The Village of Fayette, Ohio, is a community of resilient people. Over the past decade, the community has seen its share of tragedies, especially amongst the kids. Those kids have, however, demonstrated an inner strength that has not just helped strengthen each other, they have also led the adults of the community in the healing process. They have demonstrated a strength in their youth that most people two and three times their age would be afraid to exhibit. A prime example of that strength can be found in Tiffany Bates.
Tiffany is the daughter of Dale and Jenny Bates. Her sister Trisha is married to Brodie Youtzy, and together they have a beautiful daughter, Lilah. Tiffany graduated from Fayette High School in 2013, and she is currently a senior Health Science major at Heidelberg University, and a member of Delta Sigma Chi, the Women’s Golf Team, Catholic Newman Club, and Cru. After graduating from Heidelberg in the spring, she plans on going to nursing school. Life is indeed good for the hard working Tiffany. One October evening though, her life was thrown into utter chaos. At the age of 14, Tiffany was thrown into the battle of her life…and a battle for life itself.
“October 23, 2009 is a day that forever changed my life,” Tiffany recalled. “It started out as a very normal, uneventful day. I went to school like normal. I came home, put my long, thick hair up, took my contacts out and put my glasses on, and watched TV and checked Facebook. My dad got home from work and he decided that he was going to start the corn burner, which heats our home, since it was a cold, fall day.
Since it was one of the first times we had used the corn burner that year, we needed more corn. Dad started the fire and told me to check on it in a few minutes, like I always did, while he went up to the Feed Mill to get more corn.” It all seemed innocent enough up to that point.
“When I was going to the basement to check on the fire,” she recalled, “I passed my mom, who was getting ready to go to Wauseon. I asked if she needed anything, and told her I was checking on the fire. When I got to the corn burner, the fire was going out, so I tried to stoke it, which I had done hundreds of times, however, I just ended up smothering the fire more. I then grabbed the accelerant and began to spray it on the fire, which again was something that I had done hundreds of times. As I started to spray, I felt a breeze and the next thing I knew, I was on fire. It turns out that the wind was coming from just the right (or wrong) direction and there was a backdraft from the chimney. The accelerant had indeed ignited, but had blown back upon her. The ensuing traumatic moments are forever etched into her memory.
“I remember I tried to pat my face out,” Tiffany said. “I remember opening my eyes and just seeing flames all around me. I remember grabbing a blanket to try to smother the flames and I remember stopping, dropping, and rolling. I don’t remember, however, screaming, but I did. If you ask my mom, she will describe it as a blood-curdling scream. I remember rolling on the cement floor, unable to get the flames out, and I remember seeing my mom come running down the steps. I remember getting up and running to her and I remember her yelling at me to get back down. I remember her jumping on top of me and beating me with a soft cooler and her hands to get the flames out on my face, my neck, my chest, and my arm. I remember her screaming. I remember her telling me to get to the bathtub. I remember ripping my glasses off because it felt like they were burning my face. I remember that I was relatively calm. I remember walking past the bathroom mirror and seeing skin hanging off my face, and I remember panicking after that. I remember taking my shirt off and sitting in the bathtub in a sports bra, tank top, and sweatpants. I remember taking off my necklace and seeing skin melted to it. I remember my mom running cold water over me to stop my skin from burning. I remember shaking…I remember screaming. I remember her calling my dad and leaving him a voicemail. I remember the hatred in her voice. I remember her calling my grandma, her mom. I remember her calling 911. I remember screaming bloody murder, telling her the water was too hot or too cold. I remember calling myself stupid over and over and over again. I remember the pain…all of it.”
Emergency responders began to arrive. Tiffany said, “I remember when the firemen got there. I remember telling them to go downstairs and check on the corn burner, because I knew I didn’t shut the door. I remember walking to the gurney. I remember seeing all of the firetrucks and ambulances in the driveway. I remember watching my dad’s truck drive through the grass. I remember him running over to me. I remember the look of devastation when he leaned over and saw me. I remember apologizing. I remember being put into LifeFlight. I remember the entire ride, staring at a light. I remember getting off and being wheeled into an unfamiliar hospital. I remember being taken to the Emergency Room. I remember seeing my sister and future brother-in-law walk into my room. I remember nurses after nurses coming in and messing with me. I remember seeing my arm, blisters the size of softballs. I remember when my parents walked in. I remember my dad’s face; I’ll never forget the look on his face. I remember hearing the nurses talk to my parents outside of my room, and from that moment on, I put on a brave face. I knew I would have to in order to keep my family together.” Fourteen year old Tiffany Bates was now a patient at St. Vincent’s Hospital, the same hospital where her closest friend and classmate, Kellen Keiser, was battling his leukemia. It was there that their bonds grew closer, as each put aside their pain in order to support and cheer each other on. This speaks highly of the character of these two individuals…two teenagers with the level of fortitude that many adults will never achieve.
“I was in St. V’s for five weeks, where I had two skin graft surgeries, one on my neck and chest and one on my arm,” Tiffany said. “I was out of school for a LONG time. After being discharged from the hospital, I had to attend Physical and Occupational Therapy five times a week for a month, then afterwards I went three times a week. I would go to school when I felt up to it, mostly doing half days. My teachers were amazing. They helped me get caught up, and they were very understanding and generous with due dates. After Christmas break, I was back to being at school basically full time.”
Fourteen year old Tiffany Bates was back. She was a survivor, but what was the driving factor that made her determined to overcome a disaster that would have had most others throwing in the towel? “My motivation throughout physical therapy was to get strong enough to play softball in the spring,” she said. “My surgeon told me that he would clear me to play, but he didn’t think I would be able to do it. I not only played the entire season, but I pitched a complete game. This was a huge accomplishment. I proved to not only my surgeon, family, and friends that I could do it, but I proved to myself that my ‘limitations’ weren’t limiting, and that I could do anything I put my mind to.”
Truer words are seldom spoken, and from the time that she returned to this very day, Tiffany has put her mind to several things. She is not one to merely defy odds…she MAKES the odds.
“The person I was before the fire, died,” she said. “I was always very self-conscious and I desperately wanted people’s approval. After the fire, I didn’t care what people thought about me. I learned to be okay with my scars because there is nothing I can do to get rid of them. I told myself in the hospital that I needed to love myself for every single scar and flaw, because I was lucky to have a second chance at life. I have been given a lot of opportunities to travel and meet amazing people. In June 2010, I was able to travel to California, where I attended a retreat called Angel Faces, which is a retreat for adolescent girls with facial differences. At the retreat, we learned how to deal with staring, teasing, how to answer questions about our injuries, and other things like that. It was a great learning experience and it really helped me remain positive. It also helped my family heal. I was encouraged to write a letter to my parents, explaining to them how I felt and how I didn’t want them to feel guilty. I then went to World Burn Congress in October 2010, which is a huge conference for people who have been burned, their families, along with EMTs, firemen, nurses, and doctors. J.R. Martinez was the keynote speaker on the last day of the conference, which just so happened to be October 23. I was able to hear his story and how he overcame the struggles that he faced. After his talk, he went into the lobby to meet people, and my mom and I were patiently waiting while everyone was rushing toward him. He pushed people aside and come over to me. I got his autograph and he wrote, ‘Tiffany, you’re beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you different,’ followed by a picture with him.”
When you stop and think about it, one of the most powerful words in the English vernacular, albeit one of the smallest, is ‘if’. If only. What if…these are words that make you stop dead in your tracks, and think…sometimes think hard. ‘If’ tends to imply an alternative plan of action. So the question must be asked. If given an opportunity to bypass everything that has happened since the night of October 23, 2009, were afforded her, would Tiffany take it? “I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anything,” she said. “From the first night I was in the hospital, I knew that I had a very long road ahead of me and I knew that I could be negative or positive about it. I knew that I needed to be strong for my family. Being strong meant being positive. I knew that there was nothing I could do to change the situation I was in. I learned very quickly that I was never going to be a normal teenager again. I learned that life is precious…so, so very precious. It can be taken away in a second, and there’s no point getting upset over little things that aren’t going to matter in a few days.”
The wellspring that feeds the determination that drives Tiffany, she proudly proclaims, is not found in expert medical care. In fact, it is not of this world. “I have kept my faith from the very first night in the hospital. I told my mom that I knew that everything happens for a reason, and that God has big plans for me, and I still believe both of these things are true. I know that God knows what He is doing in my life, and I have to trust Him. I still don’t know for sure what God’s reason for the fire was, but I know that I am so happy He chose me to walk through it with Him. There were so many little things that happened and continue to happen where He shows His presence. My mom was running late, and was still at home. I told her where I was going when I went downstairs. I put my hair up before I went downstairs. If I didn’t, I don’t know if my mom would have gotten to me in time. I took my contacts out and put my glasses on, which prevented my contacts from melting to my eyes. I was treated at the same place where Kellen was being treated. There are so many things that could have gone so much worse and I am so thankful that God was watching over me.” Those five words, ‘everything happens for a reason,’ have become her life slogan. Her faith is summed up in the inspired words of the Prophet Isaiah, where in verse 2 of chapter 43 he wrote…
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
“Life since graduating from Fayette has been pretty great,” Tiffany said. “It is, however a never-ending adjustment. There are a lot of people at Heidelberg that don’t know my story and they don’t know what my scars are from. It’s not that I don’t want to tell people my story because that’s actually my favorite thing to do, but I forget that people don’t know what happened and I forget that I even have scars. I don’t see them at all anymore. They are a part of who I am. They are normal to me.”
“Looking back,” she continued, “I know how lucky I truly am. I honestly believe that I was given a second chance at life, and I don’t want to throw it away. I want to be able to give back to people who have given so much for me. I have been able to volunteer at Angel Faces for two summers. Being able to share my journey with girls who are in a similar place I was is such an amazing feeling. It gives them hope, and it reminds me of how far I have come. As of right now, I’m planning on attending nursing school and eventually becoming a burn nurse. I want to be able to show patients that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it is miles away. I want to take every opportunity I have to use my story in a way that encourages others not to give up, even when the water is rough.”
Strength is a hallmark of leadership. Strength of character. Strength of conviction. Strength to overcome. Strength born of faith. Strength to endure six surgeries. It is not easy to quantify these things. They can show up on a scoreboard, but the scoreboard lights will be turned off after the contest. They can show up on a stat sheet, but they fade over time. If you seek to find a more enduring way to quantify the aforementioned strengths, there is a much easier way to do it.
Just watch Tiffany. She’s got them all…and then some.
Watch. Learn, and be inspired as you try to keep up with her.
Timothy Kays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org