Thrive by IU Health

March 06, 2022

Continuing her recovery, 25 years after tragic fire

Continuing her recovery, 25 years after tragic fire

From Riley burn patient to IU Health team member: “When I look at my scars, they are just one more thing I lived through. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

For Paige Cox, the emotional pain was the hardest.

Maybe that’s because she was too young to remember the physical pain from the Christmas Eve blaze that critically burned her and her brother when they were both just toddlers.

But now, 25 years later, Cox says the scars on her face, arms and legs all tell a story – her story – and it’s hard to imagine changing your life story.

She was not quite 2 years old when the fire broke out at the home in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she was staying that December night in 1996.

She suffered second- and third-degree burns over 85% of her little body – her face, right arm, hands, torso, legs and feet. Her brother did not survive his injuries.

Cox spent the next two years in and out of Riley Hospital for Children, receiving treatment for her burns.

She remembers only bits and pieces about her time at Riley – namely being pulled in a red Riley wagon and getting ice cream cones and French fries at the McDonald’s that operated for years at the hospital before closing in 2013.

Not bad memories to have for a kid.

Today, that kid is all grown up, and she’s back in the IU Health family. Cox, 27, began working in patient registration at IU Health North Hospital in September. It’s there that she practices the values of compassion and teamwork every day, values she learned as a burn survivor.

“When you’re a burn patient, you experience so much care from all different angles, not just medical,” she said. “You get child life specialists who provide care in a very compassionate way that helps you focus on things other than your treatment.”

Not only child life, but nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and music and art therapists, she said.

“I really got to experience a lot of compassion from all different facets of care from the very beginning, and that’s just kind of stuck with me through my whole life. I always wanted a way to repay what was given to me.”

So, at the registration desk, she greets patients with that mindset.

“You never know what someone is going through, whether someone has just been diagnosed with cancer or if they’ve just lost a family member. A lot of times, just coming into a hospital setting, even if it’s for a simple blood draw, you don’t know if that’s really terrifying for someone,” Cox said.

“You don’t know anything about their life. All you can do is be that first point of contact and just try to make it the best experience for them as possible.”

Cox, who had multiple surgeries her first week in the hospital, lost count of how many skin graft procedures she underwent over the years, up until the age of 21. She remembers sitting in front of the television watching classic comedies like “Golden Girls” and “Family Matters” while her grandmother would change the dressings on her burns.

“It was our way to bond,” she said, and it helped distract her from the pain.

Her grandmother is gone now, but Cox still loves those TV shows.

After decades of treatment and therapy, Cox tries not to look back too often, preferring to find strength from her past and joy in her present.

“You can’t change the past. You can’t change the cards you were dealt,” she said. “There are some things I wish I could change, some things I still deal with psychologically and emotionally, but I try to look at it as it’s made me who I am.”

Each scar tells a story, she said. They are a timeline of sorts, reminding her of the steps in her healing process and how much she has overcome. Her boyfriend describes them as a painting or a mosaic, and she agrees.

“When I look at my scars, they are just one more thing I lived through. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Her six tattoos also tell a story – whether it’s the “Hamilton” song “Non-Stop,” or the Taylor Swift song “Clean,” she draws strength from the lyrics etched in her skin.

Everyone has scars, Cox said. They might not all be visible like hers, but they are painful emotional scars just the same.

All of her life, she has been healing.

“It has been quite the journey,” she said. “I think a lot of people only think about the physical side. But the healing process is ongoing – the mental side, emotional, social. It never stops.”

She continues to receive counseling, and she is grateful for the friends made and the life lessons learned during the annual Hoosier Burn Camp she attended.

The latest blessing to come into her life is a 4-month-old Beagle named Titus. She describes him as an emotional support animal for her.

“He is the absolute joy of our lives,” Cox said. “He is extremely funny and very rambunctious. I’ve been a lot happier since he’s come into my life.”

Cox thought she was finished with surgeries for her burn injuries, but just last week, she consulted with Dr. Brett Hartman, medical director of Riley’s burn unit and the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Eskenazi Health.

“I remember being so relieved that my surgeries were done in 2016 because that’s all my life had been at that point,” she said.

Now, she’s looking at another surgery.

“I’m definitely nervous. But I have faith in Dr. Hartman and his surgical skills, and hopefully it will be a quick recovery time.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,