It’s common to find twenty-seven-year-old Aisha Talley sitting at the organ during church every Sunday. Her fingers move effortlessly across the keys as a melody flows over the congregation. If she is not playing at church, she may be hitting chords on her keyboard as her brother sings, or while listening to her favorite pianists. Her smile and love of music lights up a room.

After an unassuming Wednesday in late July she wasn’t sure if that joyful smile would ever return. That day began like any other; Aisha sat down to work from her home office. She took a quick snack break, heating up oil on the stove to cook French fries. Aisha headed back to continue working. Soon her mind changed completely back to work, forgetting about the oil.

Once her surgery was complete, next came the recovery process. The Burn Center creates a comprehensive plan for every patient to help them treat not only the visible injuries of a burn, but also provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, and more. The occupational therapists worked with Aisha to get mobility back into her hands and fingers. She completed strenuous exercises of her wrists to keep the movement smooth and strong and worked her hands and fingers to prevent them from getting tight. “Ms. Connie (Arrington), the Burn Center Occupational Therapist, reassured us from the very beginning that Aisha would be able to play music again,” said Sonya Brown, Aisha’s mother. “She was so wonderful. When therapy started, she was kind but tough, working with Aisha constantly to achieve her goal.

A noise from the kitchen alerted her that something was wrong. She found her stove on fire. The oil had spilled over onto the burners and flames were leaping up the walls as smoke filled her kitchen. “My first thought was that I wanted to save my home,” Aisha explains. “I grabbed the pot and tried to throw it out my side door. As soon as I opened up the door the flame came back at me, hitting me in the face, grease and flame spilled over the side of the pot onto my hands and forearms; the pot fell to the ground.”

“We see this often,” says Dr. Felicia Williams, Director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center Intensive Care Unit and Assistant Professor of Surgery at UNC. “When someone has a fire on the stovetop, they try to take it outside. We understand their instinct to save their home, but the physics behind it shows that when the person opens a door or window, the oxygen level rises fueling the fire and intensifying the flame.”

Aisha tried to put the flames out with water, but that only made things worse. She grabbed her computer and her dog and ran to her neighbor’s home where they called 911. “When the ambulance came, they thought I was crying because I was in pain, but I was crying because as I looked down at my injuries, I kept thinking I was never going to be able to play music again,” Aisha said.

The paramedics rushed her to the Fayetteville Emergency Department, but it was apparent that her injuries, including 2nd degree burns to 18% of her body, required the team at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC. The Jaycee Burn Center is one of the largest and most comprehensive burn centers in the world. It combines the expertise of multiple UNC specialists with the state-of-the-art facilities and technologies to provide patients with the care they need to recover.

Aisha was transferred to Chapel Hill, where she met Dr. Williams for the first time. “When I first met her, she kept looking at my hands as I was speaking to her,” Dr. Williams remembers. “One of her first questions to me was, ‘do you play an instrument, any instrument?’ I told her I played the viola. I could tell that information brought her some relief because it meant I could relate to her concerns. She expressed to me her passion for music as well as her deepest fear that she would never play again. I listened to her and reassured her that we would do all that we could for her to be able to play again. She appreciated those words, but I could tell she didn’t believe it. Many patients can’t see beyond their injury.”

Injuries to the skin, the body’s largest organ, can have a huge impact on a person’s overall health. The skin controls a person’s fluids, regulates temperature and is the first line of defense against infections. To protect Aisha, the burn staff made sure she stayed hydrated with IV fluids, was closely monitored for infections, and checked that her heart, lungs, and kidneys were working properly.

Within four days of the fire, Aisha underwent surgery. Dr. Williams surgically removed the burned skin and replaced it with healthy skin from another part of her body. Some burns were treated with a skin substitute made of pig skin – the closest to human skin available. “As she heals,” explains Dr. Williams, “her body will form the epithelium, which is the top layer of skin, her body will reject the pigskin, and it will eventually come off.”

“An injury like this can be completely devastating,” said Dr. Williams. “Patients have to work really hard to regain their fine motor skills, but Aisha was committed. Every time I walked by her room, she was trying to play her keyboard. She’s one of the hardest working patients I’ve ever seen.”

Aisha’s recovery also included the mental fortitude to move past the fire. With the help of her recreational therapist, Stephanie Forrester, Aisha stayed in high spirits and worked through recurring nightmares about the traumatic event. “She helped me learn how to replace the scary thoughts of the fire and direct my mind to a positive place,” said Aisha. “Stephanie also tried to cheer me up by bringing different people up to visit me. She brought a man who sang me a couple of songs including Sweet Caroline and a Prince song; but I think my favorite was the visit from the therapy dog, Della Mae.”

The day before Aisha was discharged, she took a walk around the hospital with her mother and they came upon a welcome site. A piano sat inside the UNC Cancer hospital in the corner of their waiting room. Without hesitation, Aisha sat down in her hospital gown and began to play, a smile once again lighting up her face. “It was the best feeling in the world to be able to sit down and play again. It was the first time I could play like I wanted to like I used to,” said Aisha.

Aisha was in the Burn Unit for 13 days as she recovered from her wounds. Every day nurses and doctors would stop in to say hello or pause outside her door to listen as she practiced on her keyboard. “It was traumatic to see my child in pain going through an experience like this,” said Sonya. “I think the best care anyone can receive is nurture. To have caring people around that affirm you, encourage you, push you, and give you the drive to recover is the best thing in the world. I am very thankful for the amazing care she received from the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Burn Center. Dr. Williams was so phenomenal, in both the surgical process and in providing that personal touch.”

“I’m really appreciative, beyond words,” says Aisha. “It was a really good experience at UNC. I was discharged in two weeks; I didn’t expect that. Honestly, I thought I would be here for at least a month recovering, and I always had that fear that I would never play again. But the team taking care of me kept assuring me I would get better. If I could go back to the beginning and give myself some advice when I first came to the Burn Center, it would be to trust the process. Trust the people around you, know you’re in good hands.”

For more information on how to support the Department of Surgery and NC Jaycee Burn Center, please contact Shannon Reavis at 919-843-1172 or shannon_reavis@med.unc.edu.

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