Published on October 1, 2016.

Speaking Up

A nurse and burn survivor pushes for home fire sprinklers

THERE WERE NO SCREAMS, NO PAIN. Pamela Elliott can’t even recall the smoke or flames that enveloped her bedroom inside her West Virginia home as she awoke that April day in 1959. Elliott does remember a young man, a stranger who saw the fire from the highway, wrapping her in his navy-blue jacket and whisking her to safety.

Elliott, then five, screamed only when she assumed the man carrying her was going to throw her into a nearby rose bush. Instead, he gently placed her in his car and sped to the nearest hospital.

Third-degree burns covered half her body, but they hardly fazed her. Neither did the realization that the fire had fused the end joints of her fingers; the digits, while altered, were fully functional. “My mother instilled in me that I was just like any other little girl and I can do anything other little girls can do,” says Elliott, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She spent more than a decade undergoing reconstructive surgery during her elementary and high school years, she says, but not a single peer poked fun at her appearance.

Then came college. She had her heart set on becoming a physician’s assistant, but Elliott was told by medical personnel that her appearance “would instill in patients a deeper fear” of doctors. “Honey, what happened to you?” was a common query while she attended Piedmont International University. “That’s when I became acutely aware of my appearance,” says Elliott. “I became an angry, snotty, bitter woman.”

Even so, a mantra from her family—“what happened to you happened for a purpose”—kept running through her mind. In her 40s, she entered what she calls the “burn world” by linking up with other survivors and volunteering in her local hospital’s burn unit, steps that fine-tuned Elliott’s purpose, she says. “I’m here to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves and those most vulnerable in house fires: infants, children, the elderly, and the disabled,” says Elliott, a part-time nurse at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem.

Elliott’s is a powerful voice in the push for sprinkler requirements. She has joined an army of burn survivors who have taken sprinkler advocacy training provided by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering people affected by burn injuries through peer support, education, and advocacy. Combining survivor stories with tips on crafting effective presentations and leveraging the media, the training has strengthened Elliott’s outreach efforts.

She’s discussed sprinklers at national events and is a familiar presence at her local elementary school, where she gives presentations that include information from the Fire Sprinkler Initiative. Elliott has also brought her voice to the North Carolina Fire Sprinkler Coalition. In 2014, NFPA, the Phoenix Society, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and Common Voices—a coalition of individuals, including Elliott, impacted by fire—commended Elliott for her pointed op-ed piece that appeared on FirefighterNation.com. In that commentary, she tied the current push for sprinkler requirements to the efforts of a federal transportation agency to reduce child runover deaths through the mandatory installation of backup cameras in vehicles.

“We’re going to have backup cameras in all cars, but we can’t get doggone fire sprinklers in all new homes?” she asks. “I applaud them for doing that, but there are children also dying in homes. We’ve been so slow to respond.”

Top Photograph: Andrew Craft