(Warning: This article contains photos that may be disturbing to some readers.)
What started as a fun-filled winter holiday for Kelly Ng (not her real name) and her family ended in a horrific accident – her youngest daughter, Sarah, was badly scalded by boiling water. The 14-month-old toddler’s burn injuries were so severe that she required a skin graft.
Kelly had made an urgent dash for the toilet that morning after instructing her older daughters, aged five and three, to keep an eye on their little sister. It was their last day in Taiwan in December last year, and her husband had been busy packing their belongings.
“Barely seconds later, I heard Sarah crying and my older kids screaming away,” the 40-year-old stay-home mum recounts.
It was every parent’s worst nightmare: Sarah had pulled out the cord of the kettle, toppling its contents – steaming boiled water – on her left hand.
Her arm and the rest of her body were, thankfully, spared as they were protected by thick winter clothing. Panicking, Kelly placed her crying toddler’s swollen hand under cool tap water and got her husband to call the hotel’s front desk for a taxi.
By the time they reached the hospital one-and-a-half hours later, blisters had surfaced and “her entire palm and fingers were covered with them. She was crying but there was nothing much we could do”, says Kelly, who left the other kids with their father and grandparents in the hotel room.
The doctors advised admitting Sarah for observation, but Kelly says they decided against it as they hoped to catch a flight home that evening and seek treatment.
The return flight was “manageable” as Sarah stopped crying after the doctors drained the fluid from her blisters and bandaged her hand.
After touching down in Singapore at midnight, they immediately rushed Sarah to the emergency department at one of the private hospitals, only to be referred to the Singapore General Hospital. There she was subsequently referred to the Children’s Emergency at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH).
As her daughter’s hand was wrapped up during the flight and she had stopped crying, Kelly shares that reality only sank in when doctors removed the bandage to assess the injury. She was not prepared for Sarah’s burns.
(Warning: The photos below may be disturbing.)
“By then, her entire hand was disfigured and it looked so out of shape. Oh my goodness! I really panicked then. There were four to five huge blisters, each the size of goldfish eyes, and several other small ones, and dead skin was dangling off her hand,” Kelly says.
“I felt guilty because the accident could have been prevented if I had not gone to the toilet. But it wasn’t the time for me to wallow in regret but rather to focus on getting the proper medical attention Sarah needed and settling the care for my other two kids. I also prayed a lot during that time,” she says.
“The skin was dead”
Over the next three weeks, Kelly brought her little one to KKH every one to three days to have her wounds cleaned and dressed.
Sarah had to undergo multiple rounds of general anaesthesia so the doctors could examine, clean and dress her wounds properly, a process that would have been too painful and challenging to carry out had she been awake during the procedure, Kelly explains.
While most of Sarah’s burn appeared to heal well, the area from her thumb to the wrist suffered second-degree burns. “The skin was dead and could not heal on its own,” she says.
KKH’s department of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery team, which sees all burn referrals from the children’s emergency, grafted healthy skin from the toddler’s right inner thigh onto her severe wounds. The procedure involved an overnight hospital stay.
Kelly shares that a 10cm-by-10cm patch of skin was taken from Sarah’s inner thigh, and that itself was also painful as “it’s like scraping off the top layer of the skin.”
While most burns can be managed in an outpatient setting, about three per cent of the burns cases KKH sees requires reconstructive surgery such as skin grafting, says Dr Gale Lim, head and consultant at KKH’s department of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery.
A smooth recovery
During Sarah’s recovery, her older siblings were extra loving and “gave in” to her more often than usual. The incident, she adds, also gave her a glimpse into her youngest daughter’s resilient and feisty character.
“I really thank God that Sarah has such a strong personality. When her hand was bandaged, she did not cry and could continue with her usual routine at home,” Kelly says.
Thankfully, the hardy little girl’s injuries healed in about two months. “Her skin now looks as smooth as before (the incident),” Kelly says.
The only telltale sign of Sarah’s traumatic ordeal is uneven skin tone in the area where the skin graft was done. However, it is not very obvious because it is hidden in the crease around the thumb area, Kelly adds.
Despite the awful experience, her inquisitive toddler still doesn’t seem to fully understand the dangers of touching hot items. “I think she is too young to understand,” says Kelly, urging parents and caregivers not to take chances when it comes to safety.
“Parents and caregivers have to take precautions. But if an accident really happens, I feel that moving forward to fix the problem is more important than spending all your time and energy blaming yourself.”
Next page: How to protect your child from burns at home