“We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.”
Kelley Harrell, Best-Selling Author
Isolation is a feeling of sadness, loneliness and not feeling connected to the rest of the world. For many burn survivors, the feeling of isolation is something they deal with on a regular basis. Lenora “Miki” Mathes, a 37-year old burn survivor who was burn-injured when she was less than two years old, spent most of her childhood carrying the burden of a deep sense of isolation and feeling like she did not belong. Through her participation in the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation’s Champ Camp, the world’s largest and longest running summer camp for burn-injured children, Miki was able to find a safe and loving community of other burn survivors, and was able to develop strong self-confidence.
Miki Mathes was only 20 months old when she and her mother were in a house fire in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the mid-1980s. They survived the house fire by running through the flames and sustained third- and fourth-degree burns over more than 80% of their bodies.
As Miki grew up, she remained shy, introverted, and sensitive. She experienced teasing and bullying throughout her public-school education and in her local community; no one had seen someone like her before. Miki underwent additional surgeries and treatment for her burns through the Shriners Hospital for Children—Los Angeles. While recovering from a major summertime surgery, she overheard several child burn patients enthusiastically speaking about Champ Camp.
Miki was touched by the foundation, the volunteers, and the other burn survivors, but remained quiet and introverted during her first year at camp. Over time, Miki began to become less self-conscious and opened up to those around her. Miki became a Counselor-in-Training at Champ Camp as a teenager, and later became a Camp Counselor. Her experience volunteering at Champ Camp gave her a platform to explore her personal strengths in a safe environment. Champ Camp provided the confidence she needed to attended college and pursue degrees in biology, chemistry and psychology.
Growing up in a medical setting where young children had little say in what was happening to them, coupled with the experience of connecting to younger burn survivors each year that she returned to Champ Camp in various roles, Miki was inspired and motivated to attend medical school. She was able to train at the hospital where she and her mother were first treated for their burns, and she had the privilege to work with one of the trauma surgeons who performed many of her initial, lifesaving surgeries. After doing a residency in neurology, followed by a fellowship specializing in identifying and treating seizure disorders, she returned to New Mexico to pursue one more year of fellowship training in sleep medicine. She was drawn to this field after seeing her mother benefit so greatly from finally being treated for her severe obstructive sleep apnea.
Miki now works in New Mexico as a board-certified sleep medicine physician. Miki listens to her patient’s symptoms without judgment, and provides them with hope for a better quality of life. After years of feeling marginalized and misunderstood, building rapport with people has become natural to Miki. In her limited free time, she enjoys playing with her elderly rescue dog, creating arts and craft projects, and spending time with her friends and family. She continues to volunteer with AARBF and she finds great satisfaction in striving to instill strength, confidence, and inspiration in young burn survivors. She continues as a pioneer in the medical field and does not see herself a burn survivor, but rather a burn victor.
Miki Mathes is an amazing example of how the caring, nurturing and loving community of Champ Camp was able to help bring her out of isolation and provide her with the confidence and self-assurance she needed to transition from burn victim to burn survivor to, what Miki now calls a burn victor. Champ Camp is a safe place where burn survivors meet other burn survivors to play, challenge themselves, gain self-esteem, and develop lifelong friendships.