They were three little 17-month-old blondes — identical triplets cute as matching buttons, all nestling together in the same bed — when their house went up in flames. And for the next 20 years, as they grew into beautiful young women, they thought that they would have to live forever with the thick and disfiguring scars that covered their arms, backs, chests and faces.
Despite the dramatic advances in treatment for burn victims in recent years, there wasn’t much that could be done for the type of old scar tissue that Trae, Jordan and Chandra Berns were living with, NBC News’ chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Thursday in New York.
The Berns triplets, now 22 years old, sat on the couch between Snyderman and Lauer, eager to share how a new laser treatment has dramatically improved their appearance and given them hope that their scars can all but be erased.
“When you take scars that are 18 to 20 years old, it’s healed. They’re scarred, and these guys know how stiff and inflexible that tissue is,” Snyderman said.
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Now, three months after undergoing treatment with lasers that are normally used to treat severe acne scars, the triplets showed off faces and arms that are dramatically smoother and more uniform in color than the ridged and blotched skin they had lived with for almost their entire lives.
“With my scars, the coloring is definitely all uniform. The scars are so much smoother,” Jordan said, showing off a forearm that looked smooth and only slightly discolored. “It was a lot thicker, and now it’s just really smooth,” she added of her skin.
“My scars are a lot smoother and the texture is a lot better,” Trae agreed.
Video: Web only: Dr. Waibel explains the procedure Trae was the triplet who learned on the Internet of a pioneering treatment that Florida dermatologist Dr. Jill Waibel had adapted for treating burn victims, called an ultrapulse fractional ablative laser. She talked her sisters into joining her for a two-day drive from their Texas home to Waibel’s West Palm Beach clinic. When Waibel met the three young women, she and Lumenis, the manufacturer of the laser, agreed to treat them free of charge.
The treatment consists of two separate lasers. The first shoots tiny beams that penetrate less than a millimeter into the scar tissue, heating it to the boiling point and vaporizing it. The second laser flattens and evens out the texture and coloring of the remaining scar tissue. Treating all three women took an entire eight-hour day, and more treatments will follow.
The full benefit of the treatment will take six months to show, but after three months, Trae, Jordan and Chandra were ecstatic with the results, which were readily apparent when comparing their skin now to before pictures.
No matter how much people talk about how it’s what’s inside that counts, living with scars is not easy, Snyderman said.
“Emotionally, just knowing there’s a treatment that can change the look of our burns and hopefully heal them completely, that in itself is just an amazing feeling,” Jordan affirmed.
Emotional as well as physical
The scars from the fire are more than skin-deep. The current issue of Glamour magazine tells the full story of how the Berns triplets were just 17 months old when they were trapped in a fire in their Texas home. The blaze broke out around 6 p.m., and the girls were already sleeping in the crib they shared.
The little girls spent a long time in the hospital, unaware that their father, who battled drug addictions his entire adult life, had been charged with setting the blaze that disfigured them and killed their mother. He was acquitted in trial when his defense convinced the jury that any one of three other people seen near the house at the time of the blaze could have set it.
All of that was kept from the girls as they grew up living alternately with grandparents, their father and an aunt. Only when their father died of a drug overdose when they were 16 did they begin to learn the full story of what had happened to them.
“When we were growing up, we didn’t notice that we had burns. We were regular children. We went out. The people that we grew up with, all the children, they pretty much knew what happened, and everybody pretty much accepted it,” Chandra said.
Hope for others
It was only when they got to high school and met new people that they were made acutely aware of their disfigurement by other children who pointed at them and called them vicious names. Slideshow: Sisters through tragedy and triumph
They’re students at the University of Texas at San Antonio now, and Trae and Jordan plan to enter a master’s program in occupational therapy in the fall. Chandra will join them at UTSA and hopes to one day start a foundation for burn patients.
That’s why they’re going public with their story — to give hope to other burn victims.
“Just knowing there’s hope out there for other burn survivors to help their appearance, that’s just really good to know,” said Trae. What you are like inside is what’s important, she said, but that doesn’t mean what’s outside doesn’t count.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like,” Trae told Lauer. “But every person, if they have a flaw, they want to do something to try to fix that.”
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