Burn survivor faces her fears as WMU flame twirler
Kalamazoo — Brianna Bolinger gracefully weaved her way through the Bronco Marching Band on a recent Tuesday, part of her choreography for a halftime performance.
As the “Game of Thrones” theme blared all around her, the Western Michigan University senior bounded toward the sideline, where her coach and mentor, Kyle Keiser, stood holding her flaming baton.
Bolinger, synchronized with fellow feature twirler Troy Kraly, smiled and danced as she spun, twirled, threw and caught the fiery baton with ease. Then, she added two more in a skillful and dramatic display of juggling skill and then triumphantly raised the flames above her head.
“It makes me feel like I have control of what tried to take control of me,” she told the Battle Creek Enquirer.
Bolinger is a burn survivor. A welding accident on her family’s farm in Indiana in 2001 left her with third-degree burns over most of her body.
However, the 22-year-old is much more than that. She refuses to be defined by her scars and says she found herself through the unique sport of twirling.
As she nears the end of that chapter of her life, she is focused on helping survivors like herself.
“Growing up … I never saw a burn survivor in the public eye,” she said. “So for me being a kid, everyone has their hero, and everyone told me I was their hero, and I didn’t really have one. In high school, I made the decision to step up and share my story. There is some other person who has scars or went through something like I did, they can take something from my story and realize they can do it to.
“At this point, it’s not about me anymore.”
It was August 6, 2001, and Mick Bolinger was working inside the welding shop at the 160-acre family-owned dairy farm in Markle, Indiana, southwest of Fort Wayne.
Brianna, who was 3 at the time, had tagged along with her older brother, Briar. The pair stood about 15 feet away from Mick as he used a torch to cut open an old oil drum, intending to turn it into a water source for the cattle. A drought had dried up the creek in the pasture.
Mick didn’t realize there were still gas fumes inside the drum. When began to cut it with the torch, it exploded in the direction of his children.
“(Briar) was 6 and knew to run. I did not, so I got stuck inside the fire,” Brianna said. “I was stuck inside, (my dad) was the one that went in and put the flames out of my body. At that point, it was almost too late. I ended up having third-degree burns on 60% of my body.”
Mindy Bollinger, Brianna’s mother, was milking cows in a barn at the time.
“My ex-husband brought her to the door of the milk barn with her skin just hanging there,” Mindy said. “What I thought at the time, she reminded me of the movie about the Chucky doll. She reminded me of him.”
Mindy put Brianna in a lukewarm bath as they waited to be airlifted to St. Joseph Regional Burn Center in Fort Wayne.
“I think that once your body goes through that, your body is in shock. She was kind of numb at the time from it all,” Mindy recalled. “The only thing she wanted in that bathtub was her blanky.”
Brianna spent a month and a half as a hospital inpatient. She would go on to have 30 surgeries, including the amputation of 3 / 4of her right ear as well as her right pinkie finger.
“I have a few memories of what life was like before…Then all I remember is my life as a burn survivor,” she said. “Whereas you might have somebody who was injured when they were older, where they have a before and after, and that’s why their recovery is a lot harder as a burn survivor, because they know a life that was different and they know a body that looked different than what they have now. For me, it was all I knew.”
Doctors encouraged Brianna to take up an activity that would help stretch her fingers and improve her dexterity and flexibility.
So Mindy, a former twirler herself, asked her then 4-year-old daughter to pick up the baton.
“Stuck her in baton twirling lessons. She hated ‘em,” Mindy said with a laugh. “When we stuck her in private lessons, she took off.”
As Brianna’s skills progressed, her confidence grew. And she delighted in taking ownership of her story.
“When I walked in a competition with my hair back and my scars and my ear exposed, all I had to do was start twirling,” she said. “And the looks I got from a pity standpoint - ‘Oh my gosh what happened to her?’ changed to, ‘Oh my gosh, you are so talented, I want you to twirl more.’ So I think I clung onto that. And it was a way for me to share my story without having to say, ‘Hi, I’m Bri. I’m a burn survivor.’ I could go, ‘Hi, I’m Bri. I’m a twirler.”
Brianna thrived at local and state level competitions. The next step in her twirling evolution came at age 9, when she began taking private lessons in Kalamazoo from Keiser, a World Baton Twirling Federation coach.
With Keiser’s help, Brianna became a four-time national champion with the United States Twirling Association.
“One step at a time, we’ve gone a long road together,” Keiser said. “Who she is as a 22-year-old has been a really fun metamorphosis to watch.
“Had the accident not happened, would she still be the same person? I think inherently those traits are in people. But I think conditions bring out the best or the worst in us. I think everything that she has brought to who she is has made this phenomenal person.”
When Brianna was in high school, she was looking for a college that would help showcase her unique twirling ability. She says she was particularly interested in schools that allowed fire twirling, since it is “an entirely different standard.”
Keiser is the twirling coordinator at WMU, which certainly factored into Brianna ending up in Kalamazoo. But it was the Bronson School of Nursing at WMU that attracted her most.
Through the program, Brianna now spends three days a week at Bronson Methodist Hospital, including an externship at the trauma unit. Set to graduate in April of 2020, she hopes to enter the medical field as a burn care nurse.
“I was involved in the hospital setting a lot growing up. I really looked at the nurses who took care of me, and they were the first point of contact I had that never made me feel like a victim or that I should be ashamed of who I was,” Brianna said. “And I realized that they were the ones that were truly the first imprint on me about having a positive outlook on life. And I wanted to be able to do that with other people.”
Brianna has also become a vocal advocate for the term “survivor” over the use of “victim.”
“My scars are a part of me, but it doesn’t define who I am, and neither should the term victim or survivor,” she said. “But one way is definitely better than the other.”
As part of her advocacy, she has delivered speeches to groups and served as a peer mentor for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. In October, she traveled to the 2019 World Burn Congress in Anaheim, California, where she developed a young adult workshop for burn survivors for therapeutic programming and support groups.