PROVIDENCE – In a few weeks, hundreds of burn survivors will be walking around downtown, shopping in Providence Place mall, flying into T.F. Green Airport. Don’t stare at them. “Look them in the eye, smile and say ‘Hi,’ ” said Amy Actor, executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, which will be hosting its annual World Burn Congress in Providence Oct. 9-13.
Actor, a burn survivor herself, said that being burned shakes a person’s self perception and often leaves them feel very isolated. The Phoenix Society’s goal is to help burn survivors realize that they aren’t alone. It provides a safe place to talk about the challenges burn survivors face and gain the tools to address them.
“The scars don’t go away,” Actor said.
The convention is expected to bring 1,000 people, many of whom are burn victims with visible wounds who wear prosthetics, burn suits and face masks.
To help make these visitors feel safe and welcome, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, working with the Phoenix Society and Lifespan, will be hosting sensitivity training sessions to local businesses and their employees Sept. 17 and 19. Local burn victims and health care providers will work together to teach the general public how to respond to burns in a respectful, caring manner.
Instead of looking away and keeping silent or staring, attendees will learn respectful ways to ask survivors about their burns, Actor said.
The Burn Congress is timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire, which claimed 100 lives in February 2003. Many of those who escaped were left terribly burned, including Kathy Sullivan Pelchat, who was 31 at the time of the fire.
More than 25 percent of Pelchat’s body was burned, and she spent two and a half months in the hospital recovering.
Six months after the fire, Pelchat attended the Phoenix Society’s Burn Congress with several other Station survivors. “I [felt] like I didn't belong because I wasn't burned as bad as some of these people,” she said, explaining that most of her burns are hidden, on her back and arms, while only her hands are visibly scarred.
But she said that feeling quickly faded and she was welcomed, it didn’t matter the degree she was burned. “It’s a good place for you to realize that you can have a normal life,” she said.
Since that first congress, Pelchat has become involved with helping other burn survivors cope, working at Rhode Island Hospital as a Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery provider. She also will be helping with the sensitivity training for this year’s congress.
She said the memory of the fire is always on the back of her mind. She lost her two best friends in the fire, and when the anniversary of the event rolls around, the first thing she wants to do is call them, but of course she can’t. But Pelchat formed new friends from the fire – many of the Station survivors have become close, and they always have each other to lean on, she said.
Costello says there is there is no doubt that Rhode Island was impacted by the tragedies of the Station Nightclub fire. “There is a sensitivity to burn victims and their families following that tragedy. We’re a good community to host the conference and to make them feel welcome as part of our community,” she said.
To attend a sensitivity training session, contact Sue Stenhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sessions are being held at the Chamber offices Sept. 17 at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., and Sept. 19 at 9:30 and 11:00 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. People interested in volunteering at the Burn Congress should visit www.phoenix-society.org/wbcvolunteer.