WEST UNION – As her physical and emotional scars continue to heal, Caryn Stewart describes herself as an ordinary girl with an extraordinary story.
At age eight, Caryn was the lone survivor of an Easter Sunday plane crash on March 27, 2005.
At 17, Stewart says she's like any other junior at North Fayette Valley High School, participating in activities and trying to pinpoint a career plan as she gets closer to graduation. But nine years ago, her family's lives changed forever.
Brian and Connie (Hotvedt) Stewart had driven their three kids to the airport where Brian's brother-in-law and nephew, offered plane rides and a birdseye view of the family farm. But on takeoff as Andy Bryan piloted the plane, the four-seater burst into a ball of flames killing Andy Bryan, 29; Connie Stewart, 38, and her daughter, Sarah, 11. Caryn survived, but sustained third and fourth degree burns over 75% of her body. The FAA later determined the engine combusted as a result of faulty engine parts.
Then a second grader, Caryn spent several months at University Hospitals, Iowa City. After two weeks in a medical coma, she awoke to almost constant pain any time she attempted to move. During that time, she had numerous surgeries in which her own skin was grafted to the three-fourths of her body damaged by fire. Donor grafts were attempted, but not successful. Through a feeding tube, Caryn got 5,000 calories a day to encourage continual growth of new skin on her stomach just so it could be harvested for other areas of her body.
As weeks became months, Caryn began therapies to learn to walk again, while required to wear a compression face mask to keep her new skin smooth, and compression garments for the same reason. There were additional surgeries: on her right hand and pinkie finger to reduce the webbing that results from skin grafting, and then on her left hand and pinkie finger. She had two surgeries on her scalp to reduce the effects of full thickness burn that resulted in patches of complete loss of hair follicles.
Through it all, Caryn says she just wanted to get well enough to return home to the family farm where she could spend time with her pets and farm animals. By early August, she was finally back home – but she had to adjust to life without her Mom and big sister. Brian learned to be both Mom and Dad.
"Being a parent is the best job and the hardest job," he says. Caryn and her Dad have a close relationship that was forged when he had to be her main support through her recovery. As she's matured, he's encouraged her love for music. Caryn has three guitars and plays an electric keyboard – mostly by ear. She'd been taking piano lessons at the time of the accident and her lengthy recovery got in the way of returning to that passion until several years had passed. She did play trumpet in the school band and she sings in the school chorus. Stewart was the matchmaker, 'Yente' in her school's musical presentation of Fiddler on the Roof last fall. She's active in speech and will advance to state competition in after dinner speaking and original oratory. Overall, she's adopted a perspective of positivity.
"It's not being the best at something, but doing what you love. I just want to be happy." Over the years as Caryn learned to accept the stares of strangers, she reminded herself, "Scars are just scars."
Every summer, she attends Miracle Burn Camp organized by University of Iowa Hospitals and held in East Okoboji. When she was 15, she was chosen from that camp to attend the national camp in Washington, D.C. There, she told her story to other burn victims. As a result, she's been invited back this summer to offer additional advocacy.
"I've had my moments and like all teenage kids I've felt insecure. Now I've gotten past that point. I try to be a role model," says Stewart. "I want to make sure other kids don't have to go through that pain."
Stewart tells of being at a Wisconsin water park with friends. Wearing a swimsuit, the skin grafts on her back, shoulders and arms are evident. She ignored the stares of other girls her age, but she grins and says her girlfriends were on the defense, ready to do battle. "I know they've always got my back," she says, grateful for their loyalty. Younger children, she knows, are just curious and she's patient with their questions. They want to know how she got her scars and some want to touch her skin. Caryn tries to be accommodating. She and her Dad have returned to University Hospitals to mentor other burn victims and their families on how to cope.
Yet through it all, the anniversary of the crash is always a tough day, as was that day in May 2012 when Sarah would have graduated high school. Later, the family placed Sarah's class flower and candles at her grave. It was a tough day, and there will be others. But the surprisingly mature younger Stewart says, "just because you've gone through hell doesn't mean you can't get back from it. I'm not permanently disabled from life."
Caryn has learned not to take love for granted. When she leaves the house for school, she yells, "Love you Dad!" because, she says, "You never know." She said hearing the stories of those who got their burns as victims of abuse has made her realize "how unfortunate, but lucky I am." She knows her father could have shut down because he was hurting too. "But he's still there for me all the time."
Yet that doesn't mean she doesn't occasionally worry about her father's well-being. During one of their random 'life' talks, she says she asked him why he hasn't dated or found a girlfriend. And then, a little choked up, she says, "He told me, 'I think I had the best'. I love hearing that after nine years, there was real true love there. It gives me hope about real love."
If Caryn could have a moment with her mom today, she says she'd tell her, "I turned out just like you. I hope I made you proud." And then she adds, "Me surviving didn't go to waste. It wasn't a mistake that I lived." As for her big sister, Caryn says she feels a connection with Sarah when she spends time with Sarah's horse, 'Snickerdoodle.' Caryn says there are days the horse is angelic, while on other occasions she is wild and mischievous, just like Sarah.
This summer, Caryn plans to work with a two-year-old project horse hoping it will help narrow her career choices. She has a job, and she's almost recovered from gall bladder surgery the past year. Because she's stopped growing, it's unlikely additional skin graft surgeries will be needed, except for a possible band release that extends from her left hand to her opposite shoulder. In the meantime, she'll continue her advocacy for other burn victims and she continues to be encouraged to tell her story: that of being a survivor.