Jamie Nieto, 31, works as a golf pro at a suburban Chicago resort. He speaks with a gravelly voice, the result of inhaling flame.
The injury happened 8 November 2003. It was the morning of my 20th birthday… I decided to do some yard work. I had cut down a tree, and figured I’d burn some logs, but got too close to the can of fuel.
When it first happened, in all honesty, the first thought I had after I got put out, maybe even when I was on fire… was, “Oh man, I’m going to be ugly.” Not that I was an Adonis before it happened.
Were you right?
I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. I really didn’t get to see what I looked like until… I got a glimpse of my face in a car window as I was going to the ambulance; it was all red and skin falling off and there was no indication what I would look like post-surgery…
I didn’t see what I would look like until [two months later at the Rehabilitation Institute in] the elevator and a mirror in the corner and I finally caught a glimpse and I was kinda stunned… Got in the bathroom of my hospital room and just stared in the mirror for what felt like an eternity but may have only been five minutes… It was hard to look at because it was still real fresh, the scars were very immature… red, healing. I was a big glowing face… My ears were gone, my nose was pulled up, my mouth was barely there… It was overwhelming. It was a lot.
What’s it like to live with now?
Stares are constant. Every day. I work in a business where I meet 150, 200 new people a day. Some of them may not notice, or not pay attention. I’m fortunate my facial scarring blended in. Sometimes people won’t know. I’ll be behind the counter, checking in a golfer, and you can see, it’s like “Oh”… I know it’s not a negative reaction. There’s more of, “It’s not something you see every day.” Someone will ask what happened. I’d rather them ask than stare and form their own opinions or stories of what might have happened.
I have no problem talking about it. Kids are fine; they’re curious. Adults are the worse ones. They’ll do the stare, the double-take… They’re the ones who should just come up and ask. Kids will make funny comments and I make a joke back to put them at ease. I’ve had kids ask, “Are you wearing a mask?” and I’ll say, “Yeah, one that I can’t take off.” Then I try to use it as a teaching tool too, I say, “This happened because I was in a fire,” and go into fire safety with them.
I’ve been dating the same girlfriend at little over three years… I had it in my head, “What woman would find me attractive?” Scars on my face, scars on my chest… But I was already defeating myself before even talking to a woman. My girlfriend now doesn’t even notice it. She finds me attractive.
Not to say there’s not negative feedback, but it’s few and far between. In the place I worked at before, a couple guys, behind my back at first… would call me “Crispy”. They didn’t think anything of it, because they knew I’m so easy-going about it. But that’s something that kinda stung… I said, “Guys, that one’s not cool.”