Shennel Martin was just eight years old when her life changed in the blink of an eye. At her Port Fairy home a candle stood on her dresser. Though 25 years ago, the memory of what happened next has stayed with Shennel.
“I had a candle on the dresser and found some matches,” she said. “I remember thinking at the time “I know I’m not allowed to light this” – mum had warned us about being supervised when around candles and matches.
“But I lit it. I turned around to do something else in my bedroom, then when I turned back, the flames whooshed up my arms and chest. I had no idea what to do. I had never learnt to stop, drop and roll. I started screaming and I was fully on fire as I fled downstairs and outside.
“I found out later that was possibly the worst thing I could have done, but I managed to reach an outside water tank. My sister and mother found me there trying to put water on myself. Thankfully, they knew what to do. My sister pushed me to the ground and threw a towel over me. Then the neighbours ran over to help.”
The paramedics came and immediately threw Shennel into the shower. Shennel doesn’t remember anything more from that day. Her next memory is of being in hospital, two weeks later.
“I learned they took me first to Port Fairy, then to Warrnambool and airlifted me to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne where I spent the next 10 weeks.”
Shennel had third degree burns to 44 per cent of her body. She had to spend weeks laying on her back with her arms outstretched at a 90-degree angle after skin grafts, to ensure they didn’t split.
“For the first couple of weeks my parents were told that I may not survive, the first operation that was performed was a skin graft over my heart. I couldn’t eat for a long time and I had to have a nasogastric tube. The pain was unbearable at times, especially the baths and dressing changes,” she said.
For six weeks her mother kept vigil at Shennel’s hospital bedside, while her father commuted to and from Port Fairy, so he could look after Shennel’s two sisters at home.
“I had spent so much time in bed in the end that I had to learn to walk again,” Shennel said. “I loved to run. It took a lot of physio, rehab, but eventually one day I just ran again.
Despite her substantial injuries Shennel thought she was lucky.
“I had a polyester T-shirt on, but I had thick-waisted track pants and they only got singed. I had also cut my hair short not long before, so was spared my hair catching on fire, or burning my face.”
Even so, the scarring was substantial, and the teenage years, tough for anyone, were hard on Shennel.
“I have significant scars to my chest, back and both my arms. I also have scarring on both of my upper and lower legs where they took skin for the grafts,” she said.
“The bullying started, different kids who didn’t know me started calling me names. It was very difficult. I used to cover right up, cover over my scars, and wonder why this ever happened to me.”
But Shennel’s positive outlook on life saw her through this period – and the years of skin grafts she undertook.
“My skin wouldn’t stretch as I grew so I pretty much had 11 years of operations. I had my last operation when I was 19. Because of the degree of scarring I don’t sweat and have problems regulating heat in summer. If I put on only a little bit of weight, three kilograms or so, I can feel my back start to constrict.”
But through all that time, Shennel maintained one dream – of becoming a nurse. And yes, she was inspired in her career choice by the nurses at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“I wouldn’t say the nurses made the stay enjoyable, because it could never be,” she said. “But they were kind and caring and inspired me. At age 20 I decided to fulfil my dream and I’ve now spent 10 years in nursing.”
Today Shennel works as a district nurse in the Mornington region and has a 10-year-old daughter.
“Being a parent myself, I can only imagine what my own mother went through. And that’s why I’m telling my story, working with organisations like KidSafe and CFA.
“My story says accidents do happen, they can happen to anyone, know to do, make sure your kids know what to do. The first step in prevention is awareness. Know what to do and make sure your kids know what to do.”
Shennel teaches her own daughter fire safety awareness but draws the line at banning candles and other sources of fire from her own house and garden.
“It sounds strange, but I’ve never feared fire. I also believe it’s important not to run away from things, or just ban them. I believe education is far more effective long-term. Kids are always going to encounter things like candles and matches. It’s how we teach them to be safe that matters. Stop, drop and roll needs to be part of that. It is such a crucial element and I think it would have made a huge difference to the severity of my burns and my recovery journey if I had known to do that.”