Like any other millennial-slash-Generation Z individual these days, I was scrolling through TikTok in the wee hours of the morning, fingers on automatic, swiping up through a mind-numbing combination of comedy skits, relationship advice and life hacks.
That was until the platform’s algorithm fed me with a viral video that had garnered a whopping 12 million views and nearly three million likes.
It was a montage showing a young woman’s struggle with what appeared to be burns on her face, interspersed with clips of her working out at the gym. The individual clips were clearly shot at various points in time throughout her recovery, and the video ends off with her confidently smiling at the camera.
I noticed that the hashtags on the video read #burnsurvivor and #tiktoksg and was jolted out of my daze — considering the rarity for videos featuring people from our little red dot to blow up on an international platform, this was a big deal.
Realising that she was likely a Singaporean, I tabbed through her videos — most of which documented her process of recovery — and marvelled at the tenacity and confidence she displayed.
I was determined to find out more about her story.
Pot of oil exploded on her face
When Charlene Chew first walks in, the healing scars on her face are barely noticeable from afar.
Only up close, does one notice the irregular skin that spreads across her forehead, nose and cheeks.
Despite appearing bubbly and friendly, the 23-year-old remains nervous in front of the camera and bright lights — a slight contrast from the self-assured woman talking straight to the camera on TikTok.
At our behest, Chew soon lapses into a slow and measured recount of the life-altering event that took place in October last year.
While deep frying donuts at her Melbourne home, her then-boyfriend forgot to turn off the stove, and the pot of oil was thus left boiling on the stovetop (for the length of a Netflix episode, she said).
Chew was completely unaware of the impending mishap until the house started to fill up with smoke.
Rushing over to the kitchen, she removed the pot of oil from the stove, placed it in the sink, and unthinkingly, turned on the faucet — “And yeah, oil and water don’t go together,” Chew said.
Recalling that particular moment when the oil exploded onto her face and parts of her neck and shoulder, she said the pain was “indescribable”.
“It was really, really excruciating and I also didn’t know how to react, so I just crouched down on the floor… I don’t know what I was doing, I was just screaming. I wasn’t sure of the extent of the injury but I was in a world of pain.”
A full face of bandages and multiple surgeries
Chew was rushed to the hospital but as the accident occurred in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, she wasn’t attended to immediately due to the influx of patients.
Her ordeal was thus extended for an inordinate amount of time — she had to wait in the waiting area for two to three hours for an available room, and several more hours before seeing a doctor.
The first week of Chew’s hospitalisation went by in a drug-induced haze. She had to undergo a few surgeries to remove the dead skin, graft on the donor skin and wait for the new skin to spontaneously heal. When it didn’t, she had to go under the knife once more.
In total, Chew spent three weeks in the hospital before being discharged, and had bandages wrapped around her face for at least a month.
Chew also had half of her hair shaved on the right side of her scalp so the new skin there could be grafted onto her face.
Even after being discharged, she was attended to by a nurse that would visit her everyday at her home. This was followed by a litany of follow-up procedures Chew would have to go through such as daily injections to prevent blood clots, as well as scrubbing her raw, burnt lips.
Not recognising herself in the mirror
Like many survivors of traumatic incidents, Chew remained in denial for a period of time after.
“I refused to accept that my burns were that serious, and I was in a lot of trauma and confusion, and just brain fog, all the time, and in a lot of pain.
I didn’t really feel anything, because I felt like this wasn’t me, this isn’t real. My brain just went into denial mode.”
The true reality of the situation, that her life had been thoroughly and irreversibly altered, only sunk in when she went for a check-up following the accident.
Seated in front of the gathered panel of medical specialists including a speech pathologist, orthodontist, occupational therapist and surgeons, she was informed that the third-degree burns were so severe her nerves were nearly seared off.
“Me and my mum just sat there speechless, because it was just something that was really hard to hear. And it was like, my face.”
Our faces are intrinsically tied to our identity and self-image, and often, first impressions are based off faces alone.
One can thus imagine the distress Chew experienced when her face was drastically and irrevocably altered.
“I felt like I had my identity stripped off, you know, it was my face, I would look in the mirror and I would not understand what happened, I would not recognise myself.”
Simply leaving the house and having to face strangers was a huge hurdle that would occasionally reduce her to tears:
“I would cry in a corner, then go do my workout [at the gym], and then go home and cry again.”
Throughout the interview, Chew repeats the phrase: “It’s my face” — almost as if she still remains in disbelief as to the extent of her injuries.
Leaving Melbourne was her “darkest episode”
The accident not only resulted in changes to Chew’s physical appearance, but it also led to a chain of life-changing events.
Chew’s then-boyfriend broke up with her soon after the accident and left the house they shared.
She explains that prior to that, their relationship was already rocky and had some “deep-seated issues”. However, that accident was the last straw.
Alone in Melbourne without anyone to care for her during such a period of vulnerability, Chew made the heavy decision to return to Singapore, where her family lives.
“I have friends [in Melbourne] but you don’t expect friends to go to medical appointments with you especially when you have to go three times a week.”
This decision did not come easy as Chew also had to find doctors in Singapore for her to continue her medical appointments and rehabilitation.
Furthermore, Chew had previously been living in Melbourne for over six years for pre-university, her bachelor’s degree, a gap year in between and subsequently her master’s degree. Leaving her life in Down Under was her “darkest episode”.
On the day she would finally leave her Melbourne home, she recalls sweeping all her makeup and hair products into the trash, thinking that she wouldn’t be able to use it anymore with her injuries.
Upon closing the door to her home for the last time, Chew recognised the note of finality and the weight behind this small action.
“I was like, that’s it. I’m leaving the relationship, I’m leaving my home, I’m leaving the country, I’m leaving my friends, I’m leaving everything I knew.
That was the deepest grief I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Road to recovery
Having been dealt blow after blow, Chew’s mental health took a hit as well.
“I think when the accident happened, yes, it was devastating, and the break-up was even more devastating, and everything sort of happened at the same time.
I would have episodes where I would go completely insane and start yelling. And I kind of shocked myself as well.”
The helplessness and fear she experienced also manifested in restless sleep and bouts of nightmares, where she would toss and turn and dream that someone was strangling her.
Prior to the accident, Chew had been going for therapy for mental health conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety. She shared that she had never taken her therapist’s advice seriously until the accident.
Now, Chew is putting to use the tips that her therapist previously taught her, and copes with the accident and her injuries through meditation and journaling.
Fitness has also been an indispensable part in her road to recovery.
Chew was a fitness junkie even before the accident, and regularly participated in sea sports such as kitesurfing.
Unfortunately, she isn’t able to do much outdoor activities in her current condition — being exposed to the sun affects the skin grafts on her face and she has been advised not to participate in too strenuous exercise as it affects her sweat glands.
“So that was really hard to deal with and is still very hard to deal with,” Chew admitted. “There are certain limitations [to the things I can do], for instance, if my friends want to go wakeboarding at 2pm, I can’t, because the sun’s just way too strong.”
This hasn’t stopped Chew from attempting to regain some sense of normalcy by hitting the gym though, and she documents her workouts and gains on her TikTok.
Scars will remain for life
One upside is that the accident has, in a way, strengthened Chew’s relationships with her friends and family.
She reflects that she has started opening up to them more, and made a conscious effort to have more honest conversations with them.
“Naturally when you talk about burns, you talk about how you feel, and from then on, I guess it started to open up more opportunities to speak to people who are close to me about their feelings too.”
Despite the slow and steady progress Chew has made over the past six months, she remains slightly uncertain about her eventual recovery, as burns are very “dynamic”.
And perhaps in what might have been a blow to her confidence, the scars on her face will remain there for life, a perpetual reminder of the accident.
Haltingly, she adds that she can deal with “light scars”, but she is still currently very early on in her recovery. After all, her skin grafts can take at least two years to heal fully.
“I know that this is not the final product, and so I cling on to the hope that I’m gonna get better.”
Hoping to help others who are in similar situations with her Tiktok videos
Now, one of the pursuits Chew is occupying herself with is educating people on her social media platforms, especially TikTok.
She lights up when she mentions the friends she has made on it, describing it as a “big blessing”, as it helped cement her sense of belonging in a country she spent six years away from.
What started off as a whim and, in her words, badly-edited videos based off her friends’ encouragement, has since evolved into a 165,000 following.
While the fame stumped Chew initially, and it still does, she has since gracefully embraced this newfound support on TikTok, and has decided to use it for good.
“Burns are more common than we think,” Chew says, and even though being in front of the camera with thousands of eyes on her virtually puts her in a vulnerable position, she shares that she’s willing to do so to help others in similar situations.
One could almost say that Chew lost her identity in more ways than one. But six months on, Chew has managed to find some form of closure to her accident:
“Change, whether good or bad, is really the only constant in life. You have the power to choose how you react, [and] I think in life you can either be a victim of your own circumstances or be the author of your life.
Yes, it did [affect my confidence and mental health], and yes, I suffered a huge loss of my identity and still struggle with it now, but I’m actively working on it every single day, chipping away at it.
Things never get easier, you just get a little bit tougher every time.”
One of Chew’s latest videos on TikTok is of her intimately smiling at the camera with a mug of tea and doling out advice to viewers.
As the camera zooms in her face, she enunciates clearly, perhaps as a reminder to her audience, and more importantly, herself:
“You are doing fantastic.”
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top photo courtesy of Charlene Chew