A Season of Hell (A Fire Breathing Accident) by PeleWhen I approached Juliet about writing for this wonderful creation of hers, I had initially wondered about what I could do or say. What do I really have to offer my fellow fire-ists? I knew I wanted to share what I have learned both as a performer and as a person. Inevitably Juliet brought me back to the most common question I have been asked the past few months, and one I have yet to fully answer or face in truth, what happened? So, there is my starting point. Instead of dipping in a toe, I will strip in front of you and take you on a journey into my psyche. We will discover together what happened that fateful day and what kind of havoc can be wrought when the one of the worst types of accident happens, the kind that takes your breath away, and very nearly a life.
Let's stop for a moment for a quick introduction. For those of you who do not know me, I am Pele, a performer based out of the Northeast United States. I am known as the, at times, overly opinionated moderator on Home of Poi as well as being the safety nazi of the boards. I am a hopeful creative force and a devout professional. I have a passion for fire as my medium, striving to present it safely and skillfully but with all the grace and glory it possesses. And on July 20th, 2002, that passion nearly killed me.
As most of you know, July is always a busy month for performing here in the U.S., and 2002 was the busiest for me. When I wasn't performing, which seemed constant, I was choreographing, rehearsing, in business meetings and designing accoutrements for shows. That same month we were suffering from the worst heat wave and drought we had experienced in years. The heat, the last minute stage reconstruction due to the dry hardness of the ground, last minute adjustments for location seemed to make the line between day and night blurry. This was especially true on July 19th. My safety at the time and co-conspirator in creation, Prometheus, and I were making last minute changes to accommodate the brown grass covered, wind channeling wasteland I was contracted to perform in for 30 hours over the course of 4 days. I was filled with unexplained dread and anxiety.
It is no secret that I suffer from stage fright, terribly. It always hits about an hour before call time. I shake, sometimes I cry, get knots in the pit of my stomach, and contemplate ways of escaping the show. Then I go on and I am fine. This time the anxiety hit days ahead of schedule, with a force that kept me up nights and seriously effected my mentality for days.
No matter what busywork I did that feeling of dread never left me. My first mistake was not listening to this gut feeling.
On Wednesday July 20th at 3pm I met my call time with a lackluster attitude that is normally not like me. I was wearing the layers of the Victorian woman's undergarments, including corset and heels on close to a 100 degree day. Prometheus really pushed me to be at call on time, to uphold the professional standards I normally pride myself on. The sun was unrelenting and my performance space offered no shade. I begrudgingly set up my performance space, lit the tiki torches, and took stock of my "home" for the next few days. The only people around were vendors, "boothies", roadies and a family eating fries at a picnic table. The wind whipped through my space, knocking down the backdrop several times. We had to adjust, and readjust for this. That is when Dave, one of the event organizers came scooting by in his golf cart. He had that diplomatic way of looking at his watch and then politely asking if everything was fine and looking at his watch and wondering if we were set to go down pat. The last thing he said to me as he drove away was "Do well but be safe". I remember I shrugged as he disappeared behind a wall of blowing dust. That was when, with a heavy sigh, I decided to light up and this is my second mistake. I allowed my professional pride to be insulted by a producer, enough to do something I really did not want to do.
Next comes my third mistake, which I only realized fully in writing this article, but it is by far my largest one. In the past I have come to be known as a safety nazi, as I mentioned before. I assure you all, everything was there from the checklist...everything. In fact, as a procrastination technique I checked everything about ten times. My tools were secure, free of soot and ready to go. There was a freshly stocked first aid kit, fire blanket, wool ground covering, Dry Chem Fire extinguisher, lots of extra fluids to battle dehydration, damp towel, secure fuel dump, secured performance space and a safety who knew how to use it all. We had it all, so I thought. I now know that I was missing the most important safety aspect of all. I did not respect what I was doing, and that is the number one safety procedure. I can create a million excuses; the heat, the long hours, that dread filled feeling but what it boils down to is this, I had done so many shows without incident that I took it for granted. In losing respect for the fire, I lost respect for myself and for my art. The safety gear, in my eyes, is for the protection of everything else; my respect is what protects me. I became too comfortable in what I was doing and lost my edge. I say this with every possible ounce of emphasis I can muster, because since my accident I have run into more professional performers who have done the same thing. We can harp on safety issues all we want but in the end, if you don't start with respect, all those measures mean nothing. It was the biggest mistake I made.
The wind was brutal that day, going from nothing to gusts of over 30 mph. It was so dry that the dust and little rocks would pelt us and sting our eyes. When I practiced with my poi and staff the wind just kind of took them, which made them too hard to control, despite their weight. I spent a good share of the day paying attention to the ebb and flow of the wind, of the direction and power of it. All day the wind had been very easterly. I discussed my options with Prometheus, and I allowed my feelings of professional pride, that "show must go on" mentality that has been pounded into me for over a decade, to get in the way of my better judgement. My gut instincts screamed for me to just walk away from this one. Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not at all saying that my mistake was Fire Breathing in the wind. I know how dangerous it can be. I am fully aware and educated in the risks. I have fire breathed in moderate winds more times that I can count, something I recommend to no one, but I will stand by my decision to do so. My problem goes back to allowing my pride to get in the way of listening to what my gut was trying to tell me, of not respecting the fire or myself enough to put the torch down and walk away.
The wind had died to a caressing breeze. According to my tiki torch flames it was still easterly. I took the fuel (lamp oil, btw) in my mouth and proceeded with my blow. This is where all the reports get confused. I have heard I swallowed fuel, inhaled fire, there have been so many accounts. This is what happened. I did achieve a pillar of flame, which was my aim. Now, as some of you might know, with a strong pillar of flame you expel the fuel a bit more steadily so while there is the pillar of flame the artist is still feeding more aspirated fuel into that pillar. This is when the wind shifted. I was just finishing aspirating the fuel. I stepped back and wiped my mouth, inhaling through my nose. The wind not only rose up but also shifted westerly at the same time. The pillar passed over my head. The remaining aspirated fuel, instead of igniting, blew back into my face as I was inhaling, going up into my nose and lungs. This entire story spans over the course of about 15 minutes. The accident itself took less than a second and I knew immediately I was in trouble.
I gasped for air and barked at Prometheus to fetch the water bottle and charcoal caplets. My sinuses burned. My throat went immediately dry. You know how in action movies you see people take a double fisted blow to the chest, and you lose breath yourself imagining their pain? I felt like that is what happened to my chest, only insert a burning sensation instead of impact. I ducked behind our stage backdrops where I proceeded to cough so hard I couldn't catch my breath. Then the vomiting started. I tore at the lacing in my costume, feeling as if it were trapping me in a vice grip. In my head, I knew this could happen, I just never thought it would. I knew what was going wrong but poor Prometheus, he checked on me and was really in an almost panic mode.
After about 3 minutes I asked for 911 to be called. I was at the hospital within 15 minutes of the accident. I was on oxygen, making stupid quips to the plethora of questions and really thinking I would be fine and back at work the next day. I never once doubted my ability to finish out the show. We brought the fuel bottle with us, the hospital took chest x-rays and called poison control. Here is where I wasn't educated, and this is my final mistake in this. I had no awareness of my patient rights, nor did I know the suggested treatments for inhalation of fuel. I knew that in the event of swallowing fuel the stomach is filled with charcoal and pumped back out. This was all new territory for me. The x-rays came back showing my lungs to be clear of fluid and injury. That is how little I inhaled, enough that my lungs didn't even show it! Little did I know that I should have had bronchial dilating meds, moist oxygen, antibiotics and probably my stomach pumped as well. Poison control told the ER to keep me. I did not feel comfortable going home. They discharged me, even when I said I didn't want to go. I inhaled fuel, what would make anyone think that would be okay is beyond me but I left. My mistake was not being educated in the proper treatments, protocol and patient rights.
As standard hospital protocol when a patient is released they are given a list of symptoms to watch out for and instructions to return if any of them appear. My list consisted of a "severe" form of any of the following: fever, swollen or sore throat, problems breathing, problems eating, chest pains, and vomiting. By about 1 am I was exhibiting several of the symptoms mildly. By 6 am Prometheus had to all but carry me back into the ER, not even 12 hours later. Further chest x-rays showed quite a bit of damage to both lungs as well as that they were secreting fluid and filling. I was admitted, oxygenated and drugged. Things begin to get fuzzy for me after this point. The local respiratory specialist told me he couldn't handle my case and that the hospital I was at was not equipped for such events. I needed to be transferred and was really upset about it. I can recall waking up in the ambulance during the transfer. Through a drug induced haze I saw a man hovering over my face. I realized that there was something in my mouth (later I discovered it was an intubation) but a drugged up girl on her back doesn't think a lot about the guy over her with something down her throat so I tried to beat him up. The next thing I remember it was about 3 weeks later. Waking up to my mom holding my hand. Supposedly I woke and cried during that 3-week period, but I was heavily sedated so I don't remember any of it. The intubation was pulled from down my throat and instead a tracheotomy was performed. Through the hole in my throat I had moist oxygen pumped directly into my lungs (to keep the secretions from hardening), and it allowed the nurses to stick a suction tube into my lungs and clean them out. A pain and sensation beyond explanation. I had a fever that had hung on between 105 and 108, which was their primary concern and battle from day to day. I had developed pancreatitis, which is still unexplained. I developed a urinary tract infection from the catheter. Twice I nearly died I was told. I had no voice or ability to speak because of the trachea tube. I could barely move my hands, let alone sit up or walk. I was allowed no food or drink. I wasn't even strong enough to cry. I looked like Doctor Octopus from the comics because of having so many tubes in me. I felt very trapped in my own body, frustrated, angry, hurt and despite the stream of visitors, still very lonely. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to endure, mentally, physically and emotionally...which is saying a lot considering I am a single mother as well.
For another 2 weeks I was very proactive in my recovery. I watched TV a lot, watching as the summer slipped by in all it's splendor without me, and it bothered me every single minute. Those two weeks seemed eternal. I had to gain my strength to figure out how to walk again. I lost 20 pounds of muscle from lack of use. I was taught how to swallow again, to concentrate on pushing liquid or food past my trachea, and I failed miserably on my first test. And breathing...it still doesn't come so well to me. Learning to do something that was so automatic, that I never had to learn to do before was difficult. On a regular basis I was woken up by the sounds of mechanical sirens on the machines I was hooked to with nurses hovering overhead urging me to remember to breathe, to take a deep breath. Jump starting my body memory was the greatest challenge. I came to know the staff well, not as intimately as they knew me. It was embarrassing and humiliating, despite the fact that they were encouraging, supporting and made it as easy to be there as they could.
I still have the scar across the front of my throat. 6 inches wide by about 1 1/2 high. A daily reminder to keep that respect, to pay attention to my instincts, to educate myself beyond what I thought I should know, to not let my pride get in the way. It will be awhile before I am fully well. My lower left lung has about 10% permanent scarring. My stamina, endurance and body all have to be worked back up again. Day by day I am getting better. Sometimes I forget I was injured, and push myself just a little too hard. Sometimes I feel like full throttle is not fast enough.
In the end, I am sharing this hoping that even just one of you will benefit from my experience. All I can do after recounting this horrid tale is re-emphasize the points I feel most strongly about.
- Listen to your instincts . If I had have listened to mine, this most likely would not have happened.
- Producers, managers and organizers do not have a full understanding of what we do. They are there to make money, just as we are. Stand your ground with them. You can maintain professionalism without compromising yourself.
- Know your patient rights and have your insurance in order . After my hospitalization the insurance battle was a difficult one. Know what treatments you would need for any given circumstance you MIGHT find yourself in. Know that this is not an "if" type thing with what we do but a "when". Know what treatments would be needed for: All types of external burns, fuel burns/rashes, fuel poisoning, chem pneumonia, smoke inhalation and internal fire burns.
Carry a sheet of these with you in your first aid kit.
- Respect . I can not stress this one enough. Without respect, all of the other safety precautions we take are pointless. Respect yourself, your audience and the fire. Do not get too comfortable with the fire. Never believe it won't happen to you.
These are merely suggestions, my friends, guidelines you might want to consider before your next show, and each subsequent show
Over the past several months I have heard "Poor Pele" many times. Please do not pity me, for in so many ways I am blessed. I am alive and now realize fully what a gift life is. In retrospect I am glad this accident happened to me instead of any of you lovely people. I am enriched by the experience. I am stronger. I am wiser. I have renewed focus and passion for my craft. I am not angry or upset, and no longer am I confused about the why and wherefore of the accident.
Thank you for taking this emotional, albeit short, journey with me. For me expressing the terms and emotions of my accident to others as passionate about this art as I am has been cathartic. In reliving this with you I hope that each time you light up or take the stage something I have written will go with you, will resonate inside you, causing you to take that extra breath for a moment. Hopefully, someday, I will be in your audience applauding and cheering with the crowd. And possibly, in an ideal future, we will take that moment, that breath together, not only as performers but also as a supportive, artistic community. Until then my friends I wish you all health, safety and full deep breaths.
Copyright © 2003 by Pele - www.pyromorph.com