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Childhood tragedy leads to a family's legacy of gratitude

Childhood tragedy leads to a family's legacy of gratitude

Kathy Piper Tharp will always remember March 31, 1956. That morning, 6-year-old Kathy tiptoed downstairs in her flannel nightgown while her mother, Kay, was upstairs with Kathy's 2-week-old sister, Lisa. Always curious, she couldn't resist the lure of the ornate silver lighter in the living room, which was off-limits to her. Kathy managed to spark the flame, and the lighter dropped onto her lap, igniting her nightgown. Kathy ran screaming to the bathroom to douse the flames, but they engulfed her. Her mother came running to help and severely burned her hands and arms as she tried to protect Kathy's face from the flames and extinguish the fire.

Neighbors quickly contacted the Piper family's pediatrician, Maurice Lonsway, MD, who personally drove Kathy and Kay to St. Louis Children's Hospital because he knew it was best equipped to deal with burns.

Kathy suffered second- and third-degree burns on 70% of her body and spent the next six months at St. Louis Children's. Meanwhile, her mother was recovering from her own burns.

"The nurses were so wonderful and gave me round-the-clock nursing care," Kathy recalled. "They were always smiling and encouraging me even during the most painful times. They gave my whole family so much personal attention."

Kathy's mom and grandmother also stayed by her side and set a strong example.

"One of my arms was so burned that some of the doctors wanted to amputate it from the elbow down, but my mom would not even consider it because she chose to believe they could make me well again," Kathy said.

Over the next seven years, Kathy had 30 skin grafts to repair the damage. Kathy credits her Washington University physician Minot Fryer, MD, for coming to her rescue. Dr. Fryer was a renowned plastic surgeon who was known for his expertise in reconstruction, especially for those who suffered from severe burns.

"He would never give up on me," she said. Because Kathy's mom protected her face while her nightgown was on fire, Kathy had no facial burns.

Sharing badges of courage

When Kathy was finally able to go home in September 1956, she started second grade right on track. "I was constantly encouraged by my mom and grandmother to not let my burns define who I was or who I would become," Kathy said.

As she grew up, she thrived and had many adventures. A few months after she was home from the hospital, Kathy met Elvis when he played in St. Louis. "As a 7-year-old, I remember feeling self-conscious about meeting him because I was missing my two front teeth, not because of my scars," Kathy recalled. "I was a huge Elvis fan and was jumping out of my seat at that concert!"

The brave, spunky girl later went to college, married and became a successful real estate agent. Her husband, Mike, calls her scars "badges of courage."

Kathy shares that courage with others and frequently counsels other burn survivors. "It helps them to know there's life beyond where they are at that moment," she says. "I want to give them the hope and encouragement I received."

Kathy has felt lifelong gratitude toward St. Louis Children's Hospital. "If the nurses and doctors at St. Louis Children's Hospital hadn't taken such good care of me, I wouldn't have had the life I've had," Kathy said. "I put the hospital in my will because I owe them my life. They were there for me, and they've been there for my family."

Learning from a history of strength

While Kathy's sister, Lisa Holley, was just a newborn when Kathy was burned, Lisa grew up admiring her big sister. "I remember Kathy went to her high school prom in a white, sleeveless dress with all her scars visible," Lisa said. "It's a testimony to her strength."

That strength and the lessons Lisa learned from her sister and mother became a lifeline when her daughter, Lara, was born 16 weeks premature in 1983 - 27 years after Kathy had been a patient at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

"When I had Lara, I finally understood all my mother really went through with Kathy," Lisa said. "My mom was at the hospital every day with Kathy, just as I was with Lara."

Lara was barely two pounds and just 14 inches long when she was born. She was immediately transported to the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Before the 1980s, many premature babies did not survive.

"Lara, my husband, David, and I overcame major hurdles because of the expertise of the doctors and nurses in the NICU at St. Louis Children's Hospital," Lisa said. "Lara was cared for by angels on earth. They were phenomenal and taught us so much. What impressed me the most was every nurse's ability to deal with the tiniest babies in medical crises while at the same time enlightening frightened parents of what was happening and calming them. It takes an exceptional person to do that. We're so blessed to have this NICU in our community."

After nearly three months at St. Louis Children's, Lara went home in August 1983.

"I was so worried about how she could be normal after all she went through," Lisa said. "But she went on to have scraped-up knees and lost her teeth just like every child. I cried every year on her birthday - it was always a special day. And it still is."

In 2018, Lisa and her mother, Kay, toured St. Louis Children's Hospital's NICU together. "I talked to other moms to give them hope," Lisa says. "Lara understands what the hospital means to all of us, too. For Mother's Day, she handwrote 50 notes to give to moms in the NICU."

Because of her gratitude for the hospital, Lisa volunteered at the hospital. She has served on the Friends board, chaired the annual Table Tops spring event and served on various committees.

"I feel like I can't give back enough to St. Louis Children's Hospital," she says.

Generous hearts run in the family

In addition to Kathy's legacy giving, Lisa and David established the Lara and Jay Holley Fund, an endowment named after their children, to benefit the NICU at St. Louis Children's.

Before Lisa and Kathy's mother, Kay, passed away in early 2019, she also created a legacy of giving. Her experiences with her daughters and granddaughter inspired her to volunteer at the hospital and to offer generous stock gifts in honor of her grandchildren.

"We miss our mom terribly," Lisa said. "She always told us, 'Be stout of heart, for this too shall pass.' She was right. Lara couldn't have received better care, so our story has a happy ending. My daughter was given a great chance at life and took it."

So did Kathy. She says, "If not for St. Louis Children's, neither one of us would be here. We are so grateful."