July 23, 2018.
Almost five years ago to the day, my life changed dramatically.
There’s little escape from sadness this month, not least because I have to relive two painful events, beginning with my wedding anniversary on July 19, followed with agonising speed by the memory of my husband’s death four days later in wildfires that swept Greece.
This year it has felt like an action replay, as I watch the destruction of that stunning country once more on the nightly news.
The wildfires are back, raging with terrifying determination and all I can do is pray that this time around the toll of casualties will be far less than it was five years ago.
It is for that very reason I would hope people would apply serious caution before deciding to visit Rhodes this month, and to reconsider their travel plans to any fire-torn regions in case they risk the kind of tragedy that befell me.
I can’t help but see many similarities between what’s happening in certain parts of Greece and the wildfires that ravaged the seaside town of Mati, Athens, in 2018.
Devastatingly, 104 people were killed that day and of those victims, one was my own beautiful husband Brian O’Callaghan Westropp.
Brian died right before my eyes just four days after we married.
Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine that our honeymoon, let alone our life together would end so abruptly.
Brian was a hero to his dying breath, carrying several children in his arms to safety, which makes the fact that he was stolen from this world so suddenly all the more unfair.
Of course unfair wouldn’t be my first choice of words, but I’m trying to swear less these days.
Evidently, I made it through the inferno, having been rescued from a burning car by a volunteer just seconds from death. My saviour’s name is Manos Tsaliagos, he risked his own life to save mine and for that act of incredible chivalry I’m eternally grateful.
As fires rage again today, I want those considering travel to Greece to think about people like Manos, risking their lives day after day battling the flames.
Think about the two heroic pilots who lost their lives earlier this week when their fire-fighting plane crashed on Evia.
Even though I survived Mati, I didn’t escape unscathed, suffering severe burns all over my face, chest, arms, hands and legs and my left hand was so badly burned it was damaged beyond all recognition.
Fortunately, I had two phenomenal surgeons, who not only rebuilt me limb from limb, but also gifted me with a marvellously functioning new hand.
My torment doesn’t end there – my father Colm passed just three weeks after Brian died, from a massive heart attack.
I couldn’t even attend his funeral because I was still fighting for survival in intensive care.
Soon after, it was discovered I’d contracted a very rare form of sepsis, known as Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis.
Having presented with multiple organ failure, I was urgently placed in an induced coma, and hooked up to life support, dialysis and a tracheostomy to help me breathe.
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Miraculously I beat the odds, but when I woke from my slumber weeks later, I found I’d inherited a plethora of new health complications in addition to my burns and my overwhelming grief at losing my beloved husband.
It was then, over the next few months I began the arduous process of learning how to walk, talk, eat and use my hands again.
The grafting, using my own skin and tissue to recreate my arms, hand and legs was agonising and the never-ending physio and therapy appointments were exhausting.
This, combined with losing all my hair from sepsis made me feel like a giant adult baby who had to learn all her life skills from scratch.
Then there was the devastating grieving process to contend with – there are no words to adequately describe the heartbreak of losing my soulmate and father virtually in one breath.
I don’t relay this here for sympathy or social media attention, but as wildfires rage again in Greece, this is a warning to those who are not taking the impending danger seriously.
I’m astonished to observe those still determined to travel to Rhodes, Evia and other fire-torn destinations, seemingly without so much as a second thought for their safety.
Take it from one who knows best on this subject, if you’re lucky enough to survive a tragedy such as I’ve done, there can still be a huge personal cost.
The last five years have been a non-stop rollercoaster of surgeries and as for the despair that comes with bereavement, well, that’s another story for another day.
So please, spare a thought for the unfortunate Greek people, whose homes and livelihoods are being devastated by this disaster, and if you are seriously thinking about going on holiday to these regions, apply caution.
Maybe when you put these things into perspective and consider my story of loss and life-changing injury, missing out on a holiday for a week or two doesn’t seem like such a disaster after all.
You can find out more about Zoe’s book, As The Smoke Clears here
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