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Erin McNeill: the Scottish burns survivor redefining beauty

Having struggled back to health after suffering life-threatening burns, Erin McNeill is fighting for another cause, hears Susan Swarbrick.

Erin McNeill: "I now only have genuine people in my life"
Erin McNeill: "I now only have genuine people in my life"

Erin McNeill is talking about the night which changed her life. It was Valentine’s Day, 2009, and the aspiring singer had just played her debut gig  at a golf club near her home village of Menstrie, Clackmannanshire.

“It was amazing,” she recalls. “I remember feeling really excited it had gone so well.” Later that evening she drifted off to sleep, the applause still ringing in her ears.

When McNeill awoke, seven weeks had passed. She was lying in a hospital bed with 45% burns. A fire had ripped through a friend’s home as McNeill slept, the blaze believed to have been started by a pot left  on the cooker. Within minutes the house was engulfed in flames, the temperature soaring to 600C.

Firefighters managed to rescue McNeill, but not without cost. By the time they reached her, the 22-year-old’s arms and chest were burned to the bone, the rest of her body left raw and blistered. McNeill would later learn she died five times on the operating table and her left vocal cord was severely damaged by an emergency tracheotomy as doctors fought to save her.

She spent 12 weeks in intensive care, much of them in an induced coma. At one stage doctors feared they may have to amputate her arms, such was the damage. Five months of revolutionary skin graft procedures followed.

While the easy thing would have been to give up, as far as McNeill was concerned that wasn’t an option. Instead, she says, it helped her find her path in life.

The past year has seen the 22-year-old become a rising star on the international beauty pageant scene, winning titles in the US, Portugal, France and Jamaica, including Miss Scotland International and Miss United Nation International. In her bedroom there’s a drawer crammed with 30 ceremonial sashes, while 10 twinkling crowns sit on a cabinet. “I’ve been told I’ve won more in a year than the average pageant queen would in five,” she says, her eyes widening with incredulity.

McNeill has a far greater goal than winning prizes, though: she wants to change the way we see beauty. This year she will travel the world in a bid to share that message. “There seems to be a belief that the public don’t want to see disfigured people on posters or advertising campaigns. They are not fashionable or deemed what people aspire to be,” she says, “but I believe we are something to aspire to: I’m hard-working, determined and give 100%. I don’t like the attitude that someone who is disfigured needs to be hidden away. I decided to take that on.”

And that’s exactly what she did. “I didn’t expect to get into pageant finals, never mind win titles,” she says, smiling. “It was more to prove a point in the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I was always out to win because I’m a determined character, but I didn’t imagine I would get the response that I did from the beauty pageant world.”

McNeill certainly doesn’t shrink from being different. When we meet at her parents’ home in Menstrie, she is debuting a new haircut, her cascading dark locks shorn days earlier in a fundraiser for the firefighters who saved her. Piercing eyes peer out from beneath a newly cropped fringe, dyed a funky combination of blonde, pink and purple. She’s wearing a sleeveless top emblazoned with a black panther, her arms and upper chest unflinchingly on show.

“It shocks people to see my scars but that only helps drive home the message,” she says. “I want people to look at my injuries and ask me questions. I’d rather they did that than just stare. That’s especially true for children. It not only teaches them about the dangers of fire, but means, as they grow up, they will be able to look at someone who has gone through a trauma and not make judgments or shy away.”

McNeill speaks in a whisper  on account of her damaged vocal cord, recounting what she has since been told  about the fire. “After I was transferred from Stirling to Glasgow Royal Infirmary my mum and dad were met by a consultant who told them: ‘Your daughter is critically ill, she has 45% burns, a 20% chance of survival and is the sickest patient we have in the west of Scotland.”

But she held on. “The nurses covered me up to my neck so my parents couldn’t see the extent of the damage. They had tried to clean me up as best they could, but there were still bits of soot and ash on me.”

In the weeks which followed it was touch and go. “I was put on dialysis, I contracted MRSA, I got sepsis [blood poisoning] twice, which is the biggest killer in intensive care,” she says. “I had pneumonia, then they gave me a drug for nerve-ending damage which made me flat line and I had to be resuscitated.

“While I was sedated my muscles wasted. My tendons suffered too and my hands became like stiff claws. When I woke up  I tried to speak and couldn’t. My second reaction was to use my hands, but I couldn’t lift my arms. That was probably the scariest moment. I didn’t know what had happened.”

Arguably, however, the most difficult part was yet to come. “Finally, I was well enough to leave intensive care for the burns unit,” says McNeill. “They didn’t know if I would walk again. I’ll never forget the agony as I stood for the first time. It swept right through my body from the legs up to my back.

“It took four nurses to hold me up. I went from there to taking a few steps assisted by a Zimmer frame. I still needed a wheelchair, though, as I could only manage that for short periods of time. Gradually I learned  to walk again.”

Then, a year ago, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she claims to be slowly but steadily overcoming. “I see a psychotherapist who has given me good coping strategies,” she says. “I find sleeping difficult and can catastrophise everyday situations, making myself sick with worry. One suggestion was to keep busy, which I do, but there are times I physically need a rest. It’s a vicious circle.”

By putting her story out there McNeill has found herself the target of vicious taunts from internet trolls, but she brushes it off. “There were some young girls who found it funny to set up fake Facebook profiles. They would take photographs of me and post them,” she says. “Someone asked me to add them as a friend once, which I did, then they posted a status that said: ‘Erin McNeill is f***ing disgusting. She makes me want to be f***ing sick.’ The drama got too much so I shut down my personal Facebook page. Thankfully the people making those comments are in the minority but trying to deal with post traumatic stress, it’s an added pressure I don’t need.

“I’m still on Twitter and have a public Facebook page called Erin McNeill: Burns Survivor. I couldn’t turn my back on that after 600 people supported me for the past three years, helping me get through my down days, celebrating when things went well and supporting my fundraising.”

Her growing global fanbase is testament to this candour and tenacity. “I’m upfront. When I meet someone I say: ‘I’m Erin McNeill and I’m a burns survivor.’ One of the biggest advantages of what’s happened is that I now only have genuine people in my life. How many folk can say that?”

McNeill has worked tirelessly alongside Central Scotland Fire and Rescue Service to help highlight their safety message and recently applied to become a volunteer for the British Red Cross fire and emergency support team. To date she has raised more than £100,000 for charity, her efforts seeing her win a clutch of honours including Young Scot Award 2012 and British Red Cross Humanitarian Citizen Award 2012.

Her enthusiasm is infectious as she talks about using her reign as Miss United Nation International to break down stereotypes. “People often say: ‘It’s such a terrible thing to have happened, I feel so sorry for you,’ but I would rather they didn’t,” says McNeill. “I would prefer they admired me for getting on with it. What happened has changed my life – and I would say for the better.

“It’s been my choice to take something negative and make it positive. I have a message to share. Last year was amazing. I’m looking forward to an even bigger and better 2013.”

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