I THOUGHT I was going to die. Everything around me was melting from the heat.
Recalling how terrifying it was to watch her surroundings erupt in flames, Eileyn Chua, 39, shares her journey of recovery after sustaining severe burns from a gas explosion at home.
On April 15 last year, the lawyer suffered 80% burns when a gas leak caused an explosion in the kitchen of the family’s double-storey house in Sungai Nibong, Penang. Smelling gas, she rushed into the kitchen to make sure that the stove was off. Tragedy struck when she touched the knob of the stove.
Acknowledging that her recovery has been nothing short of a miracle, Chua is grateful to be alive.
“I was in the intensive care unit for almost four months, fighting for my life. I’ve been warded at the Penang Hospital for a year now but I know that I’m very lucky to have made it. When everything was burning around me, I felt something protecting me – like a shield had come up around me. I believe God saved me.”
Her parents escaped unhurt, but the impact of the explosion brought down the living room walls, storeroom and ceiling. It shattered the glass on the windows and sliding doors. The wooden doors of the rooms in the house were blown off. Even the metal fence and car parked outside were damaged.
Now, after several skin-grafting operations, Chua is recovering well. She is walking again.
“My skin’s still healing. And although I can walk, I’m not very mobile yet. The biggest challenge for me now is the rehabilitation process to regain my mobility. I want to be independent again,” she tells Sunday Star at the hospital.
Still traumatised, she says the smell of petrol and gas makes her anxious.
“The other day, when my sister was driving me, we stopped at a petrol station and the smell brought on a panic attack. I’m okay to go home but I will use only electric stoves from now on,” she says – only half-in-jest.
Chua is thankful to her family and friends for their encouragement, but laments how there are no support groups for burn victims here. After the blast, she started researching gas explosions and burns. She was surprised to learn that such incidents are common in Asia.
“Burns are uncommon in developed countries like the US, yet unlike us, they have many support groups and treatment facilities for burn victims. Fire safety awareness here is also much lower. Isn’t it ironic?” she asks.
She feels it’s important for every hospital in the country to be equipped with a burn unit and counsellors to help victims cope with post traumatic stress. Support groups, she adds, are crucial.
“I’m lucky I have a sister who’s always asking me how I’m feeling but what about those who have no one to talk to?”
Citing the US-based Phoenix Society for burn victims as an example, she hopes to see local versions of the non-governmental organisation set up. She’s considering starting something similar when she’s fully recovered.
“I know I’ve come very far but there are days when I worry, wondering if I’ll ever get better. My wounds are still breaking down and healing is hard. It’s frustrating and stressful. I still cry.
“And I know that even when I’m fully healed, things won’t be the same. I won’t be able to go out into the sun because my body cannot control its own temperature anymore.”
But, surviving the explosion has taught her patience. And she’s determined to get better.
A college mate remembers seeing photos of Chua after the blast. ‘Oh my God! How can anyone survive this?’, she recalls thinking.
“Now every time I visit, I’m astounded by her progress and inspired by her spirit. She’s a very strong and genuine person. What you see is what you get. I truly believe she’s here for a reason. She was meant to defy the odds.”
Echoing Chua’s call for better fire awareness especially those caused by gas leaks, Stephanie Kong, 70, relates how she and her daughter nearly became casualties of a gas tank explosion recently.
She had stopped her car next to a char koay teow stall at a market in George Town when the gas tank suddenly caught fire.
“The flame shot up like a rocket, getting bigger by the second. People were running away screaming. Suddenly, somebody kicked the tank onto the road and it rolled to where my car was. The hawkers tried to put out the fire by fanning it with their trays, yelling that our car would explode if we didn’t drive away. In panic, I jumped out of the vehicle, screaming. It was all I could do.”
Luckily, someone came with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. It’s shocking, she says, how none of the hawkers had one.
“I thought I was going to get a heart attack. Can you imagine, so many gas tanks in a public place and no fire extinguisher? The authorities must make sure that hawker stalls and food outlets have fire extinguishers on hand because so many lives are at stake.”
On April 4, 2015, five diners were badly hurt in an explosion at a hotpot restaurant in Singapore. Two women suffered third-degree burns after boiling soup splashed on their faces. The portable stove they were using kept shutting off so the waiter ‘fixed’ it by inserting a piece of paper to prevent the knob from automatically turning. But just as they were leaving, the stove exploded.