Turia Pitt not willing to let burns scars define her life as she prepares to take part in a 3,716km bike race
The Sunday Telegraph
THE horrific burns to 65 per cent of Turia Pitt's body, combined with seemingly endless surgeries, would have stopped the most determined in their tracks.
However, the 26-year-old athlete won't be beaten.
Two-and-a-half years after she was burnt in a bushfire during a 100-km marathon through the remote Kimberley Region - which left her in a coma for two months - Pitt is preparing to hit the road again.
"The fire has turned my life upside down; I don't want it to have any more impact. It was a couple of seconds. What's that compared to a lifetime?Turia Pitt
Pitt, from Ulladulla in southern NSW, will participate in the 3716km Variety Cycle ride from Sydney to Uluru that sets off next month. And that's not all she's got planned.
In May she'll take part in the 20km Lake Argyle Swim in Western Australia as part of a relay with three other survivors of the Kimberley fire.
Later in the year she's doing a five-day walk along the Great Wall of China for Interplast, an organisation that provides free reconstructive surgery to poorer parts of the world.
"The fire has turned my life upside down; I don't want it to have any more impact," she said.
"It was a couple of seconds. What's that compared to a lifetime?
"That's not to say any of this is easy."
Pitt admits it can sound like she's taking on a lot for someone suffering such horrendous injuries.
"If I've learned anything from my accident it's that we're all much stronger and powerful than we'll ever know and, while lots of people live life to its fullest, others let life pass them by. That's really sad.''
Pitt is also studying for an MBA and Masters in mining engineering while being in constant demand on the motivational speaking circuit.
I don’t want the fire to have any more impact. It was a few seconds. What’s that in a lifetime?
Body and Soul
Turia Pitt suffered horrific burns in a bushfire during a marathon in 2011, fell into a coma for two months and has since had repeated surgeries. Next month, the 26-year-old will ride from Sydney to Uluru in The Variety Cycle. She tells Beverley Hadgraft
“People ask how I endured the pain after the fire, how I waited four hours to be rescued in the burning sun, how I walked off the helicopter and into Darwin Hospital. I think it’s like the mum who lifts a car to rescue her trapped kids. If it’s true we only use 10 per cent of our brain, maybe it’s the same with potential.
If I’ve learned anything from my accident it’s that we’re all much stronger and powerful than we’ll ever know and, while lots of people live life to its fullest, others let life pass them by and that’s really sad.
I’m trapped by my body but others are trapped by their minds and years of negative conditioning and I think that’s a worse travesty. I give motivational speeches now encouraging everyone to “unmask their potential”.
I was really fit when I got burned. That meant I recovered better but the burns were worse – body fat is a good insulator. Surgeons say it will take 10 years to get back to where I was but I can still “unmask my potential” as I’ll prove this year.
In March, my partner, Michael Hoskin, and I will do The Variety Cycle, a 3716km ride from Sydney to Uluru in 26 days. In May, I’ll do the 20km Lake Argyle Swim in WA, in a relay with three other survivors from the fire, which will be awesome. After that I’m doing a five-day walk along the Great Wall of China for Interplast, an organisation that provides free reconstructive surgery to poorer parts of the world.
I’m studying an MBA and Masters in mining engineering and have speaking engagements booked until June. I’ll have surgery to improve the appearance and function of my nose in September, and that will require a six-month recovery, but once I’m over that I’ll start training for an ironman.
Does it sound like a lot? The fire has turned my life upside down; I don’t want it to have any more impact. It was a couple of seconds. What’s that compared to a lifetime? That’s not to say any of this is easy.
LEARNING TO PUSH NEW LIMITS
I only got on a bike for the first time since my accident in December. I wasn’t even sure I could still do it but... Well, it was like riding a bike – you never forget.
My hands are the biggest problem in cycling. After the fire I had all the fingers on my right
hand amputated and have just three, which are fused together, on my left. I can’t open a jar, fasten buttons, write a letter, flip someone the bird... That makes it hard to hold onto my handlebars. The first time we cycled over corrugations, I fell off. Michael was like, “Come on, Turia – pull it together, stay on your bike.”
And I was saying, “Listen, mate. You’ve got 10 fingers, I’ve only got three. Chill out a bit.” When we go over bumps now it’s a bit scary so I go slower.
I also have to consider the fact that one of the skin’s major functions is to regulate your body temperature, but because of the burns, 65 per cent of my skin doesn’t have that function any more. When I heat up it takes ages to cool down and when I get cold it takes ages to heat up.
That’s something I’ll never get back but I’m lucky that the major parts of the body that sweat – the underarms, groin and hair – aren’t burned. However, I’ll struggle when it’s hot, especially out near Uluru, so we’ll probably ride two hours in the morning and two in the evening.
At the moment my training schedule has me cycling two hours on the road one day and 40 minutes on a stationery bike the next. I also do personal training three times a week. It’s a mix of power, strength, agility and plyometrics. Again it’s complicated by not having fingers. I can’t lift weights but we’ve found ways around it and my trainer pushes me bloody hard.
I have to fit in swim training as well, and I bodyboard for fun. I can’t get back on the surfboard yet as I don’t have the strength in my upper body. I also do yoga three times a week despite the problems with flexibility. Scar tissue doesn’t have the same flexibility as normal skin but it’s getting better.
On top of all that there’s physio. I have to do things such as bend my elbow 500 times a day, because large burn injuries often cause ossification (hardening of soft tissue) in the elbows. Basically, they’re stuck and you have a limited range of movement.
THE LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
It’s important to say that it’s not only me who stepped up after the accident. Michael has been such a dedicated and supportive partner. There were times when I lashed out, wanting to hurt the people closest to me, but he was back again at 7am the next morning and still there at 7pm that night. He’s a really lovely man and I’m blessed to have him, but we wont tell him that or he’ll get a big head!
My trainer, my physiotherapist, my masseuse, my psychologist... Everyone in my home town of Ulladulla on the NSW south coast has been amazing. They had no experience of people with burns, but we worked it out along the way. I’ve never felt so loved and supported by my community. My best friends organised a masquerade ball which raised $ 60,000. With that money, I was able to go to a world-renowned burns clinic in the south of France.
I didn’t only make physical gains there, I made psychological ones, too. I was still wearing the mask when I came home but I felt like the old Turia was still alive – I felt more like me. It sounds ridiculous because who else would I be? I can’t put my finger on why that was. Perhaps one reason was that I had time by myself. We all need that and I hadn’t had any for a year.
Also, there’s so much emphasis on physical recovery but mental and emotional recovery are just as important. When I first got out of hospital, I felt so depressed I started to think about suicide. I felt useless and worthless, I couldn’t do anything – I couldn’t run, swim, surf, brush my teeth. I couldn’t wipe my own behind. I thought, why am I even alive? I can’t do anything. I can’t enjoy life. What’s the point?
I knew then that I needed professional help and I’m not ashamed of feeling like that – it’s perfectly normal. Writing my book, Everything to Live For ( Random House), helped, as did returning to study. But the psychologist also taught me that it’s not realistic to expect to feel good all the time. So when I feel angry, I think, yep, I feel angry today, or I’m sad today, and that’s fine.