Our first introduction to this world from the time that we are born is on the face. When we talk about a baby, we remark about how cute she or he is. We do not talk about their toes or their fannies; our perception of that young being is all based on their face, their countenance.
Is it little wonder then, that as we go from birth to adolescence to adulthood, we make immediate judgments about someone based on their face and their appearance? They are beautiful, ugly, attractive or unattractive and therefore someone with whom we choose to associate or not. We make immediate value judgments and decisions about a person’s likeability as friends, peers, companions, competitors, etc., because of what we perceive in their face. Our friendships and relationships are often determined by something as simple and yet as powerful as the facial presentation of a potential friend or lover.
We are conditioned from any early age to make quick decisions about someone when we meet them for the first time. If that new person smiles or does not smile, has “bad” teeth or bad hair (or maybe no hair…), we have in the space of 30 seconds or 3 minutes made a series of decisions determining whether or not we want to associate with that person. The perception of our friends and how they look, defining our worth is as operative and powerful as it was 50 years ago.
So imagine meeting someone, for the first time, who is wearing a plexi-glass mask, form fitting much like the old style hockey goalie masks. You know that you are meeting someone who was injured, but not the extent or location of that injury.
I have always believed that I was “conditioned” to being around someone with a facial disfigurement, given my father’s injury. At the young age of 25 years old, my father was riding in a Ford convertible that overturned and trapped him beneath the rolling car. It was late at night in a rural area in the 1930’s where the opportunities for fast rescue and recovery were not possible. His scalp and left ear were left on the pavement, and his recovery was complicated by infection and the limits of medical knowledge and skill. Needless to say, his life was forever changed as he lived with a toupee to cover his scars and without his left ear.
I spent twenty-six years of my life, walking in the woods with him, and having him guide me through my academic and social activities. It was a challenging experience as a young person to witness and listen to the comments and reactions of “friends” and other parents, upon seeing or meeting my dad. The discomfort and distance created because of this disfigurement were palpable.
When Chris Mance walked through the door of Coffee by Design, the memories and conditioning of my past flooded into the room with him. Chris had been a senior at Ohio University and an outdoor recreation major. In May of 2006, he was on a solo for a survival training class. Around 5:00 AM on his second solo day, he awoke and started a small wood fire to cook his breakfast. As he knelt down to blow on the fire, he had an epileptic seizure and fell face first into the fire. The speculation is that he was in the fire for 4-5 minutes during which time the batteries in his headlamp exploded, causing further burns.
Chris eventually regained consciousness and immediately started walking toward where one of his classmates, also on a solo, was camping. He knew that he was hurt, but was in shock and unaware of the extent of his injuries. His friend used his cell phone to call 911 and Chris was transported to a hospital in Columbus, and later to The Shriner’s Hospital in Boston. He had sustained burns over 11% of his body, the majority of which were on his face and some on his hands and forearms.
The Shriner’s is primarily a children’s hospital and Chris was instantly the oldest kid there. Their doctors and nurses help young people from all over the world and support burn victims physically and emotionally. Chris was put into an induced coma to help his recovery during the initial weeks after the injury. Six weeks after his arrival, when his swelling had diminished, the surgeons started the long and careful process of grafting and repairing his face.
This delicate process needs to be done in stages to maximize acceptance of the new skin and to minimize the infection. In the fire, Chris lost his eyelids, lips, eyebrows and nose. Tissue that has suffered burns is very delicate and very sensitive to touch, to heat and even to certain chemicals in the air. The physical healing process takes time and repairs have to be done in many stages.
In July of 2006, Chris was able to leave the hospital and to return home for the first time in many months. The time to heal and the schedule of surgeries over the next four months meant little time outside and very limited activity. During one of his checkups, his mother, Martha, read a Down East Magazine article, featuring Two Roads Maine. Two Roads Maine is dedicated to supporting those in transition by offering opportunities for personal renewal through the healing power of solitude, nature, and community. It offers a variety of activities such as kayaking, canoeing and meditation as well as time spent in the natural world in community.
As one of the steps to recover his life, Chris wanted to complete his course requirements to graduate and to do an internship. Since his love of the outdoors was undiminished by his accident, the article about Two Roads was a very appealing option. He called to see if we needed an intern, which lead to our meeting in Portland.
I had never thought to ask about the nature or extent of his injury before we met. What seemed important was to determine whether this individual would work effectively with a wide range of individuals who were experiencing some sort of major life transition. The young man who walked through the coffee shop door answered those questions just by that simple act.
What was remarkable to me during the course of that two hour meeting was the realization, after fifteen minutes, that I was having a conversation with a young man clearly passionate about the outdoors. We spoke about his injuries and his recovery, but also about his adventures in the past as well as those that he expected in the days ahead. Significantly, this was not a conversation about how to include someone with an obvious facial disfigurement in small groups, in remote settings. ...Rather, we were discussing what his responsibilities might be and how soon he could join us.
What I experienced in that “face to face” interaction was to be repeated many times over the next seven months in a variety of settings. If I had closed my eyes and just listened to the words, I would not have known that Chris had been injured. I never heard fear, anger, resentment or an unwillingness to engage. I heard this Phoenix rising out of his ashes. (It was not about the face. It was about the human spirit and the will to move on and return to as much normalcy as possible).
Consequently, I decided to make Chris a part of our organization and in March of 2007. It began with a van ride down to Cumberland Island in southeast Georgia. That journey took us 1400 miles through gas stations, grocery stores, hotels, campgrounds, and restaurants. Chris never missed a beat, never remained hidden in the van when we went inside, and he matched my humor quickly and easily. He was the object of everyone’s immediate attention when we walked into a restaurant, but he was more interested in the food and what he could force into his new mouth than that the others around him might be staring, wondering or judging him. He knew what was happening; he knew that people were watching him and commenting but he moved with grace undeterred.
Part of the Two Roads experience is what we refer to as “council” time during which people share their “story.” This can be a very personal and vulnerable time and sometimes initially intimidating. Chris’ first experience with this process was on Cumberland Island. He shared about his traumatic experience with the others, and over the course of the next five days, Chris immersed himself in the setting, putting his tent in amongst the palmettos. He was the last to crawl into his tent at night and often the last to rouse the next morning. He was ”home,” and loving being back in the natural world that was so comfortable for him, so familiar. You could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.
Yet the council process was easily his biggest challenge. “Mirrors were for other people and not for him” was his contribution that day. Such a revealing comment in its simplicity. The work necessary to accept his current situation was clearly in front of him. Would he have the courage to change, to do an "about face" on that position?
My brother’s daughter, Anna, who is handicapped, had never met Chris before joining us in Georgia. Anna has always had an amazing gift for disarming new people and for creating friendships with her limited vocabulary and unconditional love. She has always had a fondness for noses and it is a word that she can articulate. Naturally when she greeted Chris for the first time, he was given the “nose routine.” It was the beginning of a warm and wonderful relationship between them. Anna has no facades and a passion for giving hugs. Chris soon became one of her favorite targets for hugs and her special wugee-wugee kisses.
Maybe it was those wugee-wugee kisses or those constant hugs, but Chris was on his way. He was out in the territory that was a salve for his soul and it showed. He never crawled out of his tent any earlier but the joy and delight he felt in being in nature was as powerful and evocative as the sunrise over the Atlantic. His smile, his willingness to pitch in, his easy conversation with the group were obvious signs. One of the most curious sights was to see who took over the responsibility for starting the bonfire at night! Wouldn’t you expect that process to bring back strong and frightening images of the flame, the intensity of the heat, the painful surgeries? And yet this did not stop Chris.
From Cumberland Island to a meditation program with Colby students to paddling on Big Wood Pond and Muscongus Bay, Chris never wavered from engagement and participation. His words in council did shift however. Interspersed between the different programs were more surgery and more skin graphs, some of which had trouble taking hold. His face was being surgically rebuilt with the creation of lips and eyebrows. That external facial landscape was changing, transforming, as was his inner landscape. The words “I can’t look at my face in the mirror” were like that first rumble of distant thunder. You recognize the sound and know that change is in the air. The courage to utter those eight words in a mixed group of men and women, many his own age, was not to be forgotten nor was it lost on anyone.
In October, Chris started the last of his major surgeries: the reconstruction of his nose. A piece of flesh from his arm was sewn to his face to establish a vascular network and to form the basis for his new nose. For four weeks, he had his arm attached to his face while the blood flow was established. In November, they detached his arm from his face and in December they took cartilage from his ribs to create the ridge of his nose.
Sudden unexpected shifts in our lives are never very palatable or easily embraced, especially when they impact our presentation to the world. This was the case for my father. I do not know who Chris was prior to his accident and never will. I do know he is someone whose life is forever changed by his experience, and whom I have had the opportunity to literally and metaphorically witness make that change with determination, courage, and perseverance. When deep despair and depression legitimately could have been his constant companions, Chris would not accept or even entertain their offer.
Philip Simmons wrote in his book, Learning to Fall: “At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous or terrifying that all of our efforts to see it as a 'problem' are futile. Each of us is brought to the cliff’s edge. At such moments we can either back away in bitterness or confusion, or leap forward into mystery.” From our first meeting in Portland, it was very clear to me that the extent and location of his injuries had all the impetus to drive Chris out of the public’s eye into some indefinite retreat, a withdrawal from life. This sort of “retreat” was not in his vocabulary. He stood at the edge of the abyss, but looked forward with courage and determination, not retreating or looking through the rearview mirror. For me, and ultimately for Chris, this was his “about face” moment.
In appreciation of Chris Mance and his journey and gratitude for sharing it with me and so many others,
David Hyde is the Executive Director of Two Roads Maine. www.tworoadsmaine.org
Photo courtesy of Two Roads Maine.