not burned, but her neck was badly burned.
Doctors gave her only a seven percent chance of living.
In the days and weeks and months and even years that followed, Perry cried her eyes out.
She suffered from depression.
She even attempted suicide.
She blamed God for letting it happen. It has taken her 28 years to heal and to forgive and come to terms with what happened to her daughter.
Perry, who is originally from West Memphis but now lives in Killeen, Texas, recalls those events and her ordeal in a recently published memoir called From the Ground to Glory: A Mother’s Story which will be in stores in August.
Writing the book helped her heal and she hopes readers will find some encouragement in dealing with a difficult life changing event.
“It has taken 28 years. But the book is finally done,” Perry said in a recent interview. “It shares my ups and downs — more downs — but I want people to know that if I can make it, they can too. It’s really about encouraging mothers who have children who have been hurt. But the book tells all the personal struggles that I had after that night.”
For 14 months, Perry was told that Trakesha may not live.
She was 24 years-old at the time and had a husband and three other children.
Nothing could prepare her for what she saw when she entered the hospital room and saw her spunky little five year-old baby girl lying in bed wrapped in gauze and covered in a yellow ointment with its distinct odor. Trakesha was now bald and without her pony tails which her mother loved to comb.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Perry writes. “I just stood there frozen in disbelief while doctors and nurses done everything they could to save my baby. In that very moment, I knew my life wouldn’t be the same.”
Trakesha was later transported to LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, but the facility was not equipped to handle such a severe burn case.
Les Dean, a Shriner from Pine Bluff, and Roy Key, president of the local Shriners Club, sponsored the little girl and arranged for her to be treated at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas.
Trakesha had to have surgery to relieve the heat inside her body. Patricia was told not to touch her or hold her or even let her tears from her eyes fall on her.
She could see the cuts and gaps and missing skin. Trakesha would spend 14 weeks in a burn unit and would have over 40 surgeries, skin graphs, releases, and reconstruction.
Patricia said she cried both inside and out.
“The scars on the outside is what I saw at the time, never realizing what the internal scars would do to me and my daughter,” Perry writes.
Patricia determined that Trakesha would get her smile back and see that no matter what, she was still the most beautiful little girl in the world.
But the ordeal took a great personal toll on her.
The accident had changed her.
When she looked in the mirror she didn’t see herself. She saw a very unhappy, unstable, dysfunctional person trying to overcome her circumstances.
“I became a young woman I didn’t know,” Perry writes. “I was now shattered, broken into tiny pieces that would take over twenty years to put back together.”
Perry directed her anger at God.
Why did he allow her to let Trakesha stay away from home that night, three days from Christmas? Why couldn’t he stop this from happening?
And the most shameful question of all. Why my child?
“I remember thinking Dec. 22, 1987, God must have been busy because he dropped the ball,” Perry writes. “All of these questions I lived with for longer than this book took to write.”
It took her 28 years to realize that it wasn’t God’s fault.
“I stayed mad at him for a year and a half after the accident,” Perry said during the interview. “But God was in complete control.
He was right there. He didn’t allow her to die in that surgery. And when I attempted suicide, he made sure somebody found me.
He was always there.”
The last person she needed to forgive was her aunt, Edna Perry.
She was angry for years because she had left her baby in the care of family and trusted she was in good hands.
“I forgave myself first,” Perry said. “And the last person I spoke with and freed myself was my aunt whose house it happened at. I suffered in silence from the guilt and hurt and shame of allowing her to sleep over. Of course today, I know it wasn’t my fault.
And 28 years later, God is allowing me to forgive.”
While writing the book, Perry consulted Trakesha’s medical records at Shriners Hospital in Galveston.
The hospital has over 6,000 medical pictures of Trakesha and even has a recording of her voice from 28 years ago.
“I would write for 30 minutes and cry for four hours,” Perry said. “Then I would write another 20 minutes and cry another four hours. But it was really helpful when I was invited to the hospital. I went in November and heard the tape of her voice and how she felt and what she was thinking.”
Her experience has also put her in touch with other women and families who are going through a similar ordeal.
“I got the opportunity to mentor mothers who are going through the same thing I was going through,” Perry said. “Had I had someone to share some of the deepest thought and experiences I was going through, I possibly might not have experienced some of the things I did.”
As for Trakesha, Perry said she still suffers in her own way. But today she is loving and kind and works as a nurse’s aide.
“It’s been hard,” Perry said. “It’s not extreme. I’ve spent 28 years struggling to make her believe that she is beautiful.”
From the Ground to Glory: A Mother’s Story will be released Aug. 1 along with a line of greeting cards and will be available at Cupples Bible Book Shop in West Memphis.
By Mark Randall