It was February of 1982. I was 26 years old, married, and the father of a two year old daughter. The marriage was the result of an accidental pregnancy, and the mother of our child was determined to have and keep her baby. I was just as determined that no child of mine would grow up without a father. So when my pregnant girlfriend was 20 and I was 23, we got married.
My wife and I struggled financially. Times were hard, and money was always short. I was stuck with driving a car to work that was an ongoing nightmare. It was a 1976 Audi Fox. The car had mechanical problems on a regular basis. I lived 20 miles away from my job, and the repeated breakdowns and cost of repairs was killing our already limited income, but I didn’t have the money to buy a better and more reliable car.
On a bitterly cold morning in February 1982, shortly after I left home to drive to work, I saw the temperature gauge for the engine pinned up in the red zone, warning me that the engine was overheating. How could this be? I figured that the radiator was partially frozen, and not enough coolant was getting to the engine. I pulled off the main road into a parking lot for a supermarket. Since the car had already overheated several times in the previous summer, I put a pressure relief cap on the radiator, so whenever the engine overheated, I could pull the pressure relief lever on the cap, and let all the pressure and steam out of the radiator, before opening the cap, so I could safely open the cap, and add water or coolant.
That morning in February 1982 when it was two degrees below zero outside, and my engine was overheating, I pulled into the supermarket parking lot, raised the hood, and pulled the pressure relief lever on my radiator cap. Immediately there was a furious rush of hot steam and pressure that spewed out of the radiator cap. I waited almost ten minutes for the hot steam and heat to be released, until there was no more hissing coming from the pressure relief lever.
I thought that it was now safe to open the radiator cap completely, so I could do whatever was necessary to cool down my engine. I pushed down and twisted the cap counter clockwise, to open it completely.
What happened next, happened in a fraction of a disastrous second. The radiator cap blew off with such force, that it hit me in the forehead hard enough to leave a bruise. A volcanic eruption of white hot steam and an upward stream of boiling antifreeze hit me directly in the face and eyes! It hit me so hard, that I fell backwards five feet away from the car and landed hard on my back in the snow.
The intense pain was immediate and excruciating. My entire face blazed as though it had been set on fire. A loud and agonized wounded animal cry of devastating pain tore out of my throat as I laid there, thrown down upon my back by the force of the disaster that had befallen me.
I slowly got up on my knees, with my face still consumed with burning fire. I couldn’t see… I couldn’t see much of anything. My head reeled with dizziness as I attempted to get up. I soon felt myself being thrown back down hard, face first down on the ground, as intense dizziness robbed me of my ability to stay upright. My face and eyes continued to burn, as if engulfed in flame.
I tried to get up on my knees again. I still felt like my face and eyes were on fire, but at least this time I could get up on my knees, and not be thrown down hard into the packed snow of the parking lot, by vertigo. With great effort, I managed to rise and stand up on my feet. I was standing upright, but I couldn’t see much of anything. I stared out at the world around me, and it was as though my eyes were trying to see through a film of milk. I vaguely recognized shapes, enough that I could tell where the supermarket was, and I stumbled off in that direction.
When I got inside, I yelled for help and was soon guided to a place where I wouldn’t scare the shoppers. They called an ambulance for me, but it seemed like it was taking forever to show up. At room temperature, the burns on my face and in my eyes were just painful beyond enduring. In my pain tortured mind, I thought that I’d be better off outside in the sub zero cold, where at least the extreme cold would help to numb my nerves and chill my pain to a level that I could still tolerate without losing my mind.
So I got up and walked out of the supermarket. I knew where the nearest hospital was. It was six miles away… By now the morning sun was high and bright enough, that even through my burned, milk covered eyes, I could just barely make out directions enough that I could tell which way to go.
Being out in the extreme cold again was a blessed relief. It really did numb my face enough that the pain, while truly terrible, was manageable enough to continue on. But my vision got worse. The white film covering my eyes became increasingly harder to see through as I trudged on towards the hospital. I began to think about the consequences of being permanently blind. It was a very scary thought, and seemed like an all too real a possibility for me. I kept thinking of lobsters thrown into a pot of boiling water, and how when they came out, their eyes were a milky blue color, instead of the dark brown they were before they went into the pot.
I began to wonder if my sight had been ruined forever… I tried not to think about it, as I marched on towards the hospital.
After over an hour and a half, I stumbled up the driveway to the emergency room entrance. The automatic doors started to open, but shuddered and slammed shut, because of a malfunction caused by the cold. I lurched forward, and banged my fists on the doors! Someone inside hit an emergency button, and the doors pushed open. I stumbled into the emergency room and collapsed down in a chair in the hallway. As I sat there, I figured that someone would attend to me soon. I sat there for over half an hour, and no one bothered with me…
At room temperature, the pain from the burns on my face and in my eyes soon returned to full intensity, and the agony was just unbearable. After over half an hour, with no attention from the ER staff, I jumped up out of my chair and physically grabbed the first nurse that passed close enough for me to see her in my nearly blinded state. I shouted that I had an accident that could leave me blind for life, unless I got some medical attention very soon!
The nurse got things going for me. Soon I was laid down on a gurney and wheeled into a room. The first thing I remember, was a nurse asking me what my health insurance was, and what my Plan ID number was… I told her that I had Blue Care/Blue Shield, and that I had no idea what my Plan ID number was, because I was half blind, and out of my mind with pain! That seemed to shut them up on this question for a while.
After the doctor treated my burned face and eyes, the hospital called my wife, who got a friend to drive her to the hospital to pick me up. I was released that same day. I came home with gauze and bandages wrapped tightly around my eyes, and a set of written instructions for how to administer my eye medication, and change my bandages. The doctor who treated me told me that maybe I’d see clearly again, and maybe I wouldn’t… He couldn’t give me a more definite answer than that.
So I lived for over three days in a state of nearly total blindness, wondering if this was the way I would spend the rest of my life. But on the morning of the fourth day, when my wife removed the bandages, and the light seemed much brighter in my eyes, I asked her to give me the eye medication, but to leave the bandages off. By that evening, I could see again.
A week later, I was back at work. My vision was clear again, but my face was covered with big thick scabs from my burns. I was afraid that I’d been disfigured for life, and that the scabs would turn into permanent burn scars. A week after that, the scabs wore away, and I had an ugly network of burn scars all over my face. I wasn’t very happy. I had been overjoyed when I got my sight back, but now I was upset that my face might be permanently scarred and disfigured.
When I called the doctor at the hospital who treated me, and I asked him if the scars would fade, he said that the scars would at least partially fade, but that it was impossible to predict how much they would fade or remain permanent. This answer left me feeling very depressed, but I tried my best to stay optimistic that my appearance would improve.
Eventually all my burn scars faded away within less than a year, and most important of all, I wasn’t blind. A permanent result of the accident is that I still suffer from chronic eye strain, irritation and redness. But that’s a very small consequence compared to what could have been…