She grew up to be a nurse, lobbied Congress on behalf of burn victims

Pam Elliott (left) posed in the mid-1970s with her grandmother, Lula Mae Johnson, years after being burned (above). Below, Elliott today.

Nearly 50 years after a house fire that left horrific, third-degree burns over 50 percent of her body, Pam Elliott can still hear her grandmother's words.

"This happened to you for a purpose."

Sorting out what that might be would take years, though. First she had to survive.

Elliott was 5 years old when her family home in Daniels, W.Va., caught fire and burned to the ground the afternoon of April 12, 1959.

After initial treatments meant only to save her life, Elliott faced more than 50 reconstructive surgeries in months-long hospital stays spread out over the next several years. Her rehabilitation would be grueling and painful; burn centers as we know them today didn't exist.

"Burns are one of those lifelong ordeals," Elliott said. "Back then, they just didn't have the procedures we have now."

She was a patient at Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital for nearly three months before she was released.

Her grandmother, Lula Mae Johnson, was waiting for her, ready to offer the first of many words of encouragement.

The words didn't come right away, but they would many, many times over the years ahead.

"I'll never forget her face," Elliott said. "She just said, ‘Oh, my sweet baby.'"

Something clicked

As Elliott remembers it, April 12 was a beautiful spring day. She had just gone down for a nap, and her mother had walked to her aunt's house up the road.Her father was at work, and her grandmother and great-grandmother were on a porch swing outside when the fire broke out.

"They heard me scream," Elliott said. "My grandmother tried but couldn't get up the staircase."

A high-school student driving down a road that ran behind the house saw the flames and was able to get to Elliott.

"I remember his navy-blue cotton jacket and him wrapping it around me outside," Elliott said. "He got me in his arms and drove me to the hospital. I remember my head being on his leg and the round speedometer reading 80 miles an hour."

A few months after she came home in July, she went off to a Shriner's hospital in Lexington, Ky., for the first of many visits over the next 11 years.

All the while, she kept up with her schoolwork and went on to college, first at Piedmont Bible College (as it was then called) in Winston-Salem and later for nursing school at Bluefield State College in West Virginia.

"My mom never cut me any slack because of my injuries," Elliott said. "She always told me I could do anything the other little girls could do."

While she was at Piedmont Bible, she began to doubt her faith and, for the first time, question God for all the suffering she had endured.

"As a child, you believe your grandmother and mother when they tell you ‘This happened for a purpose,'" Elliott said.

One day she read a passage from the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 18: "And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it."

Something clicked. God had offered her comfort, so now she was to comfort others and become a nurse. She had a purpose.

Inspirational figure

After finishing school, Elliott eventually made her way back to Winston-Salem, where she found a job at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

In her more than 20 years there, she has worked in the operating room, neuro-trauma intensive care and in the emergency room.

She has also been a flight nurse and worked as a kidney-pancreas transplant coordinator.

Not bad for a woman who was once told that she would never work in medicine because her appearance "would instill a deeper fear of doctors in people who were already afraid of doctors."

She overcame such slights, she said, through confidence in her abilities that were instilled in her by her mother and grandmother. If you bump into Elliott today, you notice scarring on her face beneath her makeup and on her hands and fingers, but when she starts talking, you tend to look past the scars and just listen.

"My hands took a lot of work," she said. "Just getting functional was hard. The rehab was excruciating."

While working at Baptist, Elliott got involved with a program that offers support to burn victims.

She also met Dr. James Holmes IV, the director of the burn center at Baptist.

Her story prompted Holmes to invite her to go to Washington in early February for a conference and to lobby members of Congress to approve a bill that would eliminate the waiting periods for Social Security disability (five months) and Medicare benefits (24 months) for burn victims who are not otherwise covered.

"Pam added an element of reality and a lasting eloquence speaking about burn issues," Holmes said.

On the flight to D.C., Elliott bumped into U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th, who gave her a ride to her hotel and showed her around the Capitol.

"I was taken away by her kindness," Elliott said. "I kept thinking: ‘This is crazy. I'm just a little country girl from West Virginia. What am I doing in Washington?'"

Elliott bent Foxx's ear on behalf of burn victims and lobbied Sen. Richard Burr and Reps. Mel Watt and Heath Shuler, too.

While standing in the halls of power, Elliott said something else hit her.

"I could hear my grandmother's words," she said.

"Part of my purpose is to speak up for people who suffer the same tragedy that happened to me."

■ Scott Sexton can be reached at 727-7481 or at ssexton@wsjournal.com.

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