My hairdo put me in hospital

Getting ready for a night out with the girls, Melanie was in for a shock

Melanie Heycox, 38, Elizabeth Bay, NSW

I’ve always believed that getting ready for a night out is half the fun. Whether it’s picking out a party dress or trying a different hairstyle, I like to make an effort when it comes to hitting the town.

So, when I arranged a dinner with the girls one Thursday, I decided to put my new hair curlers to the test.

I’m a hairdresser, and experimenting with styles and using different appliances is something I love.

‘Maybe I can use these for my clients, too,’ I thought, plugging my new kit into the wall socket.

Sectioning my hair into even parts, I started twisting the curlers into place.

I’d just gone to grab the last one, when suddenly I heard a loud buzzing sound. Zap!

Instantly, searing pain shot up my arm. For a moment I was frozen to the spot. Then my whole body jolted – and before I knew what was happening I was flying backwards.

My head hit the carpet and I was petrified as I gasped for breath.

Scrambling to my feet, I ran into the hallway screaming.

‘I think I’ve been electrocuted,’ I cried.

Fortunately my neighbour, Julia, heard me and she quickly called an ambulance.

It was only then that I looked down at my arm. My hand had turned a ghastly shade of white.

As pain continued to pulse through it, my mind whirled. How had this happened?

I’d used hair appliances hundreds of times before. But I’d never experienced anything like this.

Within minutes, paramedics were by my side, attaching wires to my chest.

‘We need to test your heart,’ one of them told me, explaining they had to make sure the electricity hadn’t affected its rhythm.

The paramedic took a look at my hair curler set and soon realised that the plastic casing had come loose, exposing electrical wires beneath.

‘Two hundred and forty volts is enough to kill someone,’ he told me.

I’d had a lucky escape.

Fortunately, after a few hours of observation at home, the medics left me to rest.

But later that night, something terrifying happened. I woke with a racing heart and my arm was swollen and limp.

When I got out of bed, suddenly my arm curled up and wrapped itself across my stomach. I couldn’t move it. What was going on?

Heading to hospital, doctors ran more tests and X-rays.

By now, I couldn’t feel my arm when I touched it – but there was still a terrible burning sensation coursing through it.

The burn on my hand

‘You have extensive nerve damage,’ the doctor told me, diagnosing me with something called regional pain syndrome.

I was prescribed painkillers but there was little else I could do. I just had to wait for my arm to heal.

Returning home, things were difficult. I couldn’t get dressed, brush my hair or have a shower on my own.

There was no way I could cut anyone’s hair either.

My friend Jenny came and helped as much as she could. But in the end, I decided I had to move in with my mum, Coral. It was a real struggle.

Just a few days earlier I’d been an independent 34-year-old woman. Now I needed help doing even the most basic tasks.

Determined not to let the same thing happen to anyone else, I took my case to the Office of Fair Trading.

Their investigation revealed the curlers I’d used were faulty and all stock was recalled from the shelves. I was relieved, but as time went on, my arm remained paralysed.

Every two weeks I saw a physiotherapist and pain specialist but nothing seemed to help.

After a year, I was at my wits’ end. Seeing a specialist, he referred me to a unique rehabilitation program.

‘If we don’t see some improvement soon, you might lose your arm,’ he warned. I was terrified.

For the next two weeks, I had ketamine injections to help with the pain and something called mirror box therapy.

It’s a special treatment where mirrors are used to trick the brain into thinking a paralysed limb is moving normally. Incredibly, it worked!

By the end of the two-week program, I could move my arm up and down, flip my palm over and touch my fingers to my thumb.

I couldn’t believe I’d seen such a big change.

With my confidence growing, I continued my therapy at home and after eight months I’d regained most of my movement.

Determined to keep things rolling, I soon found an office job and was finally able to move back into my apartment.

These days, I’m positive about the future. While I’ll probably never have full use of my arm, I’m enjoying my regained independence.

I’ve now had electrical safety switches installed in my home and I hope that by sharing my story, I can stop someone else from being hurt. I never imagined my hair curlers would put me in hospital.

After my big shock I know I’m lucky to be alive.

Me with my mum, Coral (Credit: Supplied)

Electric shock

Safety authorities are urging people to take extra care with electrical appliances in the home after a spate of accidents.

Paramedics responded to 123 calls for electric shock or electrocution in NSW during the first four months of this year.

Experts recommend the following measures to stay safe from shocks:

* Always turn off the power supply at the wall before unplugging appliances.

* Avoid placing hair dryers, curlers or straighteners on damp surfaces.

* Don’t use any appliances that have frayed cords.

* Safety switches, which must be installed by a qualified electrician, can be used to automatically cut off electricity at the source if a fault is detected.

Originally published in that’s life! issue 42, October 27, 2014

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