In the winter of 1994, I was contacted by a Mandy Kelly, whose little boy Ciaran had been badly burned in an accident involving a wood-burning stove. Apart from wanting to do anything to help him heal, she was also an aromatherapy enthusiast. She called me and I helped her figure out the best way to use essential oils, lavender in particular, to speed up little Ciaran’s healing process. This happened in Scotland, and the most amazing part was that the surgeon who attended Ciaran was totally fine with essential oils and herbs being used, while Ciaran was still under their care. This was, and still is, extremely unusual in the UK. In fact, I don’t know of a similar case.
In April 2014 I attempted to get in touch with Mandy to see how Ciaran is doing now, partly because I was curious, but also because I still feature his story in some of my live presentations. Unfortunately, my detective efforts were unsuccessful. Imagine my surprise then, when I received an email from Mandy herself, just two months later.
“Dear Robert, I have held you in my heart all these years for having the compassion and kindness to realize my call was genuine and to take seriously my question regarding the use of lavender essential oil. My son Ciaran, who is now 23, was only 2 1/2 years old when he was badly burnt in a house fire. Thanks to many factors including prolific use of lavender oil, calendula and aloe vera, he healed from 11% burns to his hands and face and head. Today you would never know that he had been burnt on his face, and although the backs of his hands were grafted extensively, he has 99.9% use, is a plumber, plays guitar and leads a totally normal life.”
We exchanged a few emails about Ciaran who only has a few scars, about the exceptional healing process and about life in general. After all that has happened in her life, Mandy decided to become a nurse to repay society for all the help that she and her family received. And Cairan has become a father. In the picture, you can just make out slight redness on his forehead and hand.
Below is the full account of the incident, as it was published in the International Journal of Aromatherapy in 1995. The only difference is that I no longer have some of the original photos.
Lavender Helps Burned Boy
Ruth H Smith
After being seriously burned in a house fire, two-year-old Ciaran Kelly made an unusually speedy recovery, perhaps partly because of essential oils his mother was allowed to apply.
Reconstructing the horrifying fire which took place on 15th January 1994, Mandy Kelly remembers waking from an unusually deep sleep screaming: “Hell, it’s serious.” Her heart still races and she relives her fear, recounting with nightmarish detail the events of that terrifying morning.
At around 6 am whilst the rest of the family slept soundly, Ciaran was already up. As he opened the door of the Raeburn stove, falling debris catalysed a chain reaction setting light first to some paper, which ignited his teddy blanket. Fearing his mother’s retribution, Ciaran clung to the blanket trying to blow the fire out himself.
The rest of the story catalogues the escape to safety of Mandy and her other two children Dana and Lachlann, and the bravery of her husband Stephen, who made a split second but calculated decision to put his life on the line in order to rescue Ciaran who was trapped in the blazing room, now a gutted shell. The family were later told by medical staff that 30 seconds longer and Ciaran would have been dead from smoke inhalation.
Outside the house in temperatures of minus six degrees C (21°F), Ciaran waved his arms about madly to cool his badly burned hands in the freezing morning air. Mandy recalls vividly her race by car to the nearest hospital in Inverness, covering 15 miles in just 9 minutes, thankfully ignored by a police car she later discovered was racing to her own house fire.
On arrival the hospital assessed Ciaran’s condition and recorded: Superficial burns to the face, more severe to the head, severe to the hands, also has blisters over his shoulders. Facing the intense pain with cries of, “Mummy, it’s so sore, it’s so sore.” Mandy encouraged him to scream to release the pain and blew on his hands to cool them.
There followed an agonizing period of waiting for both mother and son during which time it was felt that the care they received was both inadequate and inappropriate. Ciaran’s condition deteriorated. He developed intermittent stridor, and his oxygen saturation level fell dangerously low. He was in danger of dying.
Hand ventilated, and with a full medical team in attendance, Ciaran was finally rushed by helicopter to Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children, landing at 8:30 pm, 13 hours after sustaining his injuries. Arriving later by road, Mandy and Stephen found him on a ventilator in a peaceful drugged sleep; head shaved and hands in bags. He was to remain in this state for the next six days.
The following edited extracts are taken from a diary of essential oil application compiled by Mandy for the duration of Ciaran’s stay in hospital. She recalls being given an introductory text on aromatherapy, a present from a friend during her first pregnancy. From here her long-standing personal interest in the subject grew and the use of essential oils became very much a part of her everyday life. It was therefore an instinctive response to introduce essential oils into Ciaran’s healing process at the first opportunity.
Taking advice first from Napiers in Edinburgh, before contacting Robert Tisserand, Mandy was able to proceed with treatment just two days after the fire. Very encouragingly, she received little obstruction from the medical team working with Ciaran. Mr Quaba, the consultant plastic surgeon, agreed that she could proceed “on her own head.” A few objections were raised later in the treatment program, however, as both nurses and visiting parents found the overpowering smell of lavender on the wards to cause headaches and create stress!
Whilst Ciaran remained unconscious due to heavy sedation, Mandy was able to apply the oils frequently and to work within millimeters of his eyes. Once off the ventilator, simply being touched in areas associated with pain caused Ciaran great distress and this led to a modified application.
As Mandy explains, it is possible that there is some discrepancy between dates and actual events logged in the diary. “I was awake for five days without sleep and was not knowing which day was which.”
Monday 17th January: Once an hour from 6 pm, applied 15 mL chamomile extract, 15 mL aloe vera, three drops lavender oil. Burns were very sore, wet and stingy looking.
“Whilst Ciaran remained unconscious Mandy was able to apply the oils frequently”
Tuesday 18th January: First operation to graft right hand. During day, did not apply blend every hour due to medical staff around Ciaran. From 6 pm applied 15 mL chamomile extract, 15 mL aloe vera, capful of lavender oil. Applied mixture on sterile cotton gauze cloths. These were left on Ciaran for approximately five to seven minutes until almost dried out. Burns healing well and scabbing over.
Wednesday 19th January: Applied strong chamomile, aloe vera and lavender mixture all day as often as possible. Rang Robert Tisserand to see if it would be OK to use neat lavender on such severe burns. From 9 pm – 9 am hours applied neat lavender oil. The actual act of applying the mixture to Ciaran helped me to psychologically cope with the situation. It made me feel able to contribute something towards healing my lamb.
Thursday 20th January: Applied neat lavender three times during day. This evening the hospital decided that as his lungs had made such good progress, they would reduce the drugs he was on in preparation for him coming off the ventilator the following day. He began to regain a degree of consciousness and became too alert and distressed for me to apply the neat lavender oil too often. His heart rate soared to 230 beats per minute, so I decided reluctantly to ease off on applying the oils. Where ventilator had been strapped to his forehead, I managed one application of neat lavender after dressings were changed. Ran out of essential oil!
Friday 21st January: Ventilator off. Ciaran very uncomfortable and miserable, but conscious. Applied neat lavender whenever he drifted into sleep.
Saturday 22nd January: Took first photographs. Exactly one week since the accident.
Sunday 23rd January: Ciaran finally taken off machine administering drugs. I cuddled him for the first time. Dabbed lavender on him four times over the course of the day, and put two drops of lavender in the bag on his left hand.
Monday 24th January: 10 am – 1 pm, operation to graft left hand. Only manged to apply lavender once but put a swab over the electric fan and gassed the whole ward out!
Tuesday 25th January: Dabbed neat lavender over Ciaran three times today. Unfortunately, he hates it, so I was lucky enough to do even that. Staff nurse complained about choking on the smell of lavender outside his isolation room, so I had to stop electric fan dispensing method.
Wednesday 26th January: Scabs dropping like flies. Took photographs. Wee Ciaran smiled for the camera! Applied neat lavender twice today.
Thursday 27th January: I applied neat lavender in the morning, but nurses decided that it was time to massage in a revolting looking cream with a very imaginative name “Oily Cream 1,” which I suspected was petroleum based. I manged to persuade them that almond oil with lavender would be better and applied this three times.
Here the treatment program changed. All the scabs had dropped off the wounds, and the skin had completely healed. The intention was now to prevent drying, keeping the scar tissue supple.
Friday 28th January: Applied lavender in almond oil only once.
“Mr Quaba, top Plastic Surgeon in Britain, says that he cannot believe the speedy recovery that Cairan has made”
Saturday 29th January: Stephen applied lavender in almond oil three times.
Monday 31st January: Mr Quaba, top plastic surgeon in Britain, says he cannot believe the speedy recovery that Ciaran has made. It is usual for children with burn injuries to remain in hospital for two to three months, but Ciaran should be home within the next ten days. It is also apparently most unusual for grafts to take by 100% as Ciaran’s have done. Normally, the take rate ranges from 40% to 90% and at times as low as 20%. It must be the lavender!
Tuesday 1st February: Ciaran painting today with brushes tied to his bandaged hands. Applied lavender in almond oil four times.
Wednesday 2nd February: Walked to Napiers and got a wonderful blended oil to massage onto Ciaran’s burns. Blend contained; essential oils of carrot seed, chamomile, lavender, and frankincense in a base of: 40% calendula oil, 40% comfrey oil and 20% wheatgerm oil. Applied this four times today, washing burnt areas first with aloe vera juice.
Thursday 3rd February: Ciaran’s bandages removed today under general anaesthetic, and his hands measured for pressure gloves. Returning from operating theatre at 5 pm, Mr. Tim Burgess, surgeon under Quaba’s team, commented on the speed of the recovery of Ciaran’s burns. He acknowledged that there must be something to the “lotions and potions” after all. Applied oil twice.
For the next four days Mandy and Stephen continued to apply the oil three times a day until Ciaran was finally discharged from hospital on Tuesday 8th February, just three and a half weeks after his admission. To date Ciaran has continued to do extremely well. He has a few tiny scabs left on his head and a small patch remains where his hair has not grown back. The burn to his forehead, which was covered by the ventilator, is still evident. His right hand which was extensively grafted needs regular massage to keep it supple and help straighten the fingers. His left hand has no deformities.
Mandy continues to apply a blended oil with essential oils of carrot seed, chamomile, lavender, frankincense, neroli and patchouli in a calendula, comfrey, wheatgerm base. The smell of lavender now evokes in Mandy overwhelming memories of burns and the ward down in Edinburgh. Ciaran reacts with; “Not that lavender oil, again!”
Recently, Mandy took all the children back to the scene of the fire to re-enact the events of that terrifying Saturday morning. Ciaran’s tremendous spirit and courage shone through, as he playacted his part with huge enthusiasm. In her own words, Mandy describes her hopes and fears for the future, as she celebrates each new day:
“I hope that my son will be perfect, but I have fears that his hands, the right in particular, will be somewhat disabled, and that the burn on his forehead will not disappear, and that the bald patch on his head will not regrow. I hate it. But for all that, he’s alive, delightfully brattish, using his hands and looking gorgeous. I’m one happy mum!”
Lord Fraser of Carmylie, the Scots Health Minister, demanded to know, at the time of the accident why a badly burned child had to wait 13 hours for an intensive care bed, and why Ciaran could only be accommodated in Edinburgh, 200 miles away from his home? Lord Fraser said, “I will be asking for a full report on this not only from the Chief Executive of the National Health Service but also from the Scottish Ambulance Service.”
His mother took Ciaran to an Inverness hospital, where it was decided he needed Burns Unit treatment. The nine-bed unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was full and an RAF rescue helicopter from Lossiemouth flew Ciaran to Yorkhill Hospital in Glasgow. The city was fogbound, so he was taken back to Inverness, where he spent another 90 minutes in the helicopter before a bed was found for him at Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children.
“The smell of lavender now evokes in Mandy overwhelming memories of burns”
An SNP spokesman, Dr. Iain Glen, said; “This is an indication of the potential difficulties that we are facing due to the loss of acute and long-term beds in the Health Service.”
It was pointed out by Ciaran’s parents that if he had not been wearing flame retardant pyjamas he probably would have lost his life during the fire. They feel this is fresh ammunition to be used in a campaign against the Government proposal to scrap safety standards. The Nightwear (Safety) Regulations, 1985, states that night garments for three months to 13 year-old-children must pass a British Standard flammability test. That law is among 700 which face change under a deregulation bill in an attempt to avoid excessive cost to industry.
Ciaran’s mother said: “The room was an inferno. I just can’t describe it. Ciaran’s face, hands and head were all badly burned, but his body is untouched. We are in no doubt his life was saved by his flame-resistant pyjamas.”
Nigel Griffiths, MP for Edinburgh South, said; “It’s vital that these regulations are maintained and extended through Europe. Dozens of children have been saved from injury and death since they were introduced. I shall be drawing this case to the attention of the President of the Board of Trade and urging him to protect the laws.”
Here is an update from Mandy in July 2014:
“I wanted to become a nurse after the wonderful , compassionate and understanding care that not only Ciaran received in Edinburgh, but me as his mother. Ciaran was in a coma for a week, during which time I remained by his side and never slept a wink. The nurses were kind and understanding, explaining everything to me, and allowing me to put the lavender on my son who lay there, swollen to three times his wee size and unrecognisable as my son. At the end of that week he was still alive, and they brought him round from his induced coma, which was traumatic as he became aware of the weird situation he was in. It was the first time I broke down crying and the nurses gave me a solid hug, and sent me to my bed as they said that Ciaran would need me more in the morning. I knew they were right and I slept like a dead person that night.
I knew that I had nothing to offer immediately after the fire, the trauma of being in hospital and the subsequent recovery and rehabilitation, including rebuilding of our home which took a further two years.
I moved to the island of Lewis in the outer Hebrides 11 years ago, in 2003. I realised that what I really wanted to do was become a nurse, to repay society for the gift of my son’s life and health and care. I began my degree studies in 2012, and have one year left to complete. I am loving every minute and I know that I have made the right decision. It is the job for me.”