Almost 10 years after a barbecue grill gas explosion threatened to destroy her life, Paula Jacobs is telling her tale of struggle and triumph propelled by her will to survive.
On April 12, 2008, a then 25-year-old Jacobs and Marlon Hunte sustained second and third-degree burns after a gas canister exploded in the English Harbour area while Hunte was attempting to light a barbecue pit with a portable canister containing the accelerant. The two burn victims were rushed to the Holberton Hospital.
Recounting her ordeal on OBSERVER Am this week, Jacobs said it was around 11 p.m. when she started preparing the grill for her business that was just one month old. She said that her customers were making demands for the meals, but she could not get the fire lit.
“Rain came the night before and the coals were cold so that made it hard for the pit to be lit. I started to light it and fan it and so a friend of mine suggested she is going to get someone who has something to light the fire quickly and that was Marlon. Because fire was already in the grill, he poured it on and had it in his hand…the fire and the gas connected and caused an explosion,” Jacobs recounted.
Jacobs said she recalled hearing a loud “boom,” and she blacked out for what felt like three minutes, only to open her eyes to the realisation that she was on fire.
“I started running to my yard to get under a tank and as I dropped down somebody came with a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher. There was this white guy who was at a bar next door and he came to me and said, ‘look at me, I was once burnt, you are going to make it,’ and for that short time he gave me hope to survive,” Jacobs said.
The burn survivor recognised the people who were instrumental in getting the blaze out and transporting her to the hospital because it took a while for an ambulance to drive to the site of the accident, at a time just before the annual Sailing Week.
Jacobs described it as the longest ride to the now defunct hospital that was located on Queen Elizabeth Highway.
Even as she was being driven to the hospital Jacobs said she was not aware of the severity of the burns that resulted in her clothes being burnt onto her body. She suffered burns to more than 80 percent of her body.
While at the hospital Jacobs recalled seeing Hunte being wheeled in and she found comfort knowing they would be going through their ordeal together.
The young mother of two children, three and seven years old, was airlifted to Barbados in what she said was a state of being “in and out of consciousness.”
“I can recall the visit to the first hospital and what they said was that what they were seeing, ‘was not what the record in Antigua said. She is extremely badly burnt and there is nothing we can do for her.’ I can remember going unconscious again.”
Jacobs added that she had no further memory other than requesting a drink her cousin provided.
It would be two months before the burn victim woke up from a coma in a Boston hospital.
Jacobs has undergone 26 corrective surgeries to repair the damage and she views this as normal for burn victims seeking to return to some level of normalcy.
“My life has changed drastically. I see things different now, I have a more positive outlook on life,” Jacobs said. “You have to walk in someone’s shoe to understand what they are going through. It was rocky for me at first. I used to find comfort in marijuana, so I lapsed back to that for comfort.”
It was only when her daughter celebrated her 11th birthday in 2011 did Jacobs said she did some soul searching and re-evaluated her life.
Jacobs said she never thought she would not make it.
Her biggest challenge was to get a decent paying job. It was just two weeks ago she gained employment at a nursing home.
She has since started the Help Hope Survive Organisation for Burn Survivors of Antigua and Barbuda to use her experience to help others.
Despite some challenges, the organisation was recently registered and plans are underway to host a fund-raising event in April under the name How I Overcome My Obstacles for the benefit of burn survivors of Antigua and Barbuda, so that survivors can attend conferences in the U.S.