Shirley Badke used to blend into the wallpaper.
Getting hit by an airplane will change that.
But thanks to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital, the Hephzibah native not only was able to survive a twin-engine Cessna’s crash into her south Augusta office building in 1995, she’s been able to joke about it.
“I might be 10 years younger than you,” the 54-year-old sometimes tells people, “but I got hit by an airplane – give me 20 years on that one!”
Badke would still prefer blending in and, in fact, people often don’t notice her scars – despite the fact she suffered third-degree burns on 86 percent of her body. But those who do notice can’t help gawking. Badke doesn’t duck from telling her story – or singing the praises of the burn center.
“I will always be here for them if I can, ’cause they’ll be here for me,” she says of the burn center. “They’re part of my family. I’m their poster child.” Some burn victims are haunted by their stay at Still but, Badke says, “to me the memories are good memories. They gave me my life back.”
It’s a good life too, she says, even while needing two to three hours to dress each morning after the requisite soaking and lubricating.
An added comfort – to both patient and family alike – is the Southeastern Firefighters Burn Foundation, which provides desperately needed lodging, meals, transportation and more to families with loved ones in the Still burn center.
This year that blessed foundation – also started by Dr. Still – is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The kickoff is a free public screening of the stunning documentary about seven courageous burn survivors Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged, at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Georgia Regents University’s Maxwell Theatre on the former Augusta State University campus, 2500 Walton Way.
The nationally heralded film includes the story of young Connor McKemey of South
Carolina, who like Badke was burned over more than 86 percent of his body in a patio heater explosion at his home in 2008. After treatment at Still – and some 130 reconstructive
surgeries – Connor not only returned to school, but became a standout lacrosse player with designs on playing in college.
Both Connor and his mom, Karin, will join the film’s makers at the Wednesday screening, which will be followed by
a private viewing that evening for Augusta-area leaders.
“They are just a lovely, lovely family that really pulled together,” says Jo Maypole, president and CEO of the burn foundation. “And not only did they pull together, but their community pulled together to see them through this horrific event. And consequently, they’re just an amazingly inspiring family.”
After the accident, his lacrosse coach started a fundraising campaign, named for Connor’s childhood nickname of “Bear.” Word of operation “Bear Down” spread to lacrosse teams across the country, and even reached Iraq, where military units put Bear Down stickers on their helmets.
Amazing people clearly aren’t made. They’re forged.
“I see this as a great opportunity for the community to really sort of get inside the skin of a burn survivor,” Maypole said. “And to have a much better understanding not only of what it’s like to go through that horrific event, but the courage it takes to continue to live in a world where so much emphasis is placed on physical attractiveness. Truly to understand a little bit about the real strength of the human spirit. Because, that’s
really what this film is all about.
“What burn survivors have told me is that sometimes they almost feel as if they lose their identity. Because, not only do they change physically, but sometimes people treat them differently. Inside that scar tissue is the same person that they were – probably a little stronger – but they’re still the same person that they were. But there is a loss of a sense of identity.
“Some of our identity comes from what we look like, some of our identity comes from our work and our occupation, and sometimes a burn survivor is not able to go back to the job that they had prior to the burn. It puts a tremendous strain on a family, and so family relationships can even change in the course of burn treatment.”
Badke will miss the screening. She’ll be out sharing the story about her carefully planned day-to-day life as a burn survivor, which includes seven years of surgeries and continued repeat visits for chronic open wounds.
“I’m used to everybody knowing everything about me,” the former wallflower says. “My life is an open book and I have no secrets.”
And it’s no secret how she feels about the burn center and the Southeastern Firefighters Burn Foundation. The feeling
is mutual: The foundation has named its campus – which includes offices and the free 40-guest Chavis House for patients’ families – the “Shirley Badke Retreat.”
“There’s nothing easy about being a burn survivor,” Badke says. “But living in Augusta and having them here and having that much support is one of the reasons I’ve done so well. Everyone should be treated like a burn patient. They treat you like you’re the only patient there is.”