KREPPEL SPENT 10 DAYS in the hospital. Soon after she was released, she went
to one or two support group meetings
for burn patients at the hospital. She
also saw a trauma therapist around that
time, but says the visit was pointless.
She had no prior therapeutic relation-
ship with that person and, knowing what
she knows now, it was just too soon: She
wasn’t ready for treatment.
Instead, she self-monitored, applying what she knew from working with
patients on anxiety, depression, grief and
emotional regulation to her own situation. After earning a master’s degree in
clinical mental health counseling from
Marymount University in Arlington,
Virginia, in 2013, she worked at a private psychiatric practice and for a partial
hospitalization program that served
families of troubled adolescents. She’d
learned about trauma, but she had yet
to dive deeply into it. That came later.
Still, Kreppel knew enough to rec-
ognize that her extreme reaction to
memories of the tank was a sign of
untreated trauma, and so were her bad
jokes. “I’d tell the kids how I ‘took one
for the team’ by trying to save the house,”
she says. These types of comments
unnerved her youngest son, Michael, she
says, but that was part of how she coped.
Michael played caregiver—fluffing her
pillow, making her coffee, bringing her
blankets—in the hospital and at home.
He made her laugh. “Mom, you look a
lot better,” he told Kreppel about four
months after her accident. “You used to
be more red. Now you’re just pink. And
Jennie, now a junior at Penn State,
was hard for them,” Kreppel says.
Jennie says family life felt chaotic
back then, so she spent lots of time with
friends. For a few months she wouldn’t
even talk to her mother about what she
witnessed the night of the accident. “I
was overwhelmed by the situation,”
Jennie says. “It was hard for me to stay
[emotionally] connected to my mom and
to talk to her about everything the way
I do now. It was an unconscious thing.”
Kreppel says her own struggle with
the psychological fallout of the accident
initially manifested itself in unexpected
ways. She never developed a fear of
fireplaces, grills or candles. She never
had dreams or visual flashbacks about
what happened, the way patients who
suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder often do. Instead, she kept hearing
the self-talk and self-blame that filled
her head when she was on fire. Walking
across a road also spooked her, as did
sitting in the front passenger seat of a
car. Both triggered an anxiety-inducing
“zero control” feeling, she says, especially when the driver got too close to
the car in front of them.
“It reminded me of how my body felt
during the accident,” she says. “It put me
into my body at a time I thought I was
going to die.” She became hypervigilant
about TV shows and movies. “The hardest thing for me is the visual stuff, when
I actually see someone on fire, because I
know what that feels like,” she says. All of
these issues faded with time, though she
still doesn’t watch fiery movie scenes.
REBEKAH ALLELY, A BURN rehabilitation
therapist at Washington Hospital Center,
was pleasantly surprised to receive a call
from Kreppel this past summer. Allely
had worked with her for at least six
months after the surgery—pushing her
to sit up, get out of bed and walk. (Burned
skin shrinks as it heals, so Kreppel had to
stay active in order to preserve her range
of motion and dexterity.) But the two
women had lost touch for at least a year
after that. Kreppel called to reconnect
and to enroll in a burn survivor support
group that Allely hosts at the hospital.
Before Kreppel attended her first group
session, the two women met one on one.
Kreppel wanted to know more about the
tank: Had she imagined all that pain?
“It was very validating to hear from
Rebekah that many patients don’t
remember their experience in the tank,”
Kreppel says. Allely told her that some
patients even hallucinate during or after
that experience. “It validated the fact
that it really was that bad.” The conversation marked a turning point for Kreppel.
She began to open up about the experience, which reinforced what she already
knew as a therapist: Telling the story is
key to recovery.
“I remember walking into her room in the intensive care unit and
her whole face was bandaged, and there was a tube up her nose,”
Jennie says. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until that moment.”