UPDATE: This story was published on July 9, 2020. Once you’ve finished reading, be sure to check in with how Kelsey Waghorn is doing now, in our chat with her in December.
Volcano tour guide Kelsey Waghorn was just 25 when she, along with so many others, was caught up in the deadly Whakaari explosion last December, and sustained full thickness burns to 45 per cent of her body. Here, this remarkable woman tells us about how she’s recovering, both physically and mentally, from the day that changed her life.
Hi Kelsey, how are you today?
Hello! I’m doing okay today. I had a fairly rough sleep because there was a storm last night, and I was worrying about the cows and calves on the farm, as well as the house blowing down! But, I’ve had a good breakfast and two cups of tea, so, I’m feeling productive.
What have you learned about your physical health since the eruption on December 9?
That I really took it for granted. My body has been through the works, and I’m still here, so it’s pretty outstanding what you can recover from. Not being able to do the simplest of tasks, such as touching/washing my own face, going to the toilet, making a fist, or even just rolling over in bed really makes you appreciate your body. It was incredibly frustrating going from being so independent and strong to being totally reliant on others to get you through the day.
And what have you learned about your mental health?
It takes a lot longer to recover from trauma mentally than it does physically. My brain put the whole event into a box and sealed it tight for four months. I thought that maybe I’d dodged dealing with it, since I was on so many medications and in hospital for so long – I was removed from everything unfolding at home, too. It wasn’t until I was actually at home and physically doing really well, that the box started to get unpacked, and I realised that this was going to take months, or years, to deal with what I’d been through, and also what I had lost. Your mental health is so important, and needs just as much – if not more – “rehab” and help after trauma.
Who has been part of your support system and how have they helped? My parents, sister and partner have been by my side since December 9th, and they are still always there to listen, to help, to push me, or just be there when I need them. They’re dealing with this as well, but they’re always there for me. They’re my biggest fans, and they’ve got me through some really dark times. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for their love, support and constant encouragement. I have a big team of therapists, doctors, nurses, and an ACC worker, too, who have been absolutely incredible. They’re always checking in on me and making sure I have everything I need to make day-to-day life easier and more comfortable. Nothing is too much, and they’re always there if I need them.
How did you cope with the level of patience required in order to recover and heal, but also in relearning skills like walking?
Not well. I was never much of a patient person before the eruption, but I’ve really had to work on that with my recovery – there’s a very fine line between pushing yourself and pushing yourself too far, and I’m still learning where that threshold is. Relearning how to walk was really hard. The first few times I even sat on the side of the bed, I was dizzy, nauseous, in a lot of pain, and to top it all off, my hands, arms and feet would go purple/black. Because my body wasn’t used to me being upright, it didn’t adjust my blood pressure properly, so my blood pooled and my grafted skin was so thin you could see right through it. It felt like I would never learn how to walk again, and I thought my limbs would never be a normal colour when I stood up. The nurses, doctors and my family assured me otherwise, but it was hard to see it at the time. Gradually, though, I found that my patience and resilience paid off. I went from walking with a frame, to nothing – apparently, you’re supposed to graduate to lesser frames and then crutches, but no one told me that until after I was walking around the burns/plastics ward unaided.
Did you become frustrated during the process and how did you work through that? All the time. I was in so much pain trying to do anything, so I cried. A lot. And I would say “I can’t do this anymore.” After I’d let out all the pent-up frustration (and we’d topped up the meds), we would regroup my thoughts and strength, and I would just keep pushing forward. There was no other option. If I gave up and didn’t relearn to walk, I would be in a wheelchair. If I didn’t push through the pain of stretching out my new skin on my arms and hands, I would never have the use of them, and/or I was signing myself on for more surgeries. So, there was no other option in my mind, other than to keep pushing forward. Keep going despite the pain.
You were very honest about your experience and recovery journey on Instagram – why was that helpful? Initially, it was really just to update and say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to everyone who was donating to my Givealittle page and sending me well-wishes and love. But then a lot of people started reaching out to me and telling me their story about how they, or a member of their family, was burnt and they would tell me “it gets better” and “have you tried …” It was unreal to hear their stories, and a lot of them actually had questions for me about my recovery because some of them never had anyone who had been through what they had been through to ‘compare notes’ with. Some ‘weren’t allowed to talk about it’ because it upset their families, and they had psychological damage due to suppressing their trauma for so many years. My honesty about what I was going through seemed to be helping others, so I just kept at it. I have an amazing group of followers who are rooting for me from all around the world, and it’s so incredibly humbling.
As well as the physical trauma you went through, you also had to deal with the grief of losing two colleagues. Was it a case of dealing with the immediate effects at first, and the grief coming later?
It was definitely a case of dealing with my physical trauma first and foremost. I was so removed from what was happening at home being at the other end of the North Island, and because of the medication and my inability to use my phone, so for months, it didn’t seem real. Because of the scale of what happened, I did – and still do, struggle to comprehend what I have lived through and that so many did not. I didn’t find out about my colleagues until sometime just before Christmas – my family wanted to wait until I was remembering things and not hallucinating so they didn’t have to keep telling me. Hayden [pictured above] was one of my main trainers when I first started, so I had known him for five years. To hear he and one of our new guides, Tipene, hadn’t made it off the island crushed me. Furthermore, to find out it took five days for any kind of recovery to happen, and that we’d lost Hayden because of it, broke my heart. We have a photo of him in our lounge that his family gave me while I was in hospital, so it’s nice to see his face every day, but I really miss his laugh and hugs.
On the Instagram post you wrote when you turned 26, you wrote: “I’m so proud of how far I’ve come, how resilient my body is.” Resilience is something we only learn about when we are going through (I can’t think of a better term than this) the darkest shit possible. What does resilience look like to you now?
I don’t think there is a better term! Resilience, to me, is getting up every morning and just trying. It doesn’t have to be pretty or at 100%, but it’s showing up and doing what you can every day – even more so when every fibre of your body is telling you to go back to bed. It’s knowing that even though you want to give up, you don’t.
How has talking to a counsellor helped?
She’s neutral territory for me, and she’s there solely for me. She’s given me plenty of grounding techniques for when I have flashbacks, and breathing techniques for when my anxiety is through the roof. It’s a safe space to talk about whatever is on my mind. I find that I leave our sessions feeling lighter, and it’s always good to be reassured that what I’m thinking or feeling (or not thinking/feeling) is all a normal part of the process.
What advice do you have for people who are going through physical or mental recovery after a traumatic event?
Always ask for help when things are getting too heavy. Lean on friends and family, and/or a counsellor. Remove/unfollow people/pages, etc, that don’t benefit your headspace. Eat good food, and listen to good music. Keep telling yourself “this is temporary” because you will find yourself in a better place to cope physically and/or mentally at some stage – you just have to be patient and trust the process, as hard and horrible as that is.
UPDATE: This story was published on July 9, 2020. Once you’ve finished reading, be sure to check in with how Kelsey is doing now, in our chat with her in December.