BOSTON — Last November 4, Melissa Pigue woke about 5 a.m. to a jolt in her Nantucket home.
“I thought I was dreaming, obviously, when you’re in a dead sleep,” she said. “And then my bed, I can’t be sure whether it dropped down a foot or bounced up. But I felt the bed move, like significantly.”
Next, Pigue heard a hissing sound.
“And I felt extreme heat and pain like in my hair and on my arms,” she said. “So I started screaming and batting at my head and my arms. I was in a dead sleep and I had no idea what was going on.”
What had gone on in the moments before Pigue awoke was an explosion at 39 Surfside Rd., the source of which is still under investigation. And what was about to take place was a mad dash to escape from a house about to go up like a blowtorch.
Pigue left her bedroom to find an exit on the first floor.
“It was dark. But the smoke alarm was going off, which was causing flashing. There was smoke everywhere,” she remembered.
The front door was inaccessible because part of the roof had collapsed into the stairwell. She thought about climbing over the roof and exiting out a back door but then saw that was impossible.
“It was just flames. I couldn’t get out,” she said.
Pigue ran back up the stairs, first to a bathroom then back to her bedroom.
“There was so much black smoke I could barely breathe, and I just remember thinking to myself, ‘if you don’t get out of here now you’re going to pass out,’” she said. “So I ran over to the window and threw the window open and just took a deep breath.”
At that point Pigue saw a tenant who lived in another, undamaged part of the house. “I was like, ‘I’m trapped up here.’ He’s like, ‘you’re going to have to jump.’”
And that is what Pigue did.
“I pushed the screen out, walked out onto the roof,” she said. “I just remember thinking I’m going to hurt my ankles really bad. So I rolled into the tightest ball I could. Then I grabbed my knees and tucked my head and just rolled off.”
She landed on a deck below on her right side.
“I didn’t break anything,” Pigue said. “No one could believe that.”
However, Pigue was plenty injured. Something that didn’t become apparent until after she and her tenant ran across the street and watched fire consume the rest of the house.
“There was like flames coming out of every window. I mean it went up quick,” Pigue said. “I just remember sitting down, looking at the house, going, ‘Oh my God, that’s everything I own.’”
To this point, Pigue said she was running on adrenaline. With EMTs on the scene, pain receptors finally kicked in.
“And then it just hit me so hard,” Pigue said. “I looked back at my hand and I remember saying to him, ‘if you don’t give me something for the pain, I’m going to pass out.’ Like I started to get that really lightheaded feeling.”
Pigue was horrified by the condition of her badly burned right hand because she’s a hairstylist and make-up artist who opened a shop on Nantucket in 2017. She wound up airlifted to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Burn Center where she would spend several weeks for treatment of second- and third-degree burns on various parts of her body.
“It’s one of the most painful injuries possible,” said Burn Center Director Dr. Anupama Mehta. “And I don’t think anyone’s ever prepared for it.”
Pigue’s injuries required multiple interventions, none of which could be regarded as even remotely pleasant.
“She had an inhalational injury, which is when the smoke and soot from the fire in a house affects your pulmonary system, [so] she was intubated,” Dr. Mehta said.
Once she was able to breathe on her own, Pigue needed surgery that involved harvesting uninjured skin and grafting it to burned areas.
“There’s blood loss, she needs blood transfusions, and then her skin grafts need to heal. It took several weeks,” Dr. Mehta said.
Dr. Mehta added that burn patients are also not prepared for the length of time they wind up spending as in-patients, and she admits the whole process can be very trying for patients, especially given the nature of their injuries, which can sometimes be horrific.
Melissa Pigue, however, stood out for her determination to get better and get back to living.
“She was remarkable,” Dr. Mehta said. “She was strong, she was motivated, she was practical. She had a great spirit, and I think that’s one of the reasons we remember her so well and so fondly.”
Dr. Mehta said patients with high motivation tend to have better outcomes and they also tend to lift the spirits of the staff.
Pigue had many reasons for wanting to get better fast. Chief among them, her business.
“I don’t come from money. So I worked really hard to start and build my business,” Pigue said. “And it’s still a really small, modest business.”
Like every small business, Pigue’s had already taken one 2020 hit from the pandemic.
“I just in my mind was like, ‘you have to, you can’t lay here and let this take you. You’ve worked too hard on making a life for yourself out there,’” she said.
Pigue said if therapists told her to do two exercise sessions a day, she would do four. She increased the amount of protein in her diet to help the skin grafts heal. And though it wasn’t always easy, she stayed optimistic.
“When you get a graft it’s very tight at first and you basically have to work it,” she said. “I can’t make a normal fist, but I can get pretty close, close enough to be able to do my job. It takes a long time. You work it all day then you wake up the next morning and feel like you’re starting from scratch.”
Pigue is continuing her recovery in Florida at her mother’s house. But, next month, she plans to return to Nantucket to begin what will amount to further therapy by cutting hair again part-time. She credits family, friends and the Nantucket community for getting her through the past several months, as well as the staff at the Brigham Burn Center.
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