Burns survivor Turia Pitt on staying strong, the love of family and the importance of goals

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Sarah Long arrived in Australia from the UK in early 2010 and met her Mr Miner soon after. They're based in Sydney and he does drive-in, drive-out (DIDO) to Orange in country NSW. Sarah came out to Oz as part of a six-month backpacking trip around the world, and never went home!

Turia Pitt first came to our attention when she was caught in a bushfire in a remote gorge in the Kimberley during an ultra-marathon race. She suffered catastrophic burns to 65 per cent of her body. Her journey through survival and recovery has been covered by 60 Minutes and she recently published her own book Everything to Live For.

I was lucky enough to interview this truly inspirational and positive girl about her story and plans for the future. It was a great chat, in which her sense of humour and can-do attitude shone through. Here is what she had to say about mining, relationships, depression and setting yourself big goals...

Q: This year has included some big events for you, with the release of your book and your appearance on 60 Minutes to remove your mask. Do you feel it has been a positive year?

A: Compared to2012, yes. In 2012 I had the worst year of my life, and I’m not just saying that to be dramatic, it really was. It was so bad because I couldn’t do much physically. I was frail like an old lady and very tired. Burns victims heal really slowly and for most of the year I did too. Then suddenly it went really fast, especially after France [where Turia visited the Ster Centre, a specialised burns clinic]. Now I can do two hours at the gym and can stay up later than Michael!

Q: Obviously your day-to-day life has changed considerably since the fire. What would be a normal routine for you now?

A: I get up early and often start with a phone conference or interview like this one. Then I spend an hour at the gym and an hour at yoga because it’s important for me to stay fit and flexible. I come home and spend about an hour doing my emails. Stretching is crucial for people with burns and I am working on getting back my range of movement, so I do an hour of stretches, so that can take up to three hours. Some days I have motivational speaking appointments in the afternoon or evening.

Q: Before the fire you worked at Rio Tinto’s Argyle Diamond Mine near Kununurra in the far northwest of Western Australian, and Michael was working at another local mine outside Argyle. How did you find the mining lifestyle and being part of a long distance relationship?

A: When I started university, I knew that I wanted to work up there because it was so different to anything I’d experienced before. Michael and I were on different rosters so we only had one weekend together a month, but we worked out ways around it. He would come over and stay during the week and we would plan fun things to do, like camping trips for our weekends together. But I don’t know how people do it with kids! I take my hat off to people in those situations.

Q: You said in your book that after you left hospital you were understandably depressed. How did you cope with this and what would you recommend to others who may be depressed?

A: I was so depressed because I couldn’t do anything I used to do, because I was so frail. I could only watch TV and go to the movies and I hated doing that before the accident. The stronger I got, the better I felt, so it really came down to eating right and exercising, which is what we all should do anyway.

Q: Michael has obviously been very supportive since the fire and acted as your carer during your rehabilitation, despite your doctor’s initial concerns that someone so young might not stick around. How has it changed your relationship?

A: I didn’t doubt that he would be there because he would be at the hospital at 7am each morning and stay until 7pm in the evening, seven days a week. It has definitely changed our relationship a lot and made us closer. It also made us closer as a whole family because we came so close to losing each other. It was one of the positive things to come out of this journey.
I used to get cranky with Michael when he said he would be at the mine [to visit me] at 6pm and he wasn’t, but those things just aren’t important. They were there at the hospital all day every day giving me their help and support and I couldn’t give them anything.

Q: You’re currently studying for your Masters. Will you be able to go back to work at some point and do you think you’ll go back to the mines?

A: I’m studying for my Masters in Engineering and an MBA. I think it’s important to have meaningful things to do and to keep busy. I would like to return to work, but that might be something to do in five years' time, maybe move to the Hunter Valley and have kids. There’s plenty of things to do before then.

Q: And how about Michael?

A: Michael’s role of carer has diminished and he is studying and labouring. He’s studying Enviro Science and wants to be a Clearance Diver so we’re going to move to North Sydney while he does that. And then we’ll fit in having kids sometime – I’m only 26, I’ve got a few years!

Q: Before reading your book I didn’t know anything about skin donation, or the lack of it, in Australia. Can you tell us a bit more about your work with Donate Life and Interplast?

A: Donate Life is Australia’s skin and tissue donation service. I think the problem with skin is you don’t hear about it on the news. You hear about kidneys, hearts, livers etc, but not skin. I didn’t even know about it. When I was burnt there was no skin and so they had to get it from America. I think by and by Australians are very generous, but they just don’t know about it. It’s important that people find out about it and donate, because it is crucial in saving lives. It is also important that friends and family know your wishes, because it is ultimately their decision to donate.

Interplast is a charity which provides free cosmetic surgery in the third world. I learnt a lot about them during my time in hospital because lots of the staff are involved. My surgeons give up their time and money to go and work in these countries to provide free surgery to mend cleft palates or help with burns victims. Because there is less education in those countries it is important for these surgeries to take place as there is a lot of stigma around these things.

Q: In the book you talk about setting yourself goals such as being able to touch your face and feed yourself during recovery. With Christmas and the New Year fast approaching, what are your goals for the next year?

A: I was supposed to be having an operation on my nose in a couple of weeks' time which would have meant two weeks in hospital and six months of it looking worse than it does now, but that has been postponed. Next year I am doing the Lake Argyle swim with others from the fire. It’s near Kununurra and will be my first time back up there. We are also doing part of the Great Wall of China for Interplast  and then having a holiday – sailing around Tahiti. I also want to train for an Iron Man and aim to compete by the end of 2015.

I just want to live a bit now!

Turia’s courage, positivity, enthusiasm and down-to-earth nature are truly inspirational and definitely have me reassessing my own goals for next year. She embodies the phrase ‘anything is possible’. Her book Everything to Live For is available in bookshops now. You can find out more about Turia and her projects, including her work with Interplast here: http://turiapitt.com/projects/ and to learn about skin donation visit Donate Life: www.donatelife.gov.au.

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