From Scars to Modeling: A Burn Patient’s Journey

The last person 52-year-old certified clinical medical assistant Raynael Owens thought she’d hear from after her severe burns is a modeling talent scout.

Her patients weren’t surprised, observing not only the beauty of Owens’s healing skin, but also her courage. Recovery at the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Eskenazi Health had ”made me more of a fighter,” she says.

Owens had only been in Indianapolis a month when she was injured. While helping her mother burn brush on her grandparents’ property one Saturday, she moved the gas can away from the fire. As she set it down, the gas, already ignited but with no visible flames, set her on fire. “I went up like a light,” she says. By the time she arrived at Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center, the pain was excruciating.

Her injuries extended down the right middle of her chest to her right jaw and rolled down her shoulder and left arm to her hand. After her care that day, Owens was sent home since the total surface area and depth of her wounds didn’t require admission. She struggled to sleep in a chair that weekend. “Even the tears burnt,” she says.

When she returned for observation, Owens learned that she had second-degree burns, which penetrate the outer and underlying layers of skin. She would experience swelling, discoloration, blisters and intense pain. Since her wounds were deep, she’d also be scarred. Her physicians would be grafting her skin to replace the burned tissue.

When she woke after her first surgery, she was told by the nursing staff that she’d need to learn to clean her wounds to avoid infections at home. She was skeptical she could, but 15 years working in hematology and oncology had taught her to listen to medical authorities.

“My leg, my leg, my leg,” she screamed after attempting to move. Woozy from her medication, Owens had forgotten a sizable portion of her leg tissue had been removed to replace burned skin.

“Take as long as you want,” a member of the nursing staff said as he assisted her into the shower.

Owens estimates that cleaning her wounds took two hours, but after she kept hearing, “Yes, you can” from those caring for her, she began to believe it.

Joking with her medical team has assisted her recovery. When her “amazing” occupational therapist, Bethany Murrell, measured her from the top of her neck down to below the waist for her compression top — a garment fitted close to the skin to reduce scarring — Owens quipped, “You gonna put me in a straitjacket?”

To heal, “you have to have a positive village around you,” Owens says. She praises her family, her church family and her surgeons; Brett Hartman, D.O., medical director of Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center, and Katherine T. Hrynewycz, M.D., staff physician in dermatology; for their care during the grafting and laser operations and healing processes that followed her initial surgery. She also applauds many others, especially staff nurse Martha Pluckebaum, RN, who has been with her “pretty much my whole journey,” and Charie Jackson, senior administrative assistant, and Carla Sessums, registrar.

The burn recovery process, Owens explains, takes five years.

Soon after her accident, Owens realized how lucky she’d been. Although her right ear had, according to Owens, “almost melted,” her lungs had been spared.

Laser surgeries— by now, she estimates, there have been 14 — “helped me get back to life,” to “even be able to work,” Owens says. They have reduced her pain and scarring and enhanced her mobility — a crucial change since the slightest touch initially sent her “through the roof.”

Within two months of the accident, Owens had returned to her job part-time and by two more, full-time. While happy to work again, she was embarrassed when patients spotted her hanging scar tissue, especially after she couldn’t hide behind masks when COVID-19 restrictions relaxed.

A modeling scout had a different view, saying, “You are beautiful; you are amazing.” Her patients say the same. “I see one thing,” says Owens, “but people are seeing something else.”

Now Owens is back in school for a nursing degree with plans to aid burn patients. “I’m coming for ’em,” she says. “I’m going to help you reach these goals.”

She’s collected photos of her recovery stages, ready to share with burn patients.

And the modeling?

She has modeling photos ready too.

Photo Credit: Monique Photography LLC

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