hen a horrific wreck in 1988 left her blind, a Salem resident picked up the hobby of quilting.
Elizabeth Burns maintains a positive attitude and is grateful she can share her story in a program titled “Through Tragedy, Challenge, Perseverance and Triumph, a Quilter is Born.”
“You should never focus on the words, ‘I can’t.’ Think positive. Get motivated,” Burns said
during the recent Jackson County Extension Homemakers Fall
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Fling at Cornerstone Ministry Center in Seymour.
“The next time that you see a really beautiful quilt, I would like for you to say to yourself, ‘I can make that.’ What I would like for you to say to yourself is, ‘Oh good grief, if a blind woman can do it, I know I can,’” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
On Aug. 5, 1988, Burns finished her shift as a dispatcher at the Indiana State Police post in Sellersburg and was on her way
to Kings Island in Ohio to meet some co-workers.
After stopping to get something to eat and fill her car up with gas near La Grange, Kentucky, Burns was driving on Interstate 71 in the passing lane when her car began to bunny-hop. The car left the road, went up an embankment and took flight before rolling four times, landing upside down and skidding 342 feet.
Driving directly behind her was a surgeon from a Louisville hospital. Seeing Burns’ car lose control, the surgeon immediately called for StatFlight, police and ambulances to respond.
Emergency personnel cut Burns’ seat belt, pulled her to safety from the smoking car and laid her down in the middle of the road. That’s when her heart stopped.
Responders gave her CPR and used a portable defibrillator to get her heart beating, and she was hooked up to a portable ventilator in the helicopter.
At University Hospital in Louisville, Burns underwent emergency surgery to stop external and internal bleeding and was hooked up to a ventilator and life support since both of her lungs had collapsed. Her heart stopped again, but a defibrillator brought her back.
“They later told me
they came very, very close to losing me because not only was I battling loss of blood, my injuries and shock, but my brain started swelling at an alarming rate,” Burns said.
‘Inside, I was sobbing’
In the critical care unit, Burns was hooked to a ventilator in a coma. When a woman realized Burns regained consciousness, she patted Burns on the shoulder, but Burns was in excruciating pain.
The woman told Burns about the wreck and what doctors had done to keep
her alive, but Burns
couldn’t talk or move any part of her body, except for the fingers on her right hand. She also heard doctors tell her family that she had a 2 percent chance of surviving her injuries.
Burns communicated with doctors by raising one finger for “yes” and wiggling four fingers for “no.” She had an IV in her left foot and right arm and received a blood transfusion in her left arm.
She also had multiple minor cuts and abrasions (requiring more than 200 stitches); two shifted vertebrae in her lower back; multiple broken ribs; three broken fingers; 90 percent of her right thumb amputated; minor internal damage; ruptured disc in her neck; jaw broken in nine places on the left side of her face and four on the right side; crushed cheekbones and nose; forehead above her eyebrow broken; and two skull fractures.
“There was no outward sign of reaction to my injuries, while on the inside, I was sobbing for the loss of my life as I had known it to be,” Burns said.
Burns was told that, because of the extent of her head injuries, she would be blind the rest of her life.
“Again, outwardly I showed absolutely no reaction to having been told that, while on the inside, I was sobbing hysterically, screaming, ‘Oh dear God, I’m only 29,’” Burns said, crying.
Knowing Burns could move her fingers, a nurse helped her write a note. Burns wrote, “Please let me die.”
“One of the doctors gently took hold of my fingers, and he said to me, ‘If you only knew how hard we have fought to save your life, you would not ask that of us. We can’t do that. We just can’t,’” she said.
‘An uncharted world’
Burns slowly grew stronger. On Aug. 26, 1988, she had the first of 27 reconstructive surgeries to repair the bone structure on
During a month and a half in the hospital, Burns was taught to walk and maintain her balance. She then was in and out of the hospital a few times for the next few years.
Being blind caused her
to lose her job and
independence. All she could see was black.
“I found myself now facing the challenge of an uncharted world of total darkness,” she said. “It took two years for me to realize that the beauty and light in life actually dwells within each one of us, that I and I alone can control how much my lack of sight is going to
She decided to make the most of her “second chance at life.”
“I would not just accept the challenges that being blind was going to bring to me, but I would with courage stand tall and overcome each and every one of them,” she said. “I decided that something as simple and unimportant as the loss of my vision was not going to destroy my life.”
Trying new things
She married Ronnie Burns, a state police trooper she had worked with at Sellersburg. She said he helped her embrace any challenge.
One time, the couple were on a trip. Her husband and his friends jumped off rock cliffs before rappelling into a pit cave. Elizabeth Burns surprised her husband when she said she wanted to give it a try.
“I rappelled into the deepest pit cave in Indiana several times,” Elizabeth Burns said.
“It’s a 148-foot freefall drop. It’s exhilarating.”
Ronnie Burns never discouraged his wife when she told him she wanted to try something new, so he wasn’t surprised when she said in 2000 that she wanted to learn how to piece quilts.
Ronnie Burns helped her set up a hem measurement tool and cut quilt block patterns and fabric and put them in the right order. With patience, perseverance and determination, Elizabeth Burns pieced her first quilt.
She said she pieces
quilts by touch and
mentally imagines quilt block patterns and colors, puts them together and selects fabrics. Her mother-in-law does the embroidery.
Along with sewing machines, she has purchased a talking calculator and a talking color identifier to help her make quilts of all sizes, wall hangings, table runners, Christmas tree skirts, card holders
While she might never see again, Burns said she is thankful to have a hobby to keep her busy and motivated to push forward in life.
“What back then to me seemed to be the absolute end of everything for me has indeed really turned out to be not so bad after all,” she said. “I know that, although I do live in a world of total darkness, my world will always be very colorful in the world of fabrics, and my life will always be very, very brightly lit from within.”
Quilting enthusiast Olga Otte was among those leaving Burns’ program inspired. Otte said she had a bad accident years ago and went through operations and was on crutches.
“It’s inspiring me to
try and get done what I
have started because I
have a quilt that I am working on, and I’ve got maybe nine out of 81 blocks quilted,” Otte said.
“I’m thinking, ‘If she can get all of this done and not be able to see, it’s wonderful and it’s inspiring,’ because whenever you think someone went through that many months of being basically immobile and then be able to accomplish this, it’s amazing, absolutely amazing.”
Otte said she hoped everyone else at the Fall Fling was inspired, too.
“The idea that you don’t quit, you persevere and go ahead,” she said. “If somebody says ‘You can’t’ or someone says ‘I can’t,’ that’s not an answer. You don’t stop there. You just go.”
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Elizabeth Burns’ rules of encouragement when facing life’s challenges:
- Pain can be overcome, and injuries will heal. We each possess an inner strength. The only thing that has the power to limit you is you.
- For every door that closes, another door will open. It is really hard to go anywhere if you’re constantly looking at your life through a rear-view mirror. Have courage. Go forward. You just may find that you’re opening up a completely new realm of possibilities.
- Never cut yourself off from exploring something new. If you cut yourself off from taking a chance, you quite possibly will be cutting yourself off from something that just may bring you great happiness and joy.
- We are each in control of our own destinies and abilities. You should never focus on the words “I can’t.” Think positive. Get motivated.
- We have got to be willing to change our perceived weaknesses into our strengths. It all begins with one thing, and that is having faith in yourself. Bad, tragic or painful things should never be empowered to the point that they control your destiny or stop you from living your life to its fullest.
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“I know that, although I do live in a world of total darkness, my world will always be very colorful in the world of fabrics, and my life will always be very, very brightly lit from within.”
Elizabeth Burns, blind quilter from Salem