When Simone Wan suffered third-degree burns, it seemed like painkillers were her only recovery option. Read the story of why she turned to alternative medicine instead.
Photo: Simone Wan
It was spring 2001, and I was tending to my sick boyfriend (who, like all men, was whining about having a basic head cold). I decided to open up a new pressure cooker to make some homemade soup for him. We were nestled in his tiny New York City apartment watching a World War II movie, just steps away from the kitchen, where my homemade soup was soon to be finished.
I walked over to the pressure cooker and unlocked it to take off the lid when—BOOM! The lid flew off the handle, and water, steam, and the contents of the soup exploded in my face and covered the room. Veggies were everywhere, and I was completely soaked in hot water. My boyfriend ran in and immediately rushed me to the bathroom to douse myself in cold water. Then the pain—an unbearable, seething, burning feeling—started to sink in.
We immediately rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital, which, luckily, was just a few blocks away. The doctors saw me immediately and gave me a dose of morphine for the pain, but then said they were transferring me to the Cornell Burn Unit, an intensive care unit for burn victims. Almost instantly, I was in an ambulance, flying uptown. At this point, I was in complete and total shock. My face was swelling, and I could barely see. We got to the ICU burn unit and a new group of doctors was there to meet me with another shot of morphine.
And that's when I almost died.
My heart stopped. Doctors would later explain to me that it happened because I was given two shots of morphine in less than an hour—a dangerous oversight due to miscommunication among the two facilities. I vividly remember my near-death experience: It was very blissful, white, and glowing. There was a sensation of this grandiose spirit calling me. But I remember looking down at my body in the hospital bed, my boyfriend and my family around me, and knew I couldn't leave yet. Then I woke up.
I was alive, but still had to deal with the third-degree burns covering 11 percent of my body and face. Soon, I underwent skin graft surgery where doctors took skin from my buttocks to cover burned areas on my body. I was in the ICU for about three weeks, jacked up on painkillers the entire time. They were the only thing that could get me through the torturous pain. Interestingly enough, I never took pain meds of any sort as a kid; my parents wouldn't even give me or my siblings Tylenol or Advil to reduce a fever. When I finally got to leave the hospital, the painkillers came with me. (Here's everything you should know before taking prescription painkillers.)
The (Slow) Road to Recovery
Over the next few months, I slowly healed my burned body. Nothing was easy; I was still covered in bandages, and even the simplest thing, like sleeping, was difficult. Every position irritated a wound site, and I couldn't even sit for too long because the donor site from my skin graft was still raw. The painkillers helped, but they went down with a bittersweet taste. Each pill stopped the pain from being all-consuming but took "me" away with it. On the meds, I was jittery and paranoid, nervous and insecure. I had difficulty focusing and even breathing.
I told the doctors I was worried about becoming addicted to the Vicodin and didn't like the way the opioids made me feel, but they insisted I'd be fine since I didn't have a history of addiction. I didn't exactly have a choice: My bones and joints ached like I was 80 years old. I could still feel a burning sensation in my muscles, and as my burns continued to heal, the peripheral nerves began to regrow—sending continuous shooting pains akin to electric shocks through my shoulder and hip. (FYI, women may have a greater chance than men of developing an addiction to painkillers.)
Before the pressure cooker exploded, I had just started school at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) school in New York City. After healing for several months, I made it back to school—but the painkillers made my brain feel like mush. Although I was finally out of bed and attempting to function as my former self, it wasn't easy. Soon, I started having panic attacks: in the car, in the shower, right outside my apartment building, at every stop sign while attempting to cross the street. My boyfriend insisted I go to his primary care physician, so I did—and he immediately put me on Paxil, a prescription medication for anxiety. After a few weeks, I stopped feeling anxious (and wasn't having any panic attacks) but I also stopped feeling anything.
At this point, it seemed like everyone in my life wanted me off the meds. My boyfriend described me as a "shell" of my former self and begged me to consider going off of this pharmaceutical cocktail I was relying on every day. I promised him I would try weaning off. (Related: 5 New Medical Developments That May Help Reduce Opioid Use)
The next morning, I woke up, nestled in bed, and looked out of our high-rise bedroom window—and for the first time, thought to myself that it might be easier to just jump out into the sky and let it all be over. I walked to the window and pulled it open. Luckily, the rush of cold air and honking sounds startled me back to life. What was I just about to do?! These drugs were turning me into such a zombie that jumping, somehow, for a moment, seemed like an option. I walked to the bathroom, took the bottles of pills out of the medicine cabinet, and threw them down the garbage chute. It was over. Later that day, I went into a deep hole researching all the side effects of both opioids (like Vicodin) and anti-anxiety meds (like Paxil). It turns out, all the side effects I experienced—from difficulty breathing and lack of emotion to detachment of self—were common when on these meds. (Some experts believe they may not even help with long-term pain relief anyway.)
Walking Away from Western Medicine
I decided, at that moment, to turn away from Western medicine and turn to the exact thing I was studying: alternative medicine. With the help of my professors and other TCM professionals, I started meditating, focusing on loving myself (scars, pain, and all), going to acupuncture, trying color therapy (simply painting colors on canvas), and taking Chinese herbal formulas prescribed by my professor. (Studies even show that meditation may be better for pain relief than morphine.)
Although I already had such a strong interest in traditional Chinese medicine, I hadn't actually put it to use in my own life yet—but now I had the perfect opportunity. There are currently 5,767 herbs being used as medicine, and I wanted to know about them all. I took corydalis (an anti-inflammatory), as well as ginger, turmeric, licorice root, and frankincense. (Here's how to buy herbal supplements safely.) My herbalist gave me an assortment of herbs to take to help calm my anxiety. (Learn more about the potential health benefits of adaptogens like these, and get to know which could have the power to improve your workouts.)
I started noticing that my diet mattered too: If I ate processed food, I would have shooting pain where my skin grafts were. I started monitoring my sleep and stress levels because those would both have direct impacts on my pain level. After a while, I didn't need to take the herbs constantly. My pain levels decreased. My scars slowly healed. Life—finally—started to go back to "normal."
In 2004, I graduated from TCM school with a master's degree in acupuncture and herbology, and I have been practicing alternative medicine for over a decade now. I've watched herbal medicine help patients in the cancer hospital where I work. That, coupled with my personal experience and research on the side effects of all these pharmaceutical drugs, made me think: There needs to be an alternative available so people don't end up in the same position as I was. But you can't just go grab herbal medicine at the drugstore. So I decided to make my own company, IN:TotalWellness, which makes herbal healing formulas accessible to anyone. While there's no guarantee that everyone will experience the same results from Chinese medicine as I have, it gives me comfort to know that if they want to try it for themselves, they now have that option.
I often reflect on the day I almost took my life, and it haunts me. I will forever be grateful to my alternative medicine team for helping me withdraw from prescription medications. Now, I look back at what happened on that day in 2001 as a blessing because it has given me the opportunity to help other people see alternative medicine as another option.
To read more of Simone's story, read her self-published memoir Healed Within ($3, amazon.com). All proceeds go to BurnRescue.org.