Earlier that day, Monday Jan. 23, green-eyed and curious Calais Weber leaned in close as her chemistry teacher prepared a particularly exciting science experiment. Chemistry was this junior high school student’s all-time favorite class: “I was a science geek,” Weber said. Standing at the front of a group of students gathered around the teacher’s desk, Weber eagerly awaited a demonstration of how different metal salts burn with characteristic flame colors – the underlying premise of vibrant fireworks.
Weber noted 7 little dishes on her teacher’s desk, filled with various chemical salts along with a clear liquid. “I didn’t know what it was at the time,” Weber remembered. The teacher’s 11-year-old son, himself “playing hooky from school” that day in his curiosity to see the experiment, helped with the demonstration, igniting each of the dishes by dropping in a lit match. As Weber watched, one of the ignited dishes, the red flame, started to flicker and the flame to diminish. As the teacher’s son nagged in impatient excitement, the teacher reached for a gallon-sized jug full of the clear liquid, previously hidden from view in the classroom sink. “I better be careful or the bottle will explode,” Weber remembered her teacher saying, as she imprudently uncapped the bottle and proceeded by pouring its contents directly onto the open red flame.
“It turns out the clear liquid was methanol. It exploded, similar to how a flamethrower shoots out fire,” Weber said, pausing solemnly. “It hit me directly and knocked me over.” Ever the clear-minded student, Weber tried to stop, drop, and roll, but due to the amount of methanol that soaked her, was unable to smother the flames that consumed her body and melted her flammable polyester school uniform onto the floor around her. “Everyone was screaming and running… the teacher told everyone to run, and eventually everyone left the room,” Weber recounted. With a melted uniform making it nearly impossible to move, “I had to pull myself across the floor, because I figured that maybe I couldn’t roll and put myself out because it was a linoleum floor, so I thought that perhaps if I could get to carpet outside the classroom, it would act more like a blanket. By the time I got to the doorway it was silence, everyone was gone.” As Weber lay helpless in the hall, one of her favorite custodial staff members happened to be walking by. Seeing her, he grabbed the fire extinguisher and put out her flames, saving Weber’s life.
A Painful Road to Recovery
Weber suffered from 3rd degree burns that covered 48% of her body, including her face, arms, legs, and trunk. The fire had singed her long, silky brown hair all the way up to her scalp. An ambulance, which also transported an injured fellow classmate, the chemistry teacher and her son, rushed Weber to the Burn Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. There, doctors put Weber into a drug-induced coma, in order to help her through the first gruelingly painful days of her recovery. Weber underwent a multitude of skin grafting procedures, each procedure costing her petite body between 2-3 liters of blood, and received treatment for a number of hospital-acquired infections. “… they didn’t think that I was going to make it,” Weber said, explaining that the Red Cross even flew her oldest brother, who was in Iraq at the time of her injury, home to be by her side. Weber remained in the hospital for 2½ months, enduring sixteen surgeries, including reconstructive surgery and laser technology treatment that would help to minimize the damage to her face.
However, Weber’s time in the hospital was only the beginning of a long road to recovery. She called her return home a “rude awakening,” as her struggle for survival traded places with a struggle for normalcy. “The whole time I was in the hospital, when I first looked in the mirror and saw what I looked like, it actually didn’t horrify me to the degree that I thought it would,” she said. However, the stares she received back at home, especially when she wore pressure garments and a special face mask intended to reduce her scarring, brought on a harsh reality. “Yes, I am pretty badly scarred,” Weber remembered realizing, “and it’s going to be hard to go out in public for the rest of my life without people staring.”
Weber’s initially positive outlook upon release from the hospital gradually gave way to depression, anger, and lasting symptoms of PTSD. “I was scared of everything,” she said, even of taking showers by herself. She was horrified to go near gas stations, where the slightest smell of gas or smoke would send her reeling into memories of her trauma. The height of Weber’s depression and mistrust of the world came when she discovered, upon her return to Western Reserve Academy, that the school had allowed the teacher responsible for her injuries, Mrs. Julie Pratt, to return to campus, and even to teach chemistry class again. Her depression turned to anger, and her anger turned into pushing away other students, even those who were once friends. “My senior year of high school was probably the worst year of my life,” Weber said. She found herself distanced even from family members: “They didn’t know how to deal with me, or to listen. I think a lot of the times they were afraid to ask how I was doing, because, I mean, who wants to hear that their baby sister is horribly depressed, and just going through hell?”
The Face of an Angel
Weber’s first encounter with a life not focused on her trauma occurred through a program called Angel Faces, an annual weeklong healing retreat and ongoing support program designed to empower adolescent girls with facial disfigurements. Weber spoke with overwhelming gratitude of Nancy Ogden West, the hospital burn injury make-up artist who originally referred her to the program. “She told me that she really thought I should go. I, of course, said no – I felt that I wasn’t burned badly enough on my face, and that I would be taking someone else’s spot who deserved it more,” Weber said. However, she finally agreed to attend the program as long as she would be allowed to pay her own way.
“It changed my life,” Weber said of Angel Faces. In speaking of what the program taught her, Weber said, “people will treat you like a victim if you act like a victim.” The healing retreat, founded by Lesia Cartelli, also helped Weber to realize that no one event, moment, or accident defines one’s life. “It can often be a really important moment, event, or accident, but it’s not all of who you are,” Weber explained. “I’m a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a girlfriend, and a friend – and those are the important things. I am certainly not a burn victim; I am a person who happens to have a burn injury,” Weber said, her gentle voice sounding 10-feet tall. Weber now spreads this message publicly, speaking in front of groups several times a year, enlightening and giving courage to others. Reaching Out
Weber’s own road to recovery involved getting back into the chemistry lab. The third experiment scheduled in her first-year chemistry course at Wellesley College was the same experiment that caused Weber’s injuries on that tragic day in high school. “When I told her [the professor] what happened, she was shocked that we had done the experiment that way. She said, no, that’s really dangerous – we don’t do it that way, you’re not supposed to,” Weber said. Her everlasting humor shone through as she laughingly admitted to having thought, “Oh, well that’s good to know now!” Despite her nerves, Weber was able to participate in the experiment, protected by proper safety equipment including a flame resistant lab coat and lab goggles. She described the proper protocol: “You just dip a little metal wand into the chemical salt-methanol mixture, and just flash it through the Bunsen burner. It uses such a small amount of the alcohol that the risk is so-o much lower.”
Today, as a 21-year-old recent college graduate who was able to stay with science, earning a B.A. degree in Biological Sciences and Anthropology, Weber might not have a clear-cut career path, but what she does have is the realization that the one thing she loves to do is to help other people. “It’s not necessarily that I am this amazing, selfless person – quite frankly it is quite selfish, because it makes me feel good!” she laughed. Weber donated a significant amount of the settlement funds she received from Western Reserve Academy to the creation of a lab safety video distributed to local high schools. Weber said the video serves as a replacement to the science experiment that caused her injuries. She is dedicated to seeing that what happened to her doesn’t happen to other students and science lab participants, which is part of why she agrees to interviews like this one. While the administration at Weber’s high school made it very clear to everyone that what happened was an unpreventable, unfortunate accident, Weber and indeed a majority of those who hear her story are not convinced. “Everything would be much easier if it really was a true accident,” said Weber, but the incident that caused her injury insistently reflects instructor negligence and improper safety protocol.
To this day, Weber is unsure exactly how many people her story has influenced. She told of receiving a message on Facebook from a student who was a grade behind her at Western Reserve Academy at the time of her injury. This student was seeking advice on how to approach a college chemistry professor about her concerns over lab safety, upset at having heard the professor excitedly tell the class, “Chemistry is fun! You can make things explode!” Weber said that, hopefully, in light of her story, people are “spreading the word of lab safety.”
The World Looks Different
The word ‘ugly’ is no longer a part of Weber’s vocabulary. Looking back, she laments the years before her injury that she spent “going through the motions of life,” depressed and stressing over the physical aspects what society calls true beauty. Weber now holds her head up high in public, empowered with skills she learned at Angel Faces, including how to approach others, how to stand up for herself, and how to feel beautiful both inside and out. Angel Faces taught her how to use makeup to camouflage the scars running along her jawline and down her chin and neck, but many of the ‘battle scars’ on her trunk and legs she now doesn’t mind exposing. They are a part of her – but only a small part, Weber will say.
“I believe the best compliment I’ve ever received is being told that I see the beauty in everything and everyone,” Weber remembered fondly, “and it’s true. No matter what, I always, always, always, find something beautiful in something or someone – at least one thing! It has made me a much happier, happier person.”
Weber said that she doesn’t want to be pitied, but only respected as she shares part of herself through her story. “I will always say – and it is true – that I would never change what happened to me, because it has made my life so much better than the way it was heading,” Weber shared, her voice heavy with a sense of acceptance and grace. While she doesn’t want to be portrayed as a still devastated victim, she also does not want to be painted as a “cured” hero. “I still have bad burn days,” Weber admitted. “I know it [the recovery process] will be a lifelong process, but not a day to day process… I can enjoy day to day life.” Weber has courage in her voice.
By Paige Brown, written for Crisis Communications, Louisiana State University, 2011
Calais Weber is currently involved in the making of TRIAL BY FIRE: Lives Re-Forged, a feature length documentary about burn survivors – ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film follows the journeys of several burn survivors as they navigate the challenging physical and emotional obstacles toward recovery, reclaiming first their lives and then their dreams. See Weber’s documentary video clip.