It all happened in an instant on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
One minute I was standing at the kitchen stove, about to make some hot chips for me and my daughter, Bailey, then three, while my hubby David, 33, was at work. Then next, there was a whoosh and fierce flames were engulfing my face and hands.
The pan of oil I'd been heating had caught fire and in a split second I was burning. As pain seared through me, I somehow switched off the stove before instinctively turning to keep Bailey safe. But I couldn't grab her, the agony was too intense. So, rushing out onto the front lawn, I screamed desperately for help.
Fortunately, my neighbour Nicole heard me. Before I knew it, she'd raced into the house to get Bailey.
'It's all right, she's safe,' she reassured me as more neighbours came to my aid, rushing into my kitchen to douse the flaming pan with buckets of water.
But as someone else called the firies, my whole face felt like it was burning up.
Holding my head under an outdoor tap, I let the water gush over me. And that's when the realisation hit me. 'I'm 18 weeks pregnant,' I gasped. Would my unborn bub survive?
Quickly, fire crews and paramedics arrived, and as I was bundled into an ambulance I must've gone into shock. I don't remember the journey to hospital. It was only afterwards I learnt I was in an induced coma for 10 days.
When my eyes finally blinked open, I could see my mum Sue, 63, at my bedside in ICU. 'Do you know who I am?' she asked. My vision was blurry but I did. And as I nodded, the full horror of what had happened came flooding back. My kitchen nightmare.
I opened my mouth to speak but it was filled with tubes so no words came out.
'The baby is fine,' Mum reassured me, patting my tummy. 'And Bailey is too.'
But I wasn't so lucky. I'd suffered full thickness burns and I had bandages wrapped around my face, arms and hands. 'We'll need to perform skin grafts to repair the damage,' a doctor told me. He explained it was likely the recovery process would take at least two years and it wasn't going to be easy.
In addition, because I was pregnant, they had to limit the amount of pain relief I was currently on. It meant that over the next six weeks in hospital, I often woke in agony. But I knew I needed to battle on - for Bailey, David and our bub's sake.
Gradually, during five operations, surgeons began to rebuild my face and arms by taking skin from the top of my left thigh and using it to replace the damaged tissue. They made a mould of my face using layers of mesh to create a pressure mask that I could wear to reduce the scarring as my skin healed.
Although Mum, David and my brothers Matthew, 40, and Andrew, 37, were often at my side, I didn't get to see Bailey. We were worried my changed appearance would be too much of a shock for her. Slowly though, hospital psychotherapists taught her to bandage up a doll - to look just like her mummy - so she'd be prepared.
Meanwhile, with my dad, Brian, 67, and step-mum, Kathy, 63, by my side, I plucked up the courage to look at myself for the first time. Peering into the mirror, I felt so thankful when I could still recognise myself in spite of the scars.
And when Bailey did come to see me, I couldn't help but laugh when instead of being scared of my face, she pointed out a tiny round plaster on my foot.
'Aww, poor Mummy,' she said sweetly.
Finally, after almost six weeks in hospital, I was well enough to come home. And that's when I was in for a surprise.
Walking through the front door of our house, I saw an incredible transformation. David, Bailey and I had a brand-new bedroom and lounge paid for by my dad and step-mum. They had also replaced the stove and sink damaged by the fire, and put in a new blind.
All the weeks I'd been in hospital my family had been working tirelessly to finish the repairs in time for my return.
'This is incredible!' I cried. I felt so lucky, even more so when Mum moved in with us to care for me full-time.
Living with my burns was tough though. I needed to cover my arms in plastic bags to shower, and I couldn't drive Bailey to school or take myself for pregnancy check-ups and dressing changes. But in spite of it all, my unborn bub was thriving.
Finally, five months after the fire, little Austin came into the world in just two hours. Holding my 2.4 kilo bundle of perfection in my bandaged arms for the first time, I felt joy through the pain. Everything I was going through was worth it to be the mum I wanted to be. And each day Austin grew, my wounds healed a little more.
Today, nearly three years after the accident, having undergone six operations, I still have some more to go.
But when I look at my face, I see a survivor. I don't dwell on how my appearance has changed, because it will continue to do so.
I'm so thankful for the staff at Royal North Shore Hospital who cared for me. That's why David and I are fundraising to buy a $20,000 scanner that will help them make pressure masks for burns patients quickly and painlessly.
Having been given a second chance, I want to help other survivors.
Originally published in that’s life! Issue 33 – August 2014
Over half of all home fires start in the kitchen. Cooking oil can easily overheat and ignite.
Follow these tips to stay safe:
- Use a temperature-controlled deep fat fryer or buy chips you can cook in the oven instead.
If you do choose to deep fat fry your chips:
- Don't fill the pan more than one-third with oil.
- Be careful the oil does not overheat.
- Check the handle of the pan is not over the edge of the cooker where it can be knocked.
- Don't take risks by tackling a fire. If you're caught in one, get out, stay out and call the fire and rescue service