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Horrific Fire Burned Half Her Body, But She Found a Way to Move on With Gratitude

Photo Credit: Lori Highlander

Burn survivor Kilee Brookbank was just 16 years old when a gas explosion in her home in Georgetown, Ohio left half her body burned and covered in scars in 2014. Her courageous approach to recovery and her drive to share her inspiring story led Kilee to the pages of Woman’s World magazine last summer, shortly after she released her first book and prepared to start a new life as a college student.

Now, as she approaches the third anniversary of her accident, Kilee, 19, shares with WomansWorld.com readers how she used her tragedy to find her life’s purpose, plus the advice she has for anyone going through a challenging time.

Kilee Brookbank's Story

Three years ago, I was a pretty normal 16-year-old. I went to school, I played soccer, I hung out with my friends, and I dreamed about going to college and having the freedom that comes with turning 18 and finally being considered an adult.

But on November 10, 2014, my whole life changed when a gas explosion set my house on fire and left me with second- and third-degree burns on almost half my body. Since that day, nothing in my life has been the same. And I am grateful for that.

I’ve come out of a difficult situation — one that could have been a horrific tragedy — as a stronger, better person. I feel like my life has a purpose now, one I wasn’t aware of (or even looking for) before the accident.

Kilee on Day 2 in Shriners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati, November 12, 2014. (Photo Credit: Lori Highlander)

If you’re going through something trying, I want you to know that not only can you get through it, but you can come out on the other side with a clearer sense of who you are and why you’re here. Here’s my advice for you based on how it happened for me:

Focus on giving back.

Right after my accident, obviously, I wasn’t feeling too grateful. I spent 38 days in Shriners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati, healing from my burns. Thankfully, I don’t remember most of the worst parts, due to being under heavy sedation. But I do remember the painful physical therapy and wondering what “normal” would look like for me once I got home.

After I left the hospital, my life was filled with even more physical therapy as I relearned how to do the most basic things, like brushing my teeth, filling my plate, or turning a doorknob. For several months, I was totally dependent on my mom to help me with everything. It was like my life had taken a huge step backward.

Sometimes my baths — which my mom had to give me — took up to three hours. But it was during one of those long nights that I told my mom I wanted to give back. I realized just how lucky I was to be home and recovering, even though the recovery wasn’t easy. I felt like I needed to give back to Shriners Hospitals and to help other people going through difficult times.

After some time, my mom and I decided to write a book, Beautiful Scars, and donate a portion of the proceeds to Shriners Cincinnati. We also started the Kilee Gives Back Foundation, which has raised more than $170,000 for Shriners Cincinnati since 2015.

(Photo Credit: Lori Highlander)

Whatever you’re experiencing, if there’s someone who’s helping you, try to focus on how you can give back or how you can pay it forward to someone else in need. It can be through time, money, or a kind gesture. Large or small, giving back takes your mind off some of your problems and makes you feel more powerful and in control.

Reach out to your community.

The best part about the experience of being a burn survivor is definitely the people I’ve met — people whose lives I’ve gotten to touch and who have touched my life, as well.

Over my summer breaks, I’ve been able to travel and speak to people about what I have been through. I’ve been to hospitals, Shriners meetings, libraries, schools, and burn camps. I love sharing my story and trying to inspire others, and my favorite thing to do is to interact with young burn patients. I love talking with them and hearing their stories, and I want to help them feel comfortable being who they are and embracing their scars.

No matter what you’re going through, chances are someone else has had a similar experience. Is there a support group, hospital, treatment center, or other organization that can connect you with new people? When you reach out, you’ll be amazed by how much you get back in knowledge, motivation, and camaraderie.

The more people you come to understand, the better you’ll understand yourself and your journey.

Kilee speaking to students as part of Georgetown (Ohio) Elementary School’s GirlStrong program, April 2016. (Photo Credit: Lori Highlander)

Look at change as growth.

When I first was faced with the idea that I would look and live differently than I used to, it wasn’t always easy to process. I loved my old life, and I didn’t want to lose any of it. But the simple fact is, I am not the same girl who was in that fire three years ago. And that is perfectly fine.

I have changed into a new person with each and every one of my experiences. From high school, to the fire, to the hospital, to writing a book, to going to college, I have grown into the person I am today. I still have pieces of who I used to be, but with every new experience, change comes in us all.

I’ve learned to see change as growth, something that makes me a better person. I went through the fire and the long recovery for a reason: to become a more caring, understanding person, someone who isn’t judgmental, and someone who finds the good in every person and in every situation. I’ve become someone who wants to help people however I can, because I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me.

Kilee before her senior prom, 2016; she was voted prom queen and featured on Inside Edition. (Photo Credit: Lori Highlander)

Whatever you’re going through is changing you, and you have the power to make those changes positive ones. It’s not always easy to do that every day, but any time you feel pain — be it physical or emotional — think about how strong that experience is making you and what it’s teaching you to do.

Our scars, our pains, our illnesses, and our tragedies aren’t what defines us. They’re part of who we are, yes. But what really defines us is how we react to those negatives in our life and use them as opportunities to become the people we were always meant to be.

Kilee Brookbank, a sophomore at Xavier University and the award-winning author of the books Beautiful Scars: A Life Redefined and Digger the Hero Dog, was featured in Woman’s World magazine in June 2016. Kilee, a burn survivor, frequently speaks to school, church and community groups, and through her charity, the Kilee Gives Back Foundation, she has raised more than $200,000 for Shriners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati. Learn more about Kilee at KileeBrookbank.com.

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