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Aisha Talley before her burn accident
Aisha Talley before her burn accident

It’s common to find twenty-seven-year-old Aisha Talley sitting at the organ during church service every Sunday. Her fingers move smoothly and effortlessly across the keys as a melody flows over the congregation. If she’s not playing at church, she may be hitting chords on her keyboard as her brother sings, or while she’s listening to some of her favorite pianists. Her lifelong love of music and playing can’t be missed. The sounds emanating from her instruments creates a glow from her smile that lights up a room and tells the story of her happiness.

On an unassuming Wednesday in late July she wasn’t sure if that joyful smile would ever make another appearance. The future seemed dim and colorless by the prospect that she may never be able to play again. That day began like any other; Aisha sat down to work from her home office as an Apple Advisor, her hands moving quickly, clicking away at the keyboard and mouse of her computer. She took a quick snack break, heating up some oil on the stove to cook French fries. With the oil heating up, Aisha headed back to her computer to continue working. One thing led to another, and her mind soon turned completely back to work, forgetting about the oil on the stove.

A noise from the kitchen alerted her that something was wrong and she rushed out to investigate. She found her stove on fire. The oil had spilled over onto the burners and flames were leaping up the walls as the smell of smoke filled her kitchen. “My first thought was that I wanted to save my home,” Aisha explains. “I grabbed the pot and tried to throw it out my side door. As soon as I opened up the door the flame came back at me, hitting me in the face, grease and flame spilled over the side of the pot onto my hands and forearms; the pot fell to the ground.”

Felicia Williams, MD
Felicia Williams, MD

“We see this often,” says Dr. Felicia Williams, Director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center Intensive Care Unit and Assistant Professor of Surgery at UNC. “When someone has a fire on the stovetop, they try to take it outside. We understand their instinct to save their home, but the physics behind it shows that when the person opens a door or window, the oxygen level rises fueling the fire and intensifying the flame.”

Aisha was eventually able to get the pot out of the house, but she still had to deal with the fire burning around her stove. She tried to put the flames out with water, but that only made things worse. With few options available because of her injuries, she grabbed her computer and her dog and ran to her neighbor’s home where they called 911. “When the ambulance came,” Aisha said, “they thought I was crying because I was in pain, but I was crying because as I looked down at my injuries, I kept thinking I was never going to be able to play music again.”

The paramedics rushed her to the Fayetteville Emergency Department, but it was apparent that her injuries, including 2nd degree burns to 18% of her body, required the services of the team at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill.  The Jaycee Burn Center is one of the largest and most comprehensive burn centers in the world. It combines the expertise of multiple UNC specialists with the state-of-the-art facilities and technologies at UNC Health Care to provide patients with the care they need to recover.

Aisha was transferred to Chapel Hill, where she met Dr. Williams for the first time. “When I first met her, she kept looking at my hands as I was speaking to her,” Dr. Williams remembers. “One of her first questions to me was, ‘do you play an instrument, any instrument?’ I told her I played the viola. I could tell that information brought her some relief because it meant I could relate to her concerns. She expressed to me her passion and love for music as well as her deepest fear that she would never play again. I listened to her and reassured her that we would do all that we could for her to be able to play again. She appreciated those words, but I could tell she didn’t believe it. Many patients can’t see beyond their injury.”

Injuries to the skin, the body’s largest organ, can have a huge impact on a person’s overall health. The skin controls a person’s fluids, regulates temperature and is the first line of defense against infections. When a patient has a severe burn injury, they are unable to regulate their temperature, control their fluid status or protect themselves against infections. To protect Aisha, the burn staff made sure she stayed hydrated with IV fluids, was closely monitored for infections and checked that her heart, lungs, and kidneys were working properly prior to her operative intervention.

Within four days of the fire, Aisha underwent surgery in which Dr. Williams surgically removed the burned and replaced it with healthy skin from another part of her body, a donor site. Burns that Dr. Williams thought would heal, were treated with a skin substitute made of pig skin – the closest substitute to human skin available to act as a biologic Band-Aid.  “As she heals,” explains Dr. Williams, “her body will form the epithelium, which is the top layer of skin, her body will reject the pigskin, and it will eventually come off.”

Once her surgery was complete, next came the recovery process. The Burn Center creates a comprehensive plan for every patient to help them treat not only the visible injuries of a burn, but in addition provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, and more. The occupational therapists worked with Aisha to get mobility back into her hands and fingers. During her occupational therapy sessions, she completed strenuous exercises of her wrists to keep the movement smooth and strong and worked her hands and fingers to prevent them from getting tight. “Ms. Connie (Arrington), the Burn Center Occupational Therapist, reassured us from the very beginning that Aisha would be able to play music again,” said Sonya Brown, Aisha’s mother. “She was so wonderful. When therapy started, she was kind but tough, working with Aisha constantly to achieve her goal.”

“An injury like this can be completely devastating,” said Dr. Williams. “Patients have to work really hard to regain their fine motor skills, but Aisha was committed. Every time I would walk by her room, she was trying to play her keyboard. She’s one of the hardest working patients I’ve ever seen.”

Part of Aisha’s recovery also included the mental fortitude to move past the fire. With the help of her recreational therapist, Stephanie Forrester, Aisha was able to stay in high spirits and work through the recurring nightmares about the traumatic event. “She helped me learn how to replace the scary thoughts of the fire and direct my mind to a positive place,” said Aisha. “Stephanie also tried to cheer me up by bringing different people up to visit me. She brought a man who sang me a couple of songs including Sweet Caroline and a Prince song; but I think my favorite was the visit from the therapy dog, Della Mae.”

The day before Aisha was discharged, she took a walk around the hospital with her mother — a chance to get out of her hospital bed and stretch her legs. As they slowly made their way down the halls along the open walkways and lobbies, they came upon a welcome site. A piano sat inside the UNC Cancer hospital in the corner of their waiting room, its black surface gleaming as sunlight shown onto its surface from the big bay windows of the hospital. Without hesitation, Aisha sat down in her hospital gown and began to play, her fingers finding the right keys as she deftly performed a tune, that smile once again lighting up her face. “It felt great!” says Aisha. “It was the best feeling in the world to be able to sit down and play again. It was the first time I could play like I wanted to like I used to.”

Aisha was in the Burn Unit for 13 days as she recovered from her wounds. Every day nurses and doctors alike would stop in to say hello or pause outside her door to listen as she practiced on her keyboard. “It was traumatic to see my child in pain going through an experience like this,” said Sonya. “I think the best care anyone can receive is nurture. To have caring people around that affirm you, encourage you, push you, and give you the drive to recover is the best thing in the world. I am very thankful for the amazing care she received from the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Burn Center. Dr. Williams was so phenomenal, in both the surgical process and in providing that personal touch. After the surgery, she sat down and talked with my husband and me, explaining how the surgery went, the next steps in the recovery process and answered any and all questions we had.”

“I’m really appreciative, beyond words,” says Aisha. “It was a really good experience at UNC. I was discharged in two weeks; I didn’t expect that. Honestly, I thought I would be here for at least a month recovering, and I always had that fear that I would never play again. But the team taking care of me kept assuring me I would get better. If I could go back to the beginning and give myself some advice when I first came to the Burn Center, it would be to trust the process. Trust the people around you, know you’re in good hands.”