Liao Chun-mei (廖春妹), who suffered injuries in a gas explosion 20 years ago, was the first burns victim to start working for the Sunshine Social Welfare Foundation and has for the past 13 years cared for the 250 injured people at the foundation’s Sunshine Half-Way House — while also recuperating from her own emotional and physical scars.
After getting married, Liao, a Paiwan Aborigine, left her home in Pingtung County. The couple tried their hand at different businesses — setting up a factory, a seafood restaurant and a karaoke store.
After 20 years, Liao was very close to realizing her dream of owning her own flower shop, but she was injured in a gas explosion.
Liao had told her daughter to be careful and slowly open the windows after realizing there was a gas leak in their home, but Liao inadvertently caused an explosion by switching on the kitchen lights.
Liao received second and third-degree burns on more than 58 percent of her body in the incident. Liao said that for the first two years after the accident, she stayed at home and refused to see anyone, even rebuffing visits by social workers from the foundation.
The foundation was founded in December 1981 to better care for those who had been burned or received other facial disfigurements. It was inspired by a radio broadcast featuring select chapters from the book People who Shun the Sunshine, which was written by a burn survivor.
Liao said that after the first year of her injuries, her husband, who had cared for her during the year, started growing distant from her. She discovered one day that he was having an affair.
“I came home early from a therapy session and found the woman he was cheating with, asleep on the bed wearing my pyjamas,” Liao said.
Being cheated on while dealing with the psychological and physical trauma of her injuries, Liao contemplated suicide and nearly jumped off the Guandu Bridge to end her life.
Liao was pulled off the railings of the bridge by a college student who was passing by. At that exact moment she also received a telephone call from her daughter.
After telling her daughter about wanting to kill herself, her daughter said: “Don’t be selfish; your life isn’t just yours. My younger brother and I both love you very much. How can you be thinking of quitting?”
After that incident, Liao said she met someone by chance on the street who asked her to take care of her father, who had become depressed after having a stroke.
Though she was bewildered why anyone would ask her of all people, she nonetheless took the job. After a week into the job, the man she was helping told her she was very brave and even began eating more.
Liao said that was the moment she discovered that she was still of use to society.
Liao began working at the half-way house helping residents wash themselves and clean their wounds, as well as applying lotion and medication, saying: “This was exactly what my son and daughter did for me.”
“I cried when they cried” and I took it calmly when they ranted at me, Liao said, adding that she chatted with them and often put on music to distract them from the pain.
In her time at the home Liao has seen patients of all ages, from three-year-old children to people in their 80s and has taken care of those who were more severely injured than she was.
Reflecting on her experiences, Liao said that at least she was the one who was hurt and not her children.
Now, when she playfully struggles with hospital residents to grab the microphone to sing a karaoke song, she feels that the expression “there is always hope as long as you keep living” is indeed true.