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  • I had just finished culinary school. Well, to clarify, I had finished the portion of culinary school that required attending classes. The final portion of the program was to be an internship at an outside location. I was lucky enough to land a paid position, in a bad job market no less. I was feeling pretty good about it, but not particularly confident in my kitchen skills. My last teacher had advised us that our confidence may drop a little, but that was to be expected until we adjusted into our new roles. After a few stressful shifts I began to pick up the recipes and the way the kitchen worked. Mostly I just tried to take care with my knives and extra care to avoid burning myself.

    The kitchen was filled with a variety of different personalities from the "get it out quick" to the "get it done right." Some of my co-workers were helpful and patient, while others were short-tempered and condescending i.e. " do you also know nothing about cheese?" I was beginning to understand a lot about working in a kitchen environment for which school could not prepare me. I felt like I was adjusting slowly, but many co-workers advised that I was doing well which boosted my confidence (if only by a minuscule amount). Still, at the beginning of every shift, a wave of anxiety would wash over me.

    One morning, (I especially dreaded morning shifts) the kitchen was short staffed and there was more to do than there were people available to do it. It was time to switch from breakfast service to lunch service. Most of the food had already been produced and was waiting in a hot holding area and some of the food was in the steamer. Now, when I say steamer don't think dainty little steamer basket set over a pot of water. This steamer is industrial sized. It is about the size of a typical household oven. When the door opens a cloud of steam rolls out (inevitably fogging up my glasses) and the inside racks are dripping with hot water. In order to safely remove anything from the steamer there are rubber "oven mitts" that deflect any hot droplets of water while allowing the grip needed to grasp an item.

    On this morning co-worker X instructed me to remove all of the items from the steamer and place them onto a rack. This was the extent of co-worker X's instruction. So I donned the rubber oven mitts, headed to the steamer and began to pull food out. I pulled out some corn, brown rice and what's that on the top rack? As I pulled the pan towards myself I felt a slosh of liquid move forward. In that moment my reflexes and instincts took over. As hot chicken and mushroom liquid poured over the edge of the pan and onto my elbow, I almost simultaneously pushed the pan back into the steamer (so as not to spill anything on the front of my body) and threw off the rubber mitts (at this point the liquid had poured down my elbow and into the mitts). I stared down at my arms in shock and I didn't know what to do next. Co-worker Y and Z ran over to me and assessed my arms asking if I burned myself anywhere. I looked at my left arm and it was red in the forearm area, but it didn't hurt at all. The left arm just received some back splash. Then I looked at my right arm. My right elbow and forearm were bright red, but still no pain which I figured was from the shock. I already knew that I had burned myself-- badly.

    By this time co-worker X had made it over to me and rushed me to the sink to rinse my arms in cold water. In the meantime co-worker Y and Z were calling management to advise them of the situation. After rinsing in cold water, co-worker Z came by with some burn spray and instructed me to head up to the management offices. I walked up to the offices with tears welling up in my eyes as the shock wore off and the pain set in. I discussed with my manager what had happened: the steamer, the rubber mitts, the hot liquid. He applied burn cream and wrapped my arm. By this point it was clear that no damage was done to my left arm. My right arm, however, had begun to blister and peel. I knew that I was going to need a trip to the hospital.

    Next began the bureaucratic process of documenting the injury. For legal reasons I won't go into detail here, but I will say that the amount of pain that I was in made the few minutes that I had to discuss what happened and sign paperwork feel like hours. As I gave my description of what occurred I looked over and saw co-worker Y filling out a description of what was witnessed. Before the decision could be made on where to send me for treatment, the severity of the injury needed to be assessed. This involved the pain scale. Many of us have encountered it before. The range of smiley faces starting at happy and progressing to distraught, accompanied by a number scale of 1-10. As I was asked the question of how much pain I was feeling, in accordance with the scale, I burst into tears. I think that pretty much conveyed the message.

    Now it had been decided that a trip to the hospital was necessary. Luckily there was a hospital located a few blocks away. I stepped into the Emergency Room and described the situation. I was seen promptly and the first nurse to see me was a very nice man. He unwrapped my arm only to discover that the bandage was now stuck to my skin in certain places. Still, he was very gentle. He then asked me, again, to describe my pain based on the pain scale. Just behind his head I could see a picture of The Universal Pain Assessment Tool. I looked at the faces and their descriptions and said, "Well it's pretty bad, but it's not a 10." He put a 9.

    In some way I felt as if I was reserving that 10 for something worse. Certainly childbirth felt worse than a burned arm, right? Throughout my whole life I have had difficulty indicating my level of pain. I think I may have a fairly high tolerance for pain. I've broken my ankle without realizing, I've had a concussion without realizing (until I felt dizzy and threw up) and most recently I ignored a bladder infection for so long that it made its way into my kidneys and only then was the pain bad enough for me to go see a doctor. This is why the burn worried me so much, because it hurt so bad.

    The skin on my arm had continued to blister pretty badly in several spots while I waited to be seen by the doctor. When she finally entered I was sure to watch her facial expression while she examined my arm. She grimaced and asked me if I would like some pain medication. I told her that I would. As she cleaned and dressed my burn she explained to me that I had received first and second degree burns. She also explained how to care for it. Then she sent me on my way with a prescription for pain medication and directions on returning to work.

    I then began the process of healing physically and emotionally. As the pain medication started to work, my mind began to drift back to the pain scale. If this is a 9, then what is a 10? Maybe childbirth is a breeze after a second degree burn. It's all relative anyway. Up until this point in my life this second degree burn was the worst physical pain that I had ever felt. In that sense it could be considered a 10. I don't know why I felt the need to reserve that 10 for something else...

    Public Domain image from DocStoc:
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