The summer of 2012, a month and a half after I graduated high school, I faced a traumatic event that changed the course of my life – and made me who I am today.
It was August. My cousins and I went camping together, all of us girls. The fun day turned into a night I would never forget. It all happened in such a simple way, it was just a moment in time: I got up from the picnic table, then fell backwards…into a fire pit. I remember trying to pull myself out. I remember everyone trying to wipe the ashes off of my butt and the back of my legs. The ashes did come off; but so did my skin.
It was a long car ride to the UVM Medical Center, bits and pieces of which are but faint memories now. I woke up feeling the worst pain I had ever felt in my entire life. I woke up to the doctors cleaning my burns. What had felt unbearable before was nothing compared to this…and the months after. I was in the hospital for one night only because I insisted on going home,to the place where I felt most comfortable: home with my family and my dog Brody.
That is where I recovered. A special woman, Maureen Decoteux, lovingly changed my bandages two or three times a day for a month. I had doctor’s appointments two times a week. I had sponge baths and had to be carried to go to the bathroom. We made special pillows and cushions for me to sit on. I couldn’t walk comfortably until about four weeks. The worst part was when the doctors told me I had to shower, my burns needed to be cleaned. This pain was indescribable. Being immobile for two weeks and going through this experience forever changed my perspective of life.
As an aspiring model, I felt that my life was over. My spirit grew dark. I was encouraged to have hope and faith in my days of despair. And, slowly, I overcame my depression. I started to think about others – and how I could help. I became interested in reading about other burn survivors’ stories, which brought tears to my eyes. I could relate to these people. That gave me a new purpose in life. Now, my goal is to raise awareness for burn survivors and people who don’t always have their voices heard, or the strength to speak up.
The accident happened a week after I entered my first Beauty Pageant: Miss Vermont USA 2013. I participated in the competition. I covered up my scars because I thought I would be judged on how I looked in a bikini. I didn’t place that year; or even make top 10. But, that only gave me the perseverance to try again. I became dedicated, dedicated to having my voice heard, my burns seen, and my story known.
Miss Vermont USA 2014 rolled around, and I was 100 percent sure I wanted to compete again. This year I gave it my all. I dedicated every minute of every day to the pageant. My heart and soul was in it. That’s what really helped me achieve my goal of becoming Miss Vermont USA 2014. I believe that without this experience, I wouldn’t be who I am today: an advocate, a role model, and most importantly a survivor. My journey took me through lows and highs – and now I’m stronger and here to show others nothing can stop them from accomplishing their dreams, and that we are capable of overcoming tragedy through believing in ourselves.
Gina Bernasconi is Miss Vermont USA 2014.