American Society of Plastic Surgeons
For Medical Professionals

Scalding survivor shows others her resilient spirit

Most mornings, one-year-old Emma Brown would get ready with her mom. She'd begin the day by throwing a toy into the tub. That was the signal to start her bath. One day, Emma decided she was grown up enough to do her morning routine alone. She hopped the baby gate while in the care of her nanny, who was doing laundry in another part of the home.

Emma went into the bathroom, turned on the bathtub faucet and got into the tub. What she didn't know was the water temperature thermostat was broken. She went into a tub of scalding hot water. Emma, now in her late twenties, doesn't remember the incident, but still has burn scars from it.

"I'm assuming it was so hot that it felt cold or that kind of sensation," said Emma.

Her nanny pulled her out of the tub and rushed her to the hospital. The water severely burned both of her legs. Initially, there were concerns her feet could not be saved because of the depth of the burns.

Since Emma was so young, she had plenty of growing to do. Emma would need several surgeries to allow her to grow and the joints in her legs to function. This meant learning how to walk three times.

"I had just learned how to walk when the accident happened," said Emma. "Every time I had a surgery, it was a whole new learning curve whether it was walking, dressing myself or using the bathroom. I would start to get some new skills, and then I'd have surgery, and then I'd be back to step one. It was just this constant cycle of getting right back into the swing of things, starting to feel normal, then just being knocked right back down."

No goal was off limits

Emma has faced reconstructive surgeries all of her life, but she never let her injuries get in the way of being a top-notch athlete or her career ambitions.

"She had this really incredibly difficult and challenging injury, but despite that, she was so active," said Paul Cederna, MD, her board-certified plastic surgeon at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Emma began seeing Dr. Cederna when she was about six. She needed surgeries around every six months to a year to accommodate her growth.

"We tried to schedule all my surgeries around either summer break or holidays, so I never really had normal summers or school breaks," said Emma.

Doing so helped minimize her missing school. Yet, her doctor and family also wanted to make sure she could live as regular of a life as possible.

"We limited the total number of operations, but then got as much done each time we operated as possible, so she had the best opportunity to be a normal kid doing normal kid things," said Dr. Cederna.

Emma took advantage of doing as many activities as she could including gymnastics and wrestling on the boy's team. She eventually went to college on a diving scholarship.

"Part of my tenacity in wanting to compete came from always having to overcome something or always having to recover from something," said Emma. "If I wanted to do it, my parents, with my doctor's approval, were going to let me do it."

Sports were a way for her to stand out.

"I was known for something other than being the girl with the burns," said Emma. "I remember at a gymnastic banquet there was a bonfire. I won most unique, and I got mad and actually threw the award into the fire. No one really understood why I was so upset by it. I just wanted to be normal."

She also attended burn camp in the summers.

"Horseback riding, water sports, swimming, arts and crafts," said Emma. "It was just a week to do regular camp stuff with kids who were also burned."

Supporting her through numerous surgeries

Emma, her family and Dr. Cederna became close since surgeries were scheduled so often. Emma and Dr. Cederna even played pranks on each other after embracing a rivalry.

"I was deeply concerned because we're big Michigan State fans and Dr. Cederna is at the University of Michigan," said Emma.

Emma made her team allegiance known during one of her surgeries.

"I think I was about ten or 11," said Emma. "I had put a Michigan State Sparty helmet temporary tattoo on my shin of the leg that he was going to operate on. He came out of the operating room to talk with my parents with a smirk on his face. He said, 'I have a surprise for her when she wakes up.'"

"I took a surgical marking pen and actually drew out a Michigan block on her skin and put her splint on it so she couldn't see it," said Dr. Cederna. "Then when it was time for her dressings to come off, she had this really nice Michigan Go Blue block M on her leg."

"We used to joke that probably took longer than the actual procedure because it was perfect," said Emma. "Since I had just had surgery, I couldn't scrub my leg. So, for many weeks it was on my leg. Stuff like that just makes the whole process so much easier."

Dr. Cederna helped ensure Emma could do everything she wanted, including making sure she had all the right accessories for her prom dress.

"She had burn scars over her feet and her toes, and she couldn't fit into her prom shoes," said Dr. Cederna. "She came to me and she said, 'Can you fix my toes so I can wear prom shoes?' She knew she was going to have to go through an incredibly painful operation, but she was so motivated to live in the same way everyone else did."

Finding a path forward in life

She decided she wanted to go into law enforcement after 9/11. In her senior year of college, she discovered intelligence analysis, and after getting a master's degree in the field, she became a federal agent.

"People said she couldn't become a police officer because she couldn't wear body armor because her skin wouldn't tolerate it or people said she could never be a collegiate diver because she can't perform the way that others can that didn't have burns," said Dr. Cederna. "Every single time she proved every single person wrong."

Inspiring other burn victims to pursue their dreams

She has also embraced the courage to step forward about why she has scarring on her legs. Yet, she wasn't always so forthcoming. Sometimes other children called her "rhino legs."

"When I was young, I would get sick of telling people about it," said Emma. "I think I was in the first or second grade and my mom got a call from school, and they said I was telling people I was born like this. My mom wanted to know why I was telling people that. I said it was because I was just tired. She said I didn't have to tell people, but I also couldn't lie to them. I started to realize that people are just curious. Sometimes that curiosity comes out in hurtful ways."

Now she invites children who are curious to touch her legs.

"I can reassure them that it doesn't hurt, that they're very smooth and that it's not something for them to be afraid of or to think they can get from me," said Emma.

She also makes time to speak with other families who are living through burn injuries, helping these families understand their loved ones have a full life ahead of them.

Emma continues to pursue sports as an adult and defy definitions of what someone who has her injuries can do.

"When I was about 24, I think I decided I was going to run a marathon, because why not?" said Emma. "I did. I will never do it again, but it was one of those things where just because someone somewhere said I don't know if that's going to be possible for her."

She also participates in CrossFit. Sports continue to allow her to give back to her community by doing 5K and 10K runs, plus a 300-mile bike ride for charities like Make-A-Wish and Great Lakes Burn Camp.

Emma said her experience helps her understand others' differences.

"I know what it feels like to be 'other' for something completely out of your control," said Emma. "I have a lot of empathy for what people are going through, and my experience set the foundation for being kind because people are just so mean and there's plenty of opportunity to be nice."

Dr. Cederna said she serves as an inspiration for others and himself.

"You can make excuses along the way about why you can't accomplish something, but you look at Emma and you go, 'My goodness, if Emma can accomplish that, I can certainly accomplish that as well,'" said Dr. Cederna. "It requires toughness, drive and resilience. Seeing somebody who has gone through what she has gone through can empower others to do the same, give them the courage to pursue their dreams, knowing if they are committed, they can get there too."

To find a qualified plastic surgeon for any cosmetic or reconstructive procedure, consult a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. All ASPS members are board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, have completed an accredited plastic surgery training program, practice in accredited facilities and follow strict standards of safety and ethics. Find an ASPS member in your area.


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