Love & Family

I fell for a man with no face

Carrie's friend Joe survived an horrific fire, but she saw past his scars...
that's life!

Carrie Pratt, 35, Boston, USA

I knew at once that this was an extraordinary man.

As Joe made a joke and laughed, he lit up the room. It didn’t matter that the skin around his beaming smile was badly burned and pulled tight. That his left eye was missing, he had no ears and there was not a single hair on his head.

Joe was a man who looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. And I soon realised he was a fighter.

‘I’m a survivor of the Rhode Island nightclub fire,’ Joe, now 44, told me when we met at the World Burn Conference in Vancouver, Canada, in 2007.

I shuddered as I recalled seeing news coverage of the devastating blaze that tore through the Station nightclub in February 2003 during a rock concert. A problem with the pyrotechnics on the stage caused a fire, which ignited a curtain and engulfed the ceiling and walls of the club.

Joe before the blaze
Joe, before the accident that claimed his face (Credit: that’s life!)

Joe had been there with Karla, his girlfriend at the time. As people in the packed club panicked, there was a stampede for the exit and, devastatingly, Karla didn’t make it out alive. One hundred people were killed in the tragedy and the blaze melted away virtually all Joe’s facial features.

Trapped beneath a pile of people, he suffered third and fourth degree burns on nearly half of his body, he lost 40 per cent of his skin, as well as his hands, ears, his left eye and most of the tissue of his nose. While Joe’s appearance may have shocked some people, it didn’t bother me. Because I understood. When I was 15 months old, I was badly scalded by steaming hot coffee. I needed skin grafts under my chin which made me self-conscious as a child.

‘I just want to be normal like everyone else,’ I’d cry to my mum, Linda, when other kids made fun of me.

‘You are normal, Carrie. You’re very special,’ she’d reassure me.

But it didn’t feel that way. That was until I went to a burns camp at the age of nine. There I met others who’d been disfigured and I finally realised how special we all were. It made me appreciate how lucky I was and taught me never to judge anyone by their looks alone. It’s personality that’s important and I’ve felt that way ever since.

Gradually, as my parents followed the doctors’ aftercare advice to the letter, the vivid red scars I’d been left with began to fade. But still, I never forgot what I’d gone through and that’s why, at the age of 28, I decided to go to that burns conference in Vancouver.

Rhode Island fire
The fire at The Station, Rhode Island, claimed 100 lives in 2003 (Credit: that’s life!)

As I got chatting with Joe, I realised there was something extra special about the soul behind his scars. His attitude to life was inspiring. Despite spending three months in a coma, 50 weeks in hospital and undergoing more than 100 operations, he didn’t show a hint of self-pity. Even though we’d just met, he was already making light of his looks. ‘I’m a bit cock-eyed that’s all!’ he joked. His laid-back confidence was fascinating.

At the time, I was married but I knew I’d found a good friend, so despite the 4800km between our homes in Boston and Seattle, we kept in touch. We talked about everything what we wanted from our lives, our hopes and fears. We were able to tell each other anything and when my marriage went through a rough patch, I confided in Joe. ‘We’re getting a divorce,’ I told him sadly during one phone call at the end of 2008.

In spite of everything going on in Joe’s life, he was a pillar of strength supporting me through it. Then, a year after separating from my husband, Joe and I arranged to meet up at a burns camp in Galveston, Texas. We went out for a meal with a group of friends and that night there was an undeniable chemistry between us. Thinking back, it’d always been there, but that night Joe leant in to kiss me and I went weak at the knees.

It felt so natural and as we spent the evening laughing together I felt happier than I had in a long time. For the next three days, we were inseparable. ‘I don’t want to go home, I’m going to miss you,’ I told Joe, kissing him goodbye as I headed to the airport.

Over the next couple of months, we visited each other when we could and each time it became harder to leave. Finally, I decided to move to Boston to be with him. It was tough saying goodbye to friends and family, but I knew this was meant to be.

Not long after that, Joe booked a fancy restaurant to celebrate our one-year anniversary. But he seemed really nervous, and half way through dinner I realised why. ‘Will you marry me Carrie?’ he asked, presenting me with a stunning diamond ring across the table. I didn’t even hesitate. Tears of joy welled in my eyes. ‘Yes,’ I beamed. ‘Of course I will.’

He’d already asked my dad’s permission and I knew my life was complete. Three days later something else amazing happened Joe went in for surgery to receive a hand transplant. It was a success. Now he has a left hand and we hope one day he will feel the weight of a wedding ring on it. It may take time, but when that day comes we know it’s the moment for us to say our vows.

We have quite enough to keep us busy until then five months ago we discovered I’m pregnant and our baby is due in April this year. The news really is the icing on the cake. My friend Victoria describes Joe as my superman without a cape. She’s exactly right. Joe really is my hero. I can’t wait to have his child and be his wife. To me, Joe is beautiful on the inside and out and I’m lucky to have found him.

Training is new hand
Joe training his new hand (Credit: that’s life!)

Joe says: It has been a wonderful, fun and inspired three years. We are as strong as ever, engaged and awaiting our new addition. All this because of me not giving up and Carrie being a warm, amazing, open-hearted person.

Originally published in issue 4 2014, cover date 30 January 2014

UPDATE: Since publication, Joe and Carrie welcomed a little baby girl, Hadley.

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