How You Can Help


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(Posted with permission from Kathy Edwards, Author)

Burn survivors say that a strong support system of family and friends is one of the most important factors in a successful recovery from a burn injury. Patients with serious burns that cover a large body surface area are usually taken to a hospital having a specialized burn unit. Even if your family member or friend is in a hospital many miles away, there are things you can do to help. One of the most important things you can do is let them know you are there for them by making contact in some way. If you cannot visit the person in the hospital, call or send a card. Be sure to let them know you're thinking about them.

Since the skin has the greatest number of nerve endings of any organ large burn injuries are extremely painful. These injuries also take a long time to heal, anywhere from six months to two years depending on the severity of the injury. Many people assume that when a burn patient goes home from the hospital the worst part of the recovery is over and soon life will return to "normal." In fact, most patients say that the hardest time for them is when they first go home from the hospital because they usually don't have as much help and support as they did while in the hospital. This article lists suggestions below on how to be helpful while the patient is being hospitalized and also how to help after the person has gone home from the hospital.

Hospital Visits

Check with the hospital to find out the best time to visit and whether or not the patient is allowed to have visitors. Sometimes the burn unit will limit a patient's visitors if they are undergoing surgery, are heavily medicated, or if the patient has too many visitors. Once the patient has recovered from surgery they begin a rigorous physical therapy routine. In general, late afternoon or early evening are good times for visitors but the hospital can give you more exact information.

Flowers? Many burn units do not allow patients to have flowers in their room because flowers can carry bacteria and a newly burned patient is at an increased risk of infection. If real flowers are not allowed, patients usually are allowed to have artificial flower arrangements or plants in their rooms. If you are visiting and want to take a gift, the following items recommended:

books, especially humorous books or books on tape
drawing supplies and/or a blank journal to write in; even people who don't normally draw or do a lot of writing may use a journal to record thoughts after an accident
pictures, posters, or something to hang in the hospital room, especially something that has significance to the patient or reminds them of an experience you've shared together
small toys or coloring books for children
a meal or favorite food item; burn patients need a lot of calories to heal
a present for the caretaker who is spending most of their time at the hospital

What to say/what NOT to say:

Burn survivors differ when it comes to the subject of talking about their injuries. It's a good idea to let the patient take the lead in talking about their accident. If they want to talk about it, be there for them as a listener. If they don't want to talk about it, don't pry.

Be positive and hopeful but don't minimize the seriousness of the injury. DO say things like "this is tough but I believe you can get through it." DON'T say things like "it's not that bad." Sometimes it's helpful to point out to the person that "it could have been worse" to help them focus on what happened in a more positive light. But most patients will respond better to this kind of statement if you have also acknowledged the seriousness of their injury.

Show empathy, not sympathy.

Many people are offended if you say "I know how you feel" when you have not been through a similar experience. It's better to say something like "I can see that this is a really difficult time. I'll be here for you."

Watch your nonverbal cues: Most patients appreciate visitors unless the visitor has a strong negative reaction to the patient's appearance. Burn patients may be self-conscious about their appearance. Be aware of the messages you may be giving out with your body language. Try not to look shocked or afraid. DON'T stare at the patient, but DO make eye contact with them. Both staring and averting the eyes are upsetting to patients.

Alternatives to Hospital Visits

If you cannot visit while the patient is in the hospital, call, send a card, or volunteer to do something to help the patient and/or the family. Remember that immediate family members may be spending a lot of time at the hospital with the patient and unable to fulfill their normal responsibilities. There are many things you can do to help. (These suggestions are also helpful once the person has come home from the hospital.)

help with child care
help with yard work or household chores
take a meal to the family members who are at home

When the Patient Goes Home from the Hospital

Remember this is a time when your help is most needed. Adult patients often cannot drive for several weeks after returning home from the hospital. Almost all burn patients are required to go back to the hospital or to an outpatient clinic for physical therapy and check up visits. It is usually several weeks before the patient will have the energy or the mobility to do everyday chores for themselves, and it is hard for most burn survivors to ask others for help. DON'T call and say "what can I do to help?" INSTEAD call and offer to do something specific and ask "What would be a good time for you?" Choose something you feel comfortable doing for the person.

Here are some suggestions:

provide transportation
take a meal to the patient/family
help with yard work or household chores you feel comfortable doing
help with child care
help with pets, claws are hard on new skin!
make a "welcome home banner"
organize a "welcome back" party when the person returns to school or work
remember to ask how the person is doing even several months after the accident
be a supportive listener

If you are a primary caregiver for a burn survivor, remember that it is also important to take care of yourself, too. Take breaks occasionally when needed and learn how to let others help. You don't have to do it all!

If you have read this far into the article you must be a caring person. There's no doubt you will find some way to be supportive to the burn survivor in your life. Remember, most burn survivors say that the things you DO are more helpful than the things you SAY when showing support. When in doubt, volunteer to help out!

Note: The suggestions in this article are based on ideas submitted by members of the burn survivors online e-mail discussion group. Join our discussion group for further information. This article was written by Kathy Edwards (