Facing the Pain

Four years ago, therapist Marjorie Kreppel suffered serious burns over 20 percent of her body. As part of her recovery, she started sharing her story.

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Photo by Lisa Helfert.

 

Marjorie Kreppel saw the flame jump onto her right arm before she felt it. The pot she was holding crashed to the kitchen floor. She ran out the nearby sliding glass door and dropped onto the snow-covered deck. She remembered to roll—stop, drop and roll—but every time she did, she’d see fire somewhere else on her body. Her arm, then her leg. She kept rolling.

That night, Kreppel had been in the dining room of her Potomac townhouse framing the diploma, license and certificates she’d received for her training and work in mental health counseling. After two decades in the food marketing business, she’d gone back to school part time at age 45 to become a therapist. It was Jan. 21, 2015, and she’d opened her own practice in Bethesda about a week earlier. The mother of three felt a surge of positive energy as she puttered around. Years of sacrifice had gone into this career move. She felt poised to take off. She’d hang the framed credentials above her desk and scatter a few scented candles around the office. Not just any candles, but a specific fragrance she loved. The candle she wanted had been discontinued, but she had an old one that she could melt and disperse into pretty glass containers. She tossed that one into a pot on her electric stove, set the heat on low, and turned her attention to the framing project.

About 10 minutes later, the smoke alarm went off. Kreppel ran back to the kitchen and saw the pot engulfed in flames. She slammed a sheet pan on top of it, but the flames shot out around the edges. She shoved her hands into a pair of oven mitts and carried the pot to the sink. The flames leaped higher. “I was thinking my house was going to burn down,” she says. “I just wanted to carry the pot outside.” She was moving toward the sliding glass door when she saw fire on her sleeve.

Kreppel does not know what sounds came out of her mouth that night as she rolled in the snow—screams, moans, words, full sentences, maybe nothing at all. But she’ll never forget the voices in her head. Oh my God, what have I done to my children? It’s over. I don’t want it to be over. For a moment, she felt peace, a sense of surrender. But the self-talk returned. What have I done to my children?

Then somehow, the flames vanished. The rolling stopped. Kreppel picked herself up and went back into the kitchen, her body wracked with pain. She saw her 17-year-old daughter, Jennie, standing somewhere between her and the front door talking on her cellphone. That’s when the voices started again: What had her daughter seen?

 

Nearly four years after the accident, Kreppel, 52, is sitting at a round glass table in her kitchen, wearing jeans, a navy blazer and a striped top. Her golden retriever, Riley, saunters in and out. She’s “living life again,” as she puts it. This past summer she spent time with her kids on the boat she keeps in Woodbridge, Virginia, pulling them through the water on skis and inner tubes. For a year after the accident, Kreppel couldn’t stay in the sun.

 

Kreppel with her kids—from left, Andrew, Jennie and Michael—and the family’s golden retriever, Riley. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

 

She’s been traveling a lot—“glamping” with friends in Ithaca, New York, and vacationing in the Baltic region last June. She skis in the winter, another passion she shares with her kids, and goes running. There are no obvious traces of that harrowing January night in her house or on her face. Before she was released from the hospital, a friend replaced the burned chairs around her kitchen table so Kreppel wouldn’t have to see them. The only small reminder of the accident is a scuffed area on the wooden floor where the pot landed. The mark used to be a solid black circle before Kreppel refinished the floor. Looking at it sometimes makes her wonder: What if I’d just left the pot in the sink that night?

The what-ifs still swirl around in Kreppel’s head: What if she’d known where her fire extinguisher was—and how to use it? (She now has one on every level of her home.) What if the fire had happened in her old house, where the nearest exit led to a porch with an awning that would have kept the ground clear of snow? What if she’d just focused on one thing at a time?

“I feel like it’s my fault because I was multitasking,” Kreppel says. “I feel I was being so self-absorbed, framing my certificates and an award I’d received. It felt like it was all about me, an ego thing. Why was I even doing that?”

Kreppel suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of her body—on both of her arms, her abdomen and right hip, and some of her lower right leg. She had a few small patches on her upper left leg, and superficial to moderate second-degree burns on her face and neck. But she and her daughter didn’t know any of that as they waited for the ambulance that night.

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