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  • Sarah Waara

From surviving to thriving: The healing power of Burn Support Groups


Ascension Columbia St. Marys - Milwaukee Campus.

The most evident part of recovery from a burn injury is often physical, but the mental aspect is just as important. That’s why Melissa Kersten has been co-leading the Burn Survivor Support Group at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center for the last 15 years with Dr. Christine Harness.


Melissa, a nurse practitioner, has worked in the Burn Center for the last 20 years and remembers the moment when the necessity of the support group clicked for her.


“There was a patient and no matter what I said, I just wasn’t reaching her,” said Melissa, who was a nurse at that time. “I was telling her all of the things that you say to somebody when they’re recovering, but she didn’t want to get up. She didn’t want to participate in therapy, so I didn’t know what to do.”


That’s when everything changed.


Melissa asked her friend, who is also a burn survivor, to come in and speak with the patient. Those conversations made all the difference.


“The patient was a completely different person. Seeing another survivor come in and talk to her, that was the clicking point for me. I understood why the support group was so important, because she was able to know that she wasn’t alone in what she was going through,” Melissa said.


Comfort in conversations

The Burn Survivor Support group started in 1994. Today, the group meets once a month in a hybrid format. Attendees can meet in the Burn Center or through virtual methods for individuals that live far away. 


The first hour of every meeting is used as a time for structured conversations where individuals can introduce themselves and share their story if they feel comfortable doing so. Dr. Harness, a psychologist for Ascension Wisconsin, and Melissa also prompt open-ended questions to lead the conversation.


While survivors are integral to the group, their family and friends can also attend and share their experience while hearing from others.


“Sometimes we see family members attend before burn survivors because they are also processing what happened, just at a faster pace," Melissa said. “Family and friends may be worried about how they can support their loved one, or they may have survivor's guilt. Having family and friends attend is just as impactful.”


Individuals are often referred to the support group if they are a current patient, by providers of other healthcare systems, by word of mouth or from a self referral. Every month, between 15-20 individuals attend the support group to share their story and extend a listening ear.


That, Melissa says, is what can make the difference in recovery.


“Like many things in life, it’s so comforting to know that you’re not alone no matter what may be going on,” she said. “To have survivors share what they are going through with other survivors is so impactful. They went through something so traumatic, and it’s meaningful to have another survivor say, ‘Hey, I’ve been where you are. It does get better.’ It really makes a world of a difference for people, especially after what they’ve been through.”


The Burn Survivor Support Group is open to any patients from other hospitals and their loved ones. Thanks to donor generosity to Ascension Wisconsin Foundation, more than $2,000,000 of support has been invested in care provided at the Burn Center. Recently, new radiant heat panels, patient lifts and hyperbaric chambers were purchased to support this care. Thank you for making this possible.


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