Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A day we will never forget

August 23rd 2003.

It was a beautiful, calm sunny day and we were returning home on the ferry after a brief visit to my family.

Back then I was mum to only two little boys. James was 3 and Calum was 10 months.

We had already been over to Lewis that summer for our holidays. This brief visit was for the funeral of my uncle.

When we boarded the ferry, we saw a good friend of ours, who 3 year old James loved, and so about half an hour into the crossing we went to have some tea with him in the cafeteria.

The men and boys were all sitting at the table. I placed a tray of tea in the middle of the table and went to get a high chair for Calum so that I could drink my tea in peace, without him trying to grab the cup.

As I was fetching the high chair I heard this piercing scream and turned round to see that Calum had reached forward and pulled the tray before anyone could stop him, resulting in hot tea pouring onto him.

I ran over, grabbed him and ran to the mother & baby room. I could see his forearm was scalded and his dungarees and t-shirt were wet on his chest. I knew I had to get cool water onto him fast.

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment I took his t-shirt off though.

His soft baby skin, which was only now beginning to show an improvement with his eczema, had peeled off his chest, leaving an angry red exposed area.  

I got to work pouring cool water over that and his arm.

Someone had summoned the ship's Captain, who came in at this point.

We still had over two hours before the ship was due to reach the mainland, and even then there was another hours drive to the nearest hospital.

The Captain took the decision to call out the Coastguard helicopter, to come and take us off the ship and back to the hospital in Stornoway.

The thing is, though, that the helicopter can't land on the ferry, and so we would need to be winched off one by one!

It took about 10 minutes for the helicopter to arrive. All this while, I was pouring cool water over poor, screaming Calum. Someone from the ship's crew came and suggested I hold a bag of frozen peas to his chest. I'm no medical expert, but I was pretty sure this was a bad idea. I asked them for some cling film to cover his wounds before we would be getting on the helicopter. (The burn's unit later told me this was exactly the right thing to do)

In the summertime, it is quite common to see the Coastguard helicopter hovering alongside the ferry for training. The winchman lowers down to the back of the ship and then he goes back up again. We had seen it countless times ourselves, and it is always quite exciting to watch.

Don't worry, I wasn't snapping these photos while we had this emergency! These were a training exercise we watched last summer!

This time it was happening to us for real!

First up was my husband, who had kind of gone into shock. He was followed by James, who was loving the whole adventure of it! 

Then it was my turn. The winchman puts a harness under your arms, and that is all that is keeping you from the Minch (the sea) below. He does wrap his legs around you too for a bit of extra security. I remember wishing I hadn't been wearing a skirt (although it was a long one) and flip flops!

Somehow I was able to look round and marvel at the beauty of the scenery and the skill of the Coastguards. 

Once on the helicopter James, wearing a set of ear protectors, shouted over to me, 'Seo math mamaidh!' - 'This is good mammy!'

Calum was winched up last, in a little yellow holdall.

He had stopped screaming quite so much, and on the return to Stornoway I was given the job of holding his oxygen mask on.

At the hospital they phoned my dad, who was really confused to hear we were at the hospital in Stornoway, as he had waved us off on the ferry only an hour earlier!

The doctors there knew that Calum needed a burn's specialist, which they don'y have, and so they sedated him to dress his wounds properly, then the following morning we would be flown by Air Ambulance to the Sick Children's Hospital in Edinburgh.

Calum's arm had a huge bandage like a club, his entire chest was padded with bandages, and to make it look even worse, the only place they could find a vein for his canula was in the side of his head so he had a huge bandage round his head too.

Our overnight stay at the Stornoway hospital was filled with well-wishers. Not only does everyone seem to know everyone, but my mum is a nurse at the hospital so this was even more the case!

My husband and James took the overnight freight ferry back to the mainland so that they would be waiting for us in Edinburgh.

The Air Ambulance was another experience! Much smaller than the helicopter but the Paramedic on board was wonderful and reassuring. He let me hold Calum for the entire flight, which took about an hour and a half. (A few years later, this Paramedic was sadly killed when the Air Ambulance he was on board crashed. I recognised him at once when I saw the reports in the papers.)

At the Sick Children's hospital Calum's scalds were undressed again. Throughout our stay in hospital, the staff were always commenting on what a smiley baby he was, despite everything. We were told that with scalds you need to leave them for a few days before they can determine whether a skin graft is needed. Their initial suggestion was that the scalds to his forearm were superficial and would heal on their own. Those on his his chest wouldn't.

They were right.

A week after the accident I was again kissing him goodnight as the effects of another anaesthetic took effect.

A slither of skin was taken from the top outside of his thigh and grafted onto his chest. 

It all went well, and a week after the operation were allowed home. By the time we got home, two weeks after the accident, the scald on his arm had completely healed.

He had regular checks at the hospital to ensure that the skin on his chest was all healing well and growing properly.

The doctors were pleasantly surprised at how quickly he healed. They had told us that he might need to wear a pressure garment for a few months afterwards. This would have been to help the graft heal flatly, but we were concerned how it would affect his eczema. It didn't matter, as his skin was healing so well he didn't need one.

By the time Calum was about 3 years old, the doctors said they wouldn't need to see him again. 

He still has a scar on his chest, but it seems to get better every year. You could never tell which leg they took the donor skin from.

About 6 months after the accident, when we were back on Lewis, we went to visit the Coastguard crew and thank them. James had drawn them a wee card with 'Thank-you for rescuing my brother' on it. 

We took this photo of me, Calum, James, my youngest brother and the pilot when we went back to say 'Thanks'.

The pilot who had been on duty that day told us that he had looked over at my husband in the helicopter and had almost cried himself as he had children the same age. 

They told us it was the first time they have every winched up a baby.

They also told me that they had thought I must be a medic of some sort, as I had remained so calm throughout the whole thing. Inside I wasn't as calm as I was on the outside, but when this sort of thing happens, instinct or something, takes over and your only concern is for your child. Afterwards I couldn't sleep for days, thinking over the 'What ifs..?'

The fact was, that despite the ordeal, we had so much more to be thankful for. The tea missed his face, the day was calm, we have great friends and family who supported us through it all, we have a burn's unit near our home, he healed quickly and so on.

It could all have been so much worse, and so we will always be thankful for God's guiding hand through those days.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wow, Dawn, I had no idea that you were working that night!


  3. Oh, and I didn't know about your brother either.

    Like I said, there was still so much we were thankful for.

  4. Reading your account was almost as exciting as the day itself! We remember it so well and we still can't understand how we produced such a cool-headed girl! Love you all.

  5. Wow Kirsteen, what a story,
    It must of been really hard. It is true how we sometimes do react strong when we must, but then later, it is hard to get over it. I love your Dad's sweet comment above.
    How interesting that Dawn was there, and how sad about the paramedic.

    The pictures you put up were really good.

    So glad everyone is well and safe these days. Blessings to you all

  6. That is an amazing story! God is so good! What care for you and your family!

  7. That is one heck of a story Kirsteen - but you were clearly held in the palm of God's hand throughout the whole experience giving you strength, calm and putting the right people there at the right time. Thank you for sharing xx

  8. WOW! What an experience! It's only when you are going through the trial, that God gives you the grace to deal with it...and He surely did! It could have been so much worse! And, "wow" to Dawn being in theatre! Our degrees of separation get smaller, amongst us GMG's! :-)

  9. My goodness! What an account! And while it was not fun I am sure, I can see how you'd be so grateful it wasn't all much worse!

  10. Oh Kirsteen, I was in tears reading that. I remember the day so well. We were praying for you all.... although we didn't really know you. When you have your own children..... well, you know :)

    That's amazing that Dawn was working there that night!

    So amazing how it's all healed. As you say, so much to be thankful for...x


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