“I decided I had to go through the fire”

Patient Stories |



Kelsie Bullard found a new life waiting for her after serious burns landed her in the hospital – and later – at Hoosier Burn Camp. “They loved me before I loved myself.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

There was only one way out of the burning car.

Right through the flames.

Kelsie Bullard was just 16 years old on Christmas Day back in 2016 when she crashed the car she was driving, with her best friend in the passenger seat.

The car caught fire on the driver’s side, and the dash fell onto both girls’ laps, making escape difficult. Her friend was able to crawl out the passenger door, but Bullard couldn’t move her body across the car.

“I decided I had to go through the fire, or I was just going to be stuck,” said the now 23-year-old. “I opened my door and went through the flames; that’s why my left side was burned worse than the right.”

She suffered severe burns on both legs, her back and her left hand, but she pulled herself out.

She’s been pulling herself out of danger ever since, with help from the Riley Children’s Health burn team and the occupational therapists who helped get her back on her feet.

“I was a teenage girl who had body image issues before the accident,” she said. “After the accident, I wasn’t sure I was the same person anymore, having all these scars.”

Her scars went deep. Emotionally and physically.

She had a fractured relationship with her family at the time and had become used to being on her own, she said.

“I didn’t feel that I really mattered in anyone’s life besides my grandparents and a few friends.”

She remembers how her occupational therapists at Riley came to recognize that she was not a typical pediatric patient and began adapting their approach.

“My OTs at Riley took the time to get to know me and realized they couldn’t treat me like a 12-year-old.”

The experience stayed with her, and now Bullard is in her second year of IU’s doctoral program in occupational therapy.

It was her experience at Hoosier Burn Camp, however, that changed the course of her life, she said.

“When I went to burn camp, I was only two months out of the hospital. I hadn’t accepted my injury and was still processing all my emotions.”

She admits she was not in the best frame of mind. Yet, she was met with love.

“They showed me love right off the bat,” she said. “They loved me before I loved myself. From the day I walked in, they accepted me, which I struggled with, not only because of the burns but because of my family dynamic. Was I truly loved?”

It was undeniable, she realized.

“Every single person there means it. They showed me you can love yourself as you are. It changed my outlook.”

That’s why she returns to Hoosier Burn Camp every summer as a counselor, helping other kids going through similar challenges.

They help her as much or more than she helps them, she believes.

“Every year, I learn something amazing from the kids. I told my girls (campers) last night I admire them. They look at their scars as battle wounds; it makes them feel strong. I want that. They have better coping skills, more confidence. I admire that.”

Bullard hopes to work with pediatric patients as an OT and currently is training to be a volunteer peer support leader for burn patients at Riley.

“If I can give that back to one kid – the first time you felt love, or the first time you felt joy or felt included – that means everything to me.”

Hoosier Burn Camp was conceived by the Indiana Fire Marshal’s Office and Riley Hospital for Children more than 25 years ago to help kids ages 8 to 18 heal emotionally and socially from serious burns. Learn more at www.hoosierburncamp.org.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org