Whether you are an avid soap fan or not normally interested in on-going TV dramas, one particular storyline has caught the attention of many people in the visible difference community over the last few weeks.
Emmerdale is currently running a burns storyline, in which we have seen Priya, a vivacious and independent female character caught up in a corn-maze fire. Priya sustains burns to her arm and back, resulting in being admitted to hospital, undergoing skin grafts in surgery and is now navigating her recovery journey and ‘new normal’, following this life-altering event.
Usually, I find stories in UK soap operas a little dramatic, but as I watched the horror of the fire unfold, it reminded me of my own experience, which really was as dramatic and terrifying as the show depicted.
Other television programmes in the past have run storylines about fires and burn injuries and whilst they do a great job of reflecting the realities of being involved in the initial trauma, they forget to continue reflecting the character’s ongoing life living with the consequences.
The physical scarring and psychological trauma is something that magically ends a few weeks later and it is as if it never happened. So, when Emmerdale approached me and Changing Faces to help advise the team on what needed to be considered to create a realistic and meaningful storyline, I jumped at the chance.
I sustained my burn injury in a coach accident in France when I was 19 years old. I got stuck on a coach that crashed and exploded. Thankfully someone was brave enough to run back on, risking their life, to pull me out and save me (it was certainly a soap-worthy moment!).
The experience of the crash, being on fire and waiting for paramedics whilst knowing my life could end was awful and something I have re-lived regularly over the past few years. The trauma of the accident itself was difficult, but nothing could have prepared me for what was coming next.
Sustaining a massive burn injury, I had to fight for my life. I spent weeks and weeks in hospital on intensive care and eventually after three months spent in a coma, I was woken and transferred to a specialist burns unit. I underwent hundreds of operations and procedures including skin grafting to replace my burnt skin. And I almost didn’t make it.
Somehow, I survived this ordeal and woke up in a hospital bed, connected to more wires and machines than I’d ever seen, unable to move, speak or work out what had happened. The pain was unbearable and waking up to this new, completely terrifying situation was overwhelming to say the least. I spent months with wounds that wouldn’t heal. There was daily, excruciating dressings changes, removing and replacing bandages regularly to reduce the risk of infection.
The scars that are left become tight and difficult to move so I wore tight pressure garments and a plastic face mask 23 hours a day for two years. Moisturising multiple times a day and stretching my body and joints to maintain function and the ability to use that body part properly became (and still is) part of my daily routine.
But above all of this, one of the hardest things I had to process was this change in appearance. I was now covered in scars, on my arms, legs, face, body. I looked so different to before and I knew that my life was going to be far more difficult going forwards. My self-confidence plummeted and I was afraid of what people would think and say. I never saw anyone like me in magazines, films or on tv and when I did, they were the villains. I didn’t see a true representation of my life reflected anywhere!
The creative team from Emmerdale, and actor Fiona Wade who plays Priya, asked me about far more than just the immediate aftermath of the accident I was involved with. We talked about the daily challenges that living with a visible difference can throw up – from the stares and the comments to the frustration of never seeing anyone with a disfigurement, scar or condition shown in a positive way in popular culture. We didn’t just focus on negative experiences though – I was able to tell them about what I’m doing now, my studies and what I enjoy doing with my friends and family.
Having had those conversations, it gives me hope that we’ll see Priya and her storyline start to consider some of these situations on-screen.
I’m curious to see what happens to the character and how she handles all those first moments and experiences that can come with having a visible difference, particularly burns scars. Will we see her worry about whether to wear a favourite top that happens to expose her scars, or help her daughter understand why mum looks different than she used to, and how to respond if people stare?
I’m optimistic we will continue to see the independent Priya, and that having a visible difference will be an addition to this character that shapes her role long into the future.
I’ve let the ITV team know that if they ever need me for an on-screen role or cameo appearance, I’m ready to head to that famous Yorkshire location, Emmerdale!