I’ll Always Remember…

I’ll always remember the day my nine years of life was blown away from me. Literally. Tragically. It happened 25 years ago today. July 25, 1993.

I’ll always remember the last walk I took before the explosion. I was walking by myself, towards incredible danger, I just didn’t know it. I also didn’t know that I wasn’t really by myself. I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I was walking towards the cabin where my toys were. I didn’t know that this walk would be the last walk I would ever take, as me. To this day, I firmly believe that weird feeling I had, was God or some kind of divine intervention trying to tell me to stop, turn around – do not go into that cabin.

I’ll always remember the awful smell as I walked into the cabin. I didn’t know what it was. I remember looking and seeing the propane stove burner was turned to on but there was no flame or anything cooking. So I just shut it off.

I’ll always remember reaching for the lighter. The lighter that my aunt had previously given explicit instructions that only my older sister was allowed to use. But I needed some light; the cabin had no electricity. It was just a lighter anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? If only I knew.

I’ll always remember lighting the lighter.

Mess inside after explosion
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

I’ll always remember opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks covering the carpet of the cabin. I remember being scared and screaming.

I’ll always remember seeing my dad work frantically to cut my clothes off and wrap me in freezing cold drenched towels. I remember my dad picking me up in his arms and turning around to carry me up to the truck.

I’ll always remember the look on my oldest sister’s face when my dad turned me around. Her hands were covering her mouth, her eyes wide with fear, repeating the words “Oh My God” over and over. I remember looking over to my left arm when I saw her face, and I saw a large flap of skin barely hanging on.

I’ll always remember that as the moment I knew I wasn’t ok. I was hurt, badly.
I’ll always remember the first time I heard about my mom’s reaction, I wasn’t there to see it, for that I’m grateful. My dad had sent my mom up to our trailer to get some ice, mainly to get her out of the way, so he could help me without a hysterical mother getting in the way, just like any mother would be if her baby was badly hurt. When she ran back from the trailer with the ice in hand she saw that my dad, uncle and I were already gone. My mom dropped the ice, fell to her knees and just started crying, praying, screaming “MY BABY! MY BABY!”.

Me first in hospital
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

I’ll always remember my uncle speeding to get us to an ambulance. My dad holding me the entire drive. Talking to me. Making sure I didn’t fall asleep. I remember being so tired. Not in any pain…yet. I’ll never forget how my dad saved my life that day.

I’ll always remember my dad pounding on the ambulance shack door, the EMT’s taking less than a second to open it, and my dad yelling at them “WHAT THE HELL TOOK YOU SO LONG?”. He handed me – his badly hurt baby girl – to them. He probably won’t admit it, but this is the moment when my dad was allowed to break down. To lose his cool. He did everything he could for me. Now it was up to the pros – and god. He was finally allowed to be scared. And he was. My whole family was. No cell phones meant no communication. My mom, siblings and aunt – all left at the cabin, had no idea what just happened or if I was ok. Or alive.

25 years ago today, when I was just nine years old, I was in a propane explosion. I didn’t die. But the Joy who walked into that cabin, did not come back out. I was left with 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. Countless surgeries, never-ending prayers, unconditional support from friends and family, 5 weeks in a hospital bed – and not one of those days was I ever alone.

My parents were by my side the entire time. Taking turns being with me, working and taking care of my siblings. But I was their main focus for so long. I was all they thought about. All they talked about. They were so strong. I didn’t see my mom break down once – years later she’d tell me that’s because she’d wait until she got to her room for the night – it was in her room, alone, where I wouldn’t see her pain, where she would let it all out. All her fear, pain, uncertainty, tears. There was one time I remember my dad leaving my hospital room and as he got to the door he turned around and said “I love you Joy”. His words cracking as he fought back tears.

There are some things I remember from the explosion and hospital. Some things I don’t remember, but I’m told about – to this day my dad will tell the story of my accident with such pride. My mom stays a little more quiet when we talk about it, the painful memories possibly still a little too painful.

I don’t remember seeing my face for the first time after my grafting. My arms and legs were right there so I couldn’t help but see them; I saw the bloody, gross, “new” skin that I would have to live with forever. I can remember the pain. Excruciating. So incredibly painful. Indescribable. It hurt to cry. It hurt to smile. It hurt to move. It hurt to lay still. Eventually it would hurt to exist.

Face after grafting 3
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

I remember my family being there, completely. Every single step of the way of my healing journey. My dad would tell us, “Normal doesn’t exist for us anymore. We need to find a new normal”. Not only was I not “normal” anymore, with permanent scars covering my body, but all our lives had changed. Forever.

As the years passed, it felt like I would never be normal again. And yet that’s all I wanted. I just wanted to be a regular kid. A regular teenager who would have crushes and be crushed on. Oh I had crushes alright. But what teenage boy would ever want to date a girl with scars. The constant pain of feeling unwanted, unlovable because of my scars would follow me from my teenage years into my adult years.

I remember crying myself to sleep more nights than not. Scratching at the scars on my face, praying that I could wake up and they be gone. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t know lighting that lighter would make me look like a freak. Like a monster. With alligator skin. Or chicken skin, as some people liked to call it. I didn’t know. I was just a child. Nothing about this was fair. If you had told me that one day I would learn to love my scars, (which my mom did often), I would have called you crazy (which I did. Sorry mom). That day eventually came.

Me and Jess 2
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

The pain I’ve felt since the day of the explosion is pain like nothing I could even begin to describe. The physical pain sucked. But it ended. The emotional pain stayed. It’s still there. I do wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t been burned. I wonder what I would look like, who I would be, where I would be. My dad would tell me all the time “No Pain, No Gain” – I hated it at the time. Now, those are words I live by.

I tried to end the pain on three separate occasions. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was constantly suffering. Struggling. Hurting. I didn’t know how to be ok. I didn’t know how to love myself the way I was. I thought everything would be ok, I would be ok, my family would be ok, if I just died.

Becoming a mom changed all that. I knew I had to change. The long journey of learning to love myself and love my scars, began the second I looked into my daughter’s eyes for the first time. I wanted her to look up to me, not feel sorry for me. I wanted her to see strength, beauty, and love when she looked at me. I knew that if I wanted that from her, I had to give it to myself first.

Me and Julene on her bday
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

While learning to love myself and every single scar on my body, I realized, finally, that my family suffered too. For too long. They went thru hell, just as long as I did. Just a different kind of hell. They had no choice but to watch me suffer, hurt and cry. They felt helpless – what could they do? I want them to know that they did everything they were supposed to do. 25 years ago up to today, and I have no doubt for the rest of my life I can turn around and they’ll still be there.

I don’t want to diminish what my siblings, extended family and friends, and everyone else who was incredible support towards my family and I went thru, it will never be forgotten. But there are two people who I think really need a medal of honor, bravery, heroism. My parents.

Imagine sitting in a lawn chair, it’s a hot summer day. You’re relaxing. Visiting. Making memories. Little did my parents know at the time, when they heard the explosion, it was the beginning of a lifelong, heartbreaking, life-changing, on-going memory that they too won’t be able to forget.

Imagine hearing the sound of your child screaming in utter fear. You go running to the sounds of her screams. What you see in front of you is like something from a horror film. The front wall of the cabin was blown out a couple feet, the door was jammed into the floor. Your little girl is standing in the middle of the cabin. Something didn’t look right with her. She had a dazed look on her face. She was bloody.

Sleeping bag through wall
The explosion caused all the logs and roof to lift up – this is my sister’s sleeping bag blown thru the wall. Photo property of Joy Zylstra

Now imagine seeing your child lying in a hospital bed. Head swollen to the size of two basketballs, arms and legs just as swollen. She’s sedated. It’s unclear if she’ll survive the night.

Imagine being told that you might want to start thinking about a funeral for your nine year old child, as she lays in a hospital bed – secluded. You can’t hold her, touch her, hug her, you can’t even dry her tears.

Imagine seeing your child having their healthy skin removed and stapled on to the burns. Seeing her wince every time something as small as her toe had to move. Seeing her cry and hearing her swearing at god for letting this happen to her. You can’t cry too. Not yet. You have to stay strong. For your little girl. You have to. If you break down, she’ll have nothing left to hold on to. But you feel so helpless. You can’t do anything to make her feel better, to make the pain end.

In hospital
Photo property of Joy Zylstra

What my parents went thru is something I hope I never have to experience. I’d rather go thru the explosion again a million times over than experience the hell my parents saw and felt 25 years ago. My parents are the strongest people I know.

I wanted to do something special and memorable to mark my 25 year anniversary. I didn’t want it to be looked at as a tragedy – but instead an experience that made me the woman I am today. I want my parents and everyone else to see that I really am ok. And maybe, probably, I need to see it for myself.

25 years 1
Photo by Jerry Cordeiro

This photo shoot was emotional. I thought I was strong enough for it, and I was, for the most part. But there was a couple times when I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wanted to show my strength. Jerry, I don’t know how I can ever thank you for capturing exactly what I was feeling in my heart, my soul – it’s like you knew, without me being able to describe what I wanted. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving this gift to me. It means more to me than you’ll ever know. The photos captured what I needed to have captured. They show that I’m stronger than what tried to kill me. Which is how I finally feel. Propane still scares me, but I don’t let it control me. I am in control of my life and how I react to what happens in it.

25 years 2
Photo by Jerry Cordeiro

The location of the photo shoot was perfect – the only thing that would have been more perfect would have been the actual cabin – but I’m not sure I would have been able to handle being back in there. I went once, and it was hard. Larysa – thank you so much for finding this building and thinking of me when you saw it. You have an eye for that kind of thing and it really was absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for that and for all your help during and after! These photos, this shoot, is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

25 years 4
Photo by Jerry Cordeiro

Finally, I’d like to end this with advice to anyone who is going thru their own hell. Advice given to me from the two people in my life who are true heroes. My heroes. As my dad would say, “No Pain, No Gain”. Those words I hated while I was healing but have grown to love and respect them – because it’s so true. I went thru a lot of pain, and I’ve gained so much because of it. And, as my mom would say, “have faith”. I asked her a few years ago how she survived this tragedy. She told me she prayed. A lot. And just kept having faith that everything would be ok. Eventually, it was. Today it is.

Although I will always remember July 25, 1993 – I am ok. I am strong. I am a survivor.

25 years 3
Photo by Jerry Cordeiro

 

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Introducing the second team member of the new Humans Of Edmonton Experience…yours truly!

Introducing next on the team… Joy

My name is Joy Zylstra. I was born and raised in Camrose, AB by two loving parents. I am the middle child, of seven kids. Five sisters and one lucky brother. My childhood was not a normal one, to say the very least.
When I was nine years old my family and I were visiting with my aunt and uncle at their cabin in Boston Bar, B.C. Two of my older sisters and I were staying in the guest cabin while everyone else slept in the main cabin.

On Sunday July 25, 1993 everyone was sitting outside the main cabin, chatting and relaxing. But I was bored. I went to the guest cabin where all my stuff was to play with my Barbie’s. To this day, I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I walked to the cabin. We had just had lunch, so I knew I wasn’t hungry. So, I ignored it. Now, looking back, I firmly believe that it was God telling me to turn around; to not go into that cabin.

I walked into the cabin anyway and I smelled something strange. I looked around and saw that the propane stove was on, but nothing was cooking. Thinking nothing of it, I turned the burner off. The cabin didn’t have any electricity, so the only source of light was a candle. I grabbed the lighter to light the candle so I could find my toys. The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks all over the floor. I screamed.

Mess inside after explosion
The cabin after the explosion

My family had all heard the explosion. But at first, they didn’t know what it was. They thought a semi truck had fallen off the mountain. But then they heard my screams coming from the guest cabin. My uncle and dad came running to me.
Long story short, the cabin was filled with propane. Just the spark from the lighter caused it to explode. The logs lifted and came back down, trapping my sister’s sleeping bag in-between; the roof lifted and came back down sideways; shelves fell; and I was burned. Badly.

Sleeping bag through wall
My sister’s sleeping bag was blown in between the separated logs and trapped when the logs came back down.

After the doctors realized I was going to survive, they told my parents that I suffered from 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. This meant I would have skin grafting which would result in scars, to almost half my body – for the rest of the life. I was in a lot of pain while in the hospital. But nothing could prepare me for the pain I would have being forced to live life looking like a “freak” and “monster”.
I was only 9 years old. In the hospital, I was determined to remain positive, happy – I would tell jokes often. But I had no idea what was coming. When I returned to school just 5 weeks after the explosion, all my old friends (except one) wouldn’t come near me. I don’t blame them – we were just kids. And I looked awful. Bloody, purple skin; garments on my torso, hands and legs; a mask on my face and a bald head.
Teenage years were the hardest. While all my friends were starting to get boyfriends, I realized quickly that no guy wanted to date me. I was ugly. One guy even told me that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because of my scars. I was severely depressed. Depression would follow me for the rest of my life. At 16 I attempted suicide three times. I would cry myself to sleep every night praying to God to take my scars away. I just wanted to be normal. Pretty.

Smiling...before face graft
Me just before getting my face grafted

As a teenager and young adult, I thought the only way to numb the pain was with drugs, alcohol and sex. I thought if I slept with a guy then he could eventually learn to love me, scars and all. Drugs and alcohol didn’t numb the pain, it made it worse. I was so lost. So scared. So sad.
Then, I became a mom at the age of 20. I’ll never forget looking into my daughter’s eyes and refusing to let her feel about herself the way I felt about myself. The birth of my daughter was the start of my healing process.
I left her father as it was not a healthy relationship and embarked on the single mom life. I moved us to Edmonton where I put myself through college, got a good career with a big company and bought my daughter and I our first home. And while doing this, I would look in the mirror and tell myself that I was beautiful – scars and all. Eventually, it worked. But I was still depressed.

It was just my daughter and I for the first seven years of her life. I was so lonely, but now I had self worth. I knew I deserved a good man – but where was he? Most men still looked at my scars and wouldn’t even think about a relationship. I was about to give up on finding my soul mate, thought maybe the single mom life was for me. But then I met him. My husband. He tells me that the first thing he noticed about me when we first met was my smile. Not my scars. We married 5 years ago. He adopted my daughter and we now have three beautiful children together. But I was still depressed, I just didn’t know it (or maybe want to admit it).
For years I knew my accident happened for a reason, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started going to schools and giving burn awareness presentations to help avoid any one else going through what I went through. I volunteer at the same burn unit I was treated in almost 25 years ago to help those burn survivors know that they’re not alone – and that it can and will be ok eventually. The depression though, never left. I just buried it. It eventually creeped back up earlier this year, and this time I didn’t ignore it. I sought help with it and have accepted that it could be there for life, as long as I take care of it though, it won’t take over my life.

A year ago I started my own page, Scarred, Not Broken to showcase hope. I started interviewing other survivors of tragic and life challenging events. I want people who are going through a hard time to know that they’re not alone. Because that was the hardest part for me – although I was never physically alone, I felt so alone. Like no one knew what I was going through. I’m determined to help others, not just burn survivors – survivors of anything, know that they’re not alone. I dream of one day having my own talk show. One that has guests who share their story of survival and hope. Their stories deserve to be heard – and need to be heard by others who are going through something similar.

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Which brings me to why I am so excited, proud and humbled to have been asked to join Humans of Edmonton Experience. The four of us have such diverse backgrounds, which makes us the perfect team. I look forward to the lives we’re going to help, to the changes we’re going to make in the world, to the love and acceptance we’re going to help spread. Being part of this team is the beginning of my dream coming true.

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#Scarrednotbroken #IHeartEdmonton #HumansofEdmontonExperience
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