Dotsie Isaac-Gellizeau / February 10, 2016
As posted on the "The Crier-Hear to Tell" website
When The Crier caught up with her, recently, Paula Jacobs was cooking dinner. In 2008, while lighting a barbecue grill, she was burned over 85 percent of her body; but it wasn’t lights out for this phoenix. Her effervescent personality and love for life buoyed her fighting spirit, and she lived to tell this tale. The acceptance of her altered appearance didn’t happen immediately, however; that took time and counseling.
Waking after two and a half months from an induced coma, Paula had no idea where she was. She opened her eyes for the first time and saw her mother, who tested Paula’s coherence by asking if she knew what had happened to her. “Yes,” Paula replied, “I got burned.”
When she learned she was in Boston, Paula said she felt immediate excitement, since she believed that if she hadn’t made it out of Antigua she would have died. Plus, she laughed, “I always wanted to visit the States.”
Twenty-four hours after her accident, Paula was flown to Barbados because her first-, second- and third-degree burns could not be treated in Antigua. She said it is not the physical pain she remembers, but her anxiety to leave the island so that she would have a fighting chance. After spending a week in Barbados, a local donor made it possible for her to be flown by private plane to Boston.
It was during her five-month stay in Boston that she met a friend who is largely responsible for Paula’s mental rehabilitation. George Posatti, a burn survivor since 1983, began visiting her in the Intensive Care Unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Having gone through the fire himself, he knew the emotional effects that living with disfiguring scars could have on a survivor. Paula said he told her to let her inner self radiate, because her outer self was not who she was.
“When I could eat solid foods, he would bring me things like pizza. And I longed to eat chicken with bones, so he would bring me chicken wings,” Paula recalled. After she was out of the hospital and was mobile, he would take her to lunch and encourage her not to hide from the world. And before she returned home in December 2008, George invited Paula to an annual conference hosted by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, to be held in 2009 in New York.
Coming home was a mixed bag of excitement and trepidation for Paula. She was unsure how persons would receive her. She was wary of the stares she knew she would have to deal with but wasn’t sure she was prepared for… . Then her boyfriend and father of her two children left her just three days after her return. She said he just could not deal with what she looked like, and took off.
However, her daughter and son, seven and three years old at the time, embraced their mother without reservation, and she was very grateful for that. Trying to mask her depression, she remembered, “I used to smoke and party a lot after I got back, and I was very rude to people who didn’t understand why I was doing it and thought I should be in church.”
At George’s insistence, Paula traveled to New York to attend the conference to which he had invited her. “I went back for the conference, but I didn’t enjoy it,” she admitted. “I was angry, not yet grateful to God for bringing me through.”
Despite that, she attended the conference again the following year, 2010, and said, “I fully embraced it. I had fun.” There were over 900 burn survivors, and one woman who had lost her limbs in a fire made a particular impression on Paula. “She wore her wedding ring around her neck on a chain and she typed with a pencil in her mouth,” she said.
Counting her blessings and the 10 fingers and toes that she still had, Paula began her bounce back. She let go of the hurt and disappointment of being abandoned by her boyfriend, dressed up, and went back to being her flashy self. “I dressed in bright colours to make me feel better. I’m flashy. My family is flashy. I can’t help; it’s in my blood,” she explained.
Paula has attended almost every conference since then. She has traveled to California, Rhode Island, Texas, and Indiana, among other states. What a dream for a girl who said she came up in dire poverty.
“My mother left four of us and went away,” she said. “She left us with different people and we eventually went to our grandmother, who worked for $172 per week and had nine of us to feed, plus pay house rent. I had it hard.” But nothing about her humble beginnings stops her from sharing her story on the world stage at these conferences. She was inspired, and others in similar circumstances find inspiration in her.
It’s been many years that her friend George has been encouraging her to set up an organization for burn survivors in Antigua. It was something she always intended to do, but never quite moved it from the back burner. However, after the recent misfortune of young Sheveesa Gaspard, Antigua & Barbuda’s current Miss Teen Splash, Paula’s commitment to establish “Help Hope Survive” has come alive.
George visited Antigua in 2012 and Paula introduced him to another burn survivor who befriended her. With his help, that woman accompanied Paula to California and attended one of the conferences. According to Paula, her friend returned a different person. “She learned how to handle the challenges she faced and her attitude changed,” Paula shared. “The second day she was there, she took off her cover-up blouse and just embraced herself.”
This is the outcome Paula hopes to achieve with her local organization. She is in the process of finding a space where survivors can register, since she has no idea how many burn survivors there are on island. But she is intent on encouraging them to be part of the organization, where she can offer the kind of support which helped her, and which can help them. It is Paula’s dream to be able to take a contingent to the annual conferences and have members join the larger family of people who share a common bond.
This organization will take lots of planning, meetings, and fundraisers, but the work is worth it for Paula. Having come through many months of hospitalization and physical therapy, and having learned to talk and walk again, her beauty radiates. Just recently, she said an eight year-old girl came up to her and introduced herself. The child’s curiosity got the better of her and she inquired about Paula’s scars, moving her skirt to see more. “You can see you are a beautiful person,” she concluded. Paula asked how. “Because your eyes are still shining and you still have your cheeks,” the girl answered.
Paula has a fiery passion for life. “I’ve overcome and I’m happy for where I am right now,” she declared. “I love life. I’m very happy inside for the person I am. I don’t let my scars determine who I am. I don’t keep down myself. I want my life to be a motivation for others. I want them to say, ‘If she’s going through life, why can’t I?’”