Imagine a pot of hot oil exploding in your face, the pain so great neither your mind nor your body knows how to respond. Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror moments later and seeing your face “melting”, an eyelid drooping over your eye. And imagine all this happening in a foreign country – in the middle of a lockdown brought on by the pandemic.
It’s a situation most of us cannot even begin to picture, but it was exactly what Charlene Chew went through in October 2020.
Chew had been living in Melbourne for about seven years when one day, a pot of hot oil she was standing over in her kitchen “exploded”, sending “the worst, most unimaginable pain” through her face and neck.
“I was screaming in a way that still scares me now when I think about it and I remember crouching down (and curling up) into a ball, screaming at my then-partner to call an ambulance.
“I remember running to the mirror … (and seeing that) my skin had turned brown and my eyes were swelling up. I was convinced at that moment that one of my eyes was disfigured because my eyelid was drooping.
“I honestly felt like I was doomed for life because my skin had ‘melted’,” she told CNA Women.
Chew’s vision was thankfully unaffected, but the rest of the damage was significant. In pain and in a “shocked, dreamy state”, Chew was left unable to care for herself, relying on nurses for basic tasks such as taking a shower.
Yet, in the weeks that followed, she would be forced to make important decisions, such as whether or not she would undergo skin grafting, on her own.
Third-degree burns are less likely to heal naturally and surgical procedures are needed to transplant healthy skin to the affected areas, minimising infection and encouraging recovery. In Chew’s case, the healthy skin would come from various sources, including her scalp and a skin donor.
“Skin grafting has its repercussions, such as needing painful laser sessions,” said Chew. “It was a massive decision and (many people) told me to seek a second opinion before agreeing to do it.”
“My dad told me to just trust the doctors, so I did,” she said, adding that despite the need to go for multiple laser treatments after the incident, she is grateful because “skin grafts saved my life”.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Chew said she was alone in hospital “95 per cent of the time”.
It didn’t help that she and her partner also broke up during this period.
“We were already going through a rough patch – I think the accident was the nail to the coffin because it was an extremely tough time and being younger and less mature, we didn’t know how to handle it better. It ended very bitterly,” she said, adding that the two are still friends.
After the break-up and about a month after the accident, Chew returned to Singapore, where she could be near family, who could help take her to her hospital appointments, rehabilitation sessions and treatments at the laser centre.
“It was a very sad time,” said Chew.
RECOVERING, OUTSIDE AND INSIDE
And so began what the 25-year-old described as a “very complex” recovery period.
In the first year, Chew attended rehabilitation sessions with an occupational therapist to “improve the mobility and flexibility of the skin grafts on my face”. During these sessions, she learned how to care for her grafts with facial massage and silicone gel sheets, which she said “helped to release the tight scars that were limiting my facial movement”.
She also got compression garments fitted on her face and had to wear them around the clock for several months, except while she was showering. Such garments are meant to fit snugly to help control scarring and improve the appearance of injured skin.
During this time, Chew also had to get more than 10 steroid injections and go for laser surgery, which breaks down scar tissue to reveal smoother skin and improve cosmetic appearance. She said she tried to stay awake during surgery but eventually opted to be sedated each time because it was “too painful”.
Nearly two years after the accident, Chew is still undergoing laser treatment, but is firmly on the mend. What used to be monthly visits to the doctor for laser treatment have “slowed down” to once every three to four months and she believes she is about 60 per cent to the finish line, “which is when my doctor says that we’ve reached the limit with thinning out my skin grafts with laser surgery”.
While surgery has played a “critical role” in her recovery, Chew said there were other things that also made a difference.
One of them was keeping fit, a habit Chew said she adopted when she first went to Australia. Specifically, she practises callisthenics, a form of strength training she picked up at the age of 21, and which she teaches today.
“It sounds so cliche but fitness genuinely changed my life,” said Chew, adding that it brought about the “massive mindset shifts” needed for her to survive her ordeal.
Her recovery was also made possible with “inner work”, a mix of psychological therapy and mindset coaching that she first started exploring before the accident.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD
Despite all she has been through, Chew displays a love for life that is inspiring – and infectious.
On Instagram, she not only posts (often graphic) photos of her injuries, scars and medical treatments, she also shares videos of her working out, her adventures with makeup and skincare, and excerpts from her journal and books she’s read that relate to trauma recovery.
When borders first reopened, Chew took to Europe for a solo holiday. Earlier this year she returned to the place where it all happened – Melbourne – and posted photos of her sitting on a hill near her old home right after the incident and two years later.
“I was devastated and heartbroken to leave everything behind. Due to the circumstances, I had to leave very suddenly and never got to say goodbye properly. I took this picture because I wanted to look back one day, not knowing what day it would be.
“Spending time back at this exact spot, feeling it all … and letting my tears flow back onto the ground … I was finally ready to let go,” she wrote on Instagram.
Such images of her “doing things for me” and showing herself she “can be self-confident (and) self-assured” have helped her Instagram account grow to more than 50,000 followers, many of whom are generous with their show of sympathy and support.
One of them is US reality TV star Khloe Kardashian, who left a comment recently saying: “You are so strong and courageous! You are absolutely beautiful! You are such an inspiration! Wow, you are so stunning and such a queen. Hold your head high, queen.”
Chew is similarly candid and positive on TikTok, which she started last year and now has nearly 300,000 followers.
“I have grown a lot (since the incident). I’m still very much finding my way but I affirm to myself that I’m in the process of positive change and healing, which is going to take a lot of time, and I’m going to allow myself the space to do so,” Chew told CNA Women.
“I have come to see the resilience in my character and I now want to make a difference in this world in my way. I want to pull through and come out on the other side, where I will be able to help people through my own experiences and the wisdom that comes from healing trauma,” she added.
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.