Ready to face the world

Pat Stamp and his wife, Madonna, pull no punches in telling their story. 'He didn't look like he used to,' she says. 'Then I realized he is not ever going to look like he used to.'

Steve Bartlett
Published on June 2, 2012
Pat Stamp on his Harley. — Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

First in a two-part series

Pat Stamp still cries in his sleep. “But he doesn’t yell anymore,” his wife, Madonna, says with relief.

It’s a hopeful sign the 57-year-old is slowly getting better, six years after 40 per cent of his skin was scorched from the heat of a flash fire on the

MV Kometik.

As his skin melted, his infant grandson’s life passed before his eyes. Powered by the will to survive and see his grandkids grow up, Pat hauled himself up a ladder from the depths of the crude oil holding tank where he had been welding.

Deckhand Wayne Dalton, his friend, died of smoke inhalation.

The top of the ladder was mile zero of his road to recovery. Pat spent the next seven weeks in a coma and endured numerous operations.

In the years since, he has dealt with mental and physical challenges.

It’s a well-known journey, most recently described in the compelling “About Face: The Pat Stamp Story,” a TV documentary and multimedia package by CBC journalist Curtis Rumbolt.

That piece, which aired in February, detailed Pat and Madonna’s December trek to Ashburn, Va., where former CIA disguise maker Bob Barron fitted him with an artificial nose and ears, since parts of his own were seared in the intense heat.

The Telegram visited the couple’s home on the hill overlooking Holyrood Pond earlier this week for a frank interview about their experience and the positive impacts Pat’s prosthetics are making.

Pat said the accident left him with two big openings where his nose used to be, and took the tops of his ears.

Of those injuries, the loss of his nose mattered most to him.

Everywhere he went, people would stare at him and he’d feel uncomfortable and inferior.

If he went to an event like a grandchild’s concert, he hurried to his seat and stayed there.

“Getting in was the thing,” he explains. “If I had to stand in a line or something like that, I didn’t feel very tall and I was looking at the floor most of the time.”

The artificial nose and ears have dissipated the cloud of self-consciousness.

When he attended a grandchild’s spring recital a few weeks back, Pat was able to get up and walk through the audience, something most people just take for granted.

He describes the experience as being spectacular.

“You can walk tall with your head high. ... There was a spring in my step, and you feel good about it.”

He feels effervescence now, wherever he goes. He no longer fears the mall, once a site of constant ogling.

“I feel much like my old self,” he says, though he admits that some self-consciousness lingers.

‘Hugs and tears’

Since Rumbolt’s documentary aired, Madonna says the stares have turned to recognition.

“It’s like paparazzi,” she grins. “(People) talk to us. There’s hugs and there’s tears, and people get a boost from us, from our story. And we get a boost just from talking to them.”

Pat doesn’t wear the nose or ears around St. Vincent’s, the St. Mary’s Bay outport where he spent 10-and-a-half years as mayor in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The people here, they know my story, and I feel comfortable without the nose,” he says.

Outside of his comfort zone — around strangers or in St. John’s, which he visits weekly for medical appointments or to see his six grandkids — Pat puts the nose on.

“And I feel more comfortable and relaxed that people aren’t staring, and it’s a better feeling.”

‘He didn’t look like he used to’

But the person closest to Pat didn’t always feel comfortable with the prosthetics.

Madonna remembers her reaction back in the Virginia lab when the ears and nose was first put in place.

“I guess I was kind of hoping a bit that he was going to look more like he used to,” she admits.

“But he didn’t look like he used to. Then I realized he is not ever going to look like he used to.”

That hit her hard and made her feel emotional. She didn’t quite know why.

“I knew I was never going to see the original Pat ever again. It was almost like the feeling you had lost someone. … It was a happy time for Pat and I was happy for him, but for me, there was a bit of sadness there, knowing this is it. … He didn’t need a nose for me, he needed it for himself.”

But it’s grown on her in recent weeks, when Pat wore it for numerous speaking engagements during Occupational Health and Safety Week. Madonna attended every single one.

“I think I grew accustomed to it,” she says.

Pat says the best reaction to his prosthetics was from his grandkids at St. John’s airport when he and Madonna returned from Virginia.

Noah’s reaction was especially meaningful, since he was the grandchild whose life passed before Pat’s eyes in those harrowing moments when death’s door hovered open.

Pat says Noah saved his life.

“He said, Poppy, you don’t need to wear your nose. You’re just fine the way you are,” Pat says.

What if?

While the nose has tamed his timidity and lifted his spirits, Pat is still a work in progress.

He is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and regularly sees a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

He continues to relive the accident every day, sometimes more than once.

The word “if” is never far away.

“If I had to do this and if I had to do that. …  And trying to get that out of your system and trying to accept that what happened, happened. There’s no ifs or buts about it. It happened. You can’t do anything about it. It’s done.”

That’s just one aspect of the mental anguish he feels.

There are also nightmares and crying.

Fortunately, those things are easing.

“When he first came home from the hospital (six years ago), that’s the time I experienced fear,” Madonna says, “because the man in the bed was screaming and punching and kicking and yelling and crying, and I was so afraid for him. I didn’t know what to do for him. You’d try to calm him down, and it’d start as soon as you’d go back to sleep, and that has all subsided.”

Pat’s crying is the only thing that wakes her these days. He doesn’t always tell her why he sobs and she doesn’t always ask.

Madonna remembers once remarking, “That had to be a bad one last night.”

“He said, ‘You don’t want to know.’ He doesn’t talk about them anymore, not like he used to. It’s very painful, very painful.”

Pat says his nightmares still take him to a place where he’s stuck or trying to fly away from things.

“Speaking to burn survivors,” he says, brightening, “they ask you how high are you flying or how low are you flying. They tell me the lower that I’m flying, the closer that I’m getting to getting away from that part of it.”

Pat also has to deal with a pulsing pain. He says it often goes from a five to a 10 to a 10-plus if there was a Richter scale of pain.

He takes a lot of medication, but it isn’t always totally effective.

Fifty per cent of Pat’s lungs are damaged. He doesn’t have full mobility in one hand and still requires some operations, including a couple of procedures to release tightness in his arm and neck.

It doesn’t look like he’ll ever work again, but he’d love to.

“I can’t do the things I could do,” Pat says. “I don’t buzz around like I used to.”

‘A bit of everything’

Pat’s motivation comes from his family. He says they’ve helped him get through the ordeal, and he’s thrilled to still be here for them.

It hasn’t been easy for his wife and four adult kids.

Madonna describes the past six years as a “real roller coaster.”

“It’s been sad, it’s been happy. It’s been a bit of everything.”

She says she knew from the beginning that Pat was going to be all right, and that her biggest concern was how their children would cope.

Each of them dealt — and continue to deal — with it differently. They’ve experienced a range of reactions from anger to acceptance, classic markers of grief.

The sadness has got to Madonna only a couple of times, she says, and that’s when she threw “little pity parties” for herself.

“I haven’t had one in a really long time,” says Madonna, who sees a psychiatrist as well.

Pat and Madonna don’t always share their feelings, but they help each other as best they can.

“We both believe that this journey that we are on together is supposed to be,” she said.

But she admits she didn’t always know if she wanted to be on the same road.

There was a time, she admits, that Pat was on a drug that turned him into “a person I didn’t like very much.”

He mentioned it to a doctor, who checked and changed his medication.

“Within a few days, I had Pat again. … I don’t know if I could have stayed with this man. It was not nice.”

But she’s glad she did. She thinks her husband is a wonderful man who’s seized opportunities to make life better for himself and those around him.

The Stamps say they are sharing their personal story to help the public realize the importance of safety and the lasting effects of accidents.

Pat didn’t survive “to sit home and mull it out,” Madonna says, “because that’s not the type of person he is. He was never like that.”

Twitter: @SteveBartlett_

MONDAY: The Stamps’ safety mission.