She recalls the explosion, the smell of burning and being flung through the air. One moment she was trying to get a fire going in the fireplace, and the next she was enveloped in flames . . .
She could’ve died that day, says Helen Nuss (50), who provides administrative assistance to insurance brokers. A nearly empty turpentine bottle exploded in the living room of her home in Hout Bay near Cape Town.
It was a cold morning on 27 July when Helen started a fire in the fireplace as she does most winter mornings. But the wood was moist and wouldn’t burn, so Helen emptied what little turpentine was left in a bottle on the wood to get it burning.
But the strong turpentine fumes from the empty bottle exploded, flinging Helen across the room and setting her neck, arms, legs and face alight.
It’s been two days since she was discharged from Tygerberg Hospital and she still recalls the fear of that day.
“I recall how I landed more than two metres from the fireplaces – and realised I was on fire. I tried dousing the flames by rolling around but it started back up again,” she says.
Her son, Brody (20), rushed to her aid and smothered the flames with a blanket.
“It must’ve been horrible for him to see but he acted quickly and instinctively. My darling dog, Gia, who’d tried to help me, was also burnt on her feet and tummy.”
Helen dragged herself to the shower and got under icy water “clothes and all”.
“I wanted the worst of it to be over – but then I literally saw the skin coming off my legs in the shower.”
Brody and his elder brother, Dalton (25), drove Helen to the local fire station where she was wrapped in special burn-wound bandaging. From there, she was taken to Groot Schuur Hospital.
Helen had switched medical funds a few months before and she’s in the three-month waiting period during which she’s not covered. Her life insurer also reckons the degree of her injuries isn’t serious enough to cover.
“Fate can be so cruel – one struggles to come to terms with it,” she says.
Helen will only be able to work again once she’s healthy. In the meantime, donations from Good Samaritans, friends and family have been sustaining her.
But despite the financial challenges, Helen is doing much better. She’s had skin grafts to her neck, right leg and left hand. Dr Wayne Kleintjes, who specialises in burn wounds, treated her at Tygerberg, a state hospital.
She’ll probably be needing rehabilitation therapy in the coming weeks to restore functionality to her left hand.
“Recovery is going to take a long time; there’s no doubt about that. But I’m doing well. For me, as for most other people, the thought of a state hospital filled me with dread. But the care and empathy I received there was world-class – I can’t say one bad word about that hospital.”
Dalton and Brody are her support structure at home until she’s well again, Helen says.
“I struggle to do things for myself. For example, I can’t shower by myself or cook. And if your sons, both of them young men, go out of their way to support you, cook for you and even help dress you, then you know you’ve done something right. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.”