Healing The Scars

By: Colleen Kastl

Don't call Colleen Kastl a victim. She prefers the term "survivor." Kastl, now 44, was severely burned at age 2 when the furnace in her parents utility room exploded.


"Mom grabbed me, rolled me in a rug and ran outside with me," she said. Her 6-month-old brother was asleep at the time and didn't get injured. But Kastl suffered 3rd-degree burns on 65 percent of her body.

She spent six months in the hospital then. And that was only the beginning. In the years since, Kastl has endured countless surgeries, including numerous grafts, some with skin donated by her mother.

"As I grew from 2 years to 5, I had quite a bit of surgery," said Kastl, who now lives in Mesick. "Then when I started school, it was every summer, two or three surgeries a summer, because they didn't want to do it during the School Year."

Serious burns like Kastl’s are not easily, if ever completely, fixed. And they are life-changing.


According to Burn Survivors On Line, 2 million people suffer burns each year in the United States. Of those, 300,000 are serious injuries, with more than 6,000 people dying from burns annually.

Web sites and chat rooms dedicated to burn survivors provide an outlet for those whose repeated forays into the health care system can produce a sense of frustration and isolation. Kastl has tried to start a support group for burn survivors, but never got much response.

She's willing to share her story, though, describing how 42 years later, she still copes with the effects of the accident. For one thing, Kastl must avoid the sun. She's had skin cancer on her face resulting from sun exposure five times. In each instance, the cancerous cells were removed, the skin grafted.

She also can’t endure cold temperatures."I go outside, but I don't go outside to stay," she said. "I could get frostbite very easily on my face." Then there are the "contractions" she experiences because burned skin doesn't grow as your body grows.

"My wrists were facing the bottom of my forearms and my fingers were contracted up," she said. Kastl had to have the little finger on her right hand amputated about five years ago. And even with the surgeries, burns are still evident on her legs, hands, arms and face.

In the most severe cases, bum victims can experience crippling of the hands, kidney damage, shutdown of the stomach and bowel system, pneumonia, stress ulcers, stomach and bowel swelling and pulmonary problems resulting from burned airways. And sometimes, the worst scars aren't the ones you can see. Kastl still remembers the way she was treated by other children in school.

"Kids are very cruel," she said. "In sixth grade, I was called contaminated, and people always stared. My parents always told me to ignore them."

People still stare, she said, describing an encounter with a group of girls in the bath room of a discount store a few years ago.

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