(Sean sits on the bench press in the weight room at Oxford Regional Education Centre.)
Sean Mackenzie settles his long, lean body into a chair in the Journal office but he doesn’t relax. He’s back in town, trying to adjust to a different kind of life than the one he left, as a medical emergency, not quite four months ago.
“It started out as a normal night,” Sean says of Sunday, May 22. “We got back to a friend’s house and decided to have a fire. We were trying to light it but nothing would happen; it kept going out. Eventually, I asked for something flammable like kerosene to pour on the fire.”
When the fire didn’t take the first time, Sean poured the kerosene onto the fire again and this time, the flames caught -- the liquid. The fire went up into the can and there was an explosion.
“I’ll never forget the noise it made,” Sean admits. “I kind of stood there like, ‘What the h-- just happened?’ All that was left of the kerosene jug was the handle so I threw it down and I looked at my hands to make sure everything was all right. But then the fire started to go up in front of me so I turned to run because I was soaked in kerosene but it caught the ground and then my legs.”
The fire travelled up Sean’s legs to his chest then to his arms.
“I was freaking out because I was burning,” he says. He tried to take off his jacket, which was nylon, but the zipper was melted to his chest. When he heard his friends yelling “Stop, drop and roll”, he dropped to the ground but rolling around didn’t put the fire out. As someone ran to call 9-1-1, Sean sat up.
“I’d pretty much accepted what was going to happen so I got in my last few swear words. My life actually flashed before my eyes. Everything I could remember went through my mind, just like that, but it felt like it was forever.”
Another friend tackled Sean back to the ground and smothered the fire. Sean says it felt like he was on fire for 30 minutes but really it was only a fraction of that time. After the paramedics took him to the hospital in Amherst, he was airlifted to the QEII in Halifax.
“A week later, I woke up and didn’t know where I was,” Sean recalls. “My mother had been there every day. It must have been hard to see her only son like that.”
The first person he asked for was his stepfather, with whom he lives in Oxford, because the night of the accident, his stepfather had wanted him to stay home.
“He told me not go out,” says Sean. “He said he had a bad feeling, but I told him what could happen? I was going to out and enjoy my weekend.”
Sean suffered third degree burns to 36 percent of his body, the worst on his legs and chest.
“That’s not that bad,” he says. “I thought I was burned beyond recognition. The only deformity I have from the fire is that I’m missing a little part of my right ear. I have all my fingers, which is weird, considering the can exploded.” (He knows it could have been worse. He was told that if the liquid had been gasoline, the explosion likely would have been deadly.)
His recovery is remarkable. Sean spent a month in hospital then another month in rehab before returning to Oxford at the end of August.
“I thought I was going to be stuck in that hospital for a really long time,” he says. He celebrated his 19th birthday exactly a month after the accident. “It was really hard not going to prom and graduation,” he admits. “I wish I could have been there.”
He doesn’t want to be here now, that’s for sure. His plan was to join the army this fall; instead he’s returning to high school part-time while he rebuilds his body, and restores his peace of mind.
“They said I’ll be back to normal in two years time. I’ll be able to work out a lot, go for long walks, my skin won’t tear so easily,” Sean explains. “I’ll be scarred for the rest of my life but they’re going to go down a bit. People will have to look close to tell I was burned.”
As he talks, two fingers trace the outline of the thick, pink burned skin on the side of the opposite hand. For a confident, good-looking kid, this is new territory for him, this hyper-awareness of the way he looks, of the reason why people are staring at him. When asked if the accident changed him, he says he’s still the same; what’s different is what he has learned to appreciate.
“I had people visit me who I never thought would come in. I had people praying for me at the churches. It felt really good, like I was loved,” he says. “One of my friends said that sometimes it takes an accident like this to make people realize who their real friends are. When this happened, a lot of my opinions changed about people I never thought would have cared.”
Sometimes it takes an accident like this to make someone aware of what’s already good in themselves and in their life.
“I was lucky to have a good father figure to keep me in check, to make sure I didn’t become an arrogant little jerk.” He’s talking about his stepfather now. “You know the thing I regret the most is that I didn’t listen to him [that night]. I took a lot of it for granted, and you know, I still am. I really love my stepfather and I’m glad he was there.”
The only time Sean shows emotion during this intense conversation is now, when he speaks about his family, when he remembers how he felt when he thought he was dying. But there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
“The only thing weird that happened to me that night was my life flashed before my eyes,” he says. “The thing is it wasn’t bad crap; it was all the good things in life that I ever experienced.”
by Sara Mattinson