Full circle

Katy Brinegar, 22, has traveled a long, often pain-filled road.

When she was two years old, an accident at a babysitter’s house led to 10 years of hospital stays, skin grafts and doctor visits. More than a third of her body was severly burned.

While talking on the phone, Katy’s babysitter ran bath water for her. Thinking she had turned the hot water off and left the cold running, she didn’t realize the hot water was still on. Katy climbed into the tub and sat down, resulting in second- and third-degree burns.

She was treated at a hospital in Boise for three weeks before being transferred to the burn unit in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she was hospitalized for another three weeks. Skin grafts were taken from her scalp and back to treat the burns on her legs and feet. Katy continued treatments until the age of 12.

In seventh grade, Katy was assigned a project to research what she might want to study in college. It was then that she was introduced to nursing, specifically burn unit nurses, and burn camps for survivors. She interviewed a burn nurse, Brad Wiggins, from the University of Utah. Wiggins supervised several burn camps, and as Katy and Wiggins became friends she began attending camps, which she has participated in for the past eight years.

Her first three years as a camper, she experienced adventure on a six-day river rafting trip with other burn survivors. “It was a place where kids who had been burned could go to feel normal and meet other kids with similar experiences and share their story,” Katy said. “I feel really blessed because I have always had my scars; they are just a part of who I am. I don’t really know life without them because I was so young when it happened.”

For the past five years, Katy has attended burn camp as a counselor for young survivors, kids ages 6 to 12. Being teased about her scars as a child made her self-conscious, but Katy has come a long way in overcoming that. “My experiences with my burns, going to burn camp as a camper and now a counselor, and working as a nurse intern during my last semester of school in the same burn unit I was in as a 2-year-old has made me feel that I have come full circle.”

“Use what has happened to you in your life as an opportunity so you can grow and accomplish bigger things.” – Katy Brinegar

Katy, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Okmulgee, Okla., graduated cum laude in May from Creighton University with a nursing degree.

She said the program was challenging. “There were several times on Friday nights when everyone else was out having fun and I was home studying.”

During her last semester of school she left the Omaha campus for a preceptorship in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah burn unit. “Going into the burn unit was harder than I had anticipated it would be. The smells totally overwhelmed me. A lot of that was probably a subconscious memory of my own experience there. The smell triggered something for me and it was really difficult to overcome that the first few days. I wondered if I was going to make it, but then it became an empowering experience. It was wonderful to work with burn patients.

“It was also an honor to experience the American Indian population while I was there. The University of Utah treats patients from Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, parts of Montana and Nevada. There are several American Indian reservations in those states and while I was there I treated a couple of Crow Tribe patients.”

Katy wants to help others, like those who have helped her on her journey to healing. Today, she is working in a general practice surgical unit at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho. Looking to gain experience and exposure to different areas of nursing, Katy said spending time in the burn unit during her preceptorship helped her complete part of her journey.

“There were several times on Friday nights when everyone else was out having fun and I was home studying.” -Katy Brinegar

While attending Creighton she received the Pocahontas scholarship and was the recipient of the 2009 Health Sciences Multicultural Affairs Award for service and leadership for her work with burn camp participants.

“My American Indian heritage means a lot to my family and me. My grandmother was discriminated against a lot when she was young because of her American Indian heritage. She often tells stories of how she wasn’t able to date certain people and how she was made fun of because of her heritage. So it really means a lot to her to see me succeeding.”

Katy chose to attend Creighton because of its Jesuit affiliation and patient care philosophy rooted in the Catholic tradition. “They build the whole person, not just the intellect. It was a good choice for me. I felt very official and it definitely actualized my dream to be graduating with my nursing degree. It was very motivating to graduate with all the health care professionals, to see all the people who are going out into the world to make a difference.”

For her patients and other burn survivors, Katy has a message: “You are beautiful no matter what. It is not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside that matters. Use what has happened to you in your life as an opportunity so you can grow and accomplish bigger things.”