From the moment I met Dana Vulin six years ago, I was captivated by the magnetism of a human being who knows exactly who she is—blunt, generous, affectionate, and peppered with the filthiest sense of humor I had ever encountered. Of course, this was a time before Dana had faced events that would change her life forever. Here’s what I didn’t know then and what this interview will no doubt illustrate: Dana Vulin is the single most badass warrior of a human I have ever met.
Here’s the backstory. On February 2012, in the early hours of the morning, Dana was set on fire. Let’s let that sink in for a second. Dana was deliberately set on fire. Her attacker was a woman who held the delusion that Dana was having an affair with her estranged husband. Within moments of being doused with methylated spirits, Dana suffered deep tissue trauma to two-thirds of her body. As her attacker fled, Dana frantically tried to put out the flames before a neighbor came rushing to her assistance. He later recounted how she was still “smoldering” when he found her. Dana was rushed to hospital and placed in a medically induced coma for 10 days before waking to the horrific reality of an attack that has irrevocably changed the course of her life.
Last week, the woman who attacked Dana appealed her 17-year jail term, claiming that the injuries she inflicted warrant a shorter sentence. It’s unfortunate that Dana is not able to lodge her own appeal, since her scarring is a life sentence in itself. By stroke of coincidence, Dana and I had arranged an interview for this week, not to discuss the depravity of the attack and appeal case, but rather to explore views about her body.
As our FaceTime call connects and Dana’s face appears, I feel mine light up. Recognition is such a basic phenomenon of human interaction, but one that Dana (nor I) will never take for granted. “After the attack, I was almost unrecognizable as a human, let alone as Dana, but now, you look at me and I really look like me.” It’s true, since Dana’s physical identity was literally torched, rebuilding her face has been a major part of her treatment. “I call myself the modern day Frankenstein,” she offers. It’s a bluntly accurate description. A team of surgeons at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia have patched her chest with artificial skin and grafts from both legs, while her facial skin has been reconstructed using grafts from her shaved skull. “The only parts of my face where I have my original skin are the lines around my mouth and they’re the only parts that didn’t get burnt—I think that’s because I was screaming at the time.” Her tone of voice is remarkably matter-of-fact despite the obvious terror in this statement. Dana’s face was erased, but really she was robbed of so much more. “I didn’t just lose my looks that day, I lost my entire life, my functionality, my independence, my sexuality, every single thing that was a physical element of my identity.” Considering the weight of this loss, it’s easy to see that her recovery has presented a gruelling uphill battle.
“I slept on a crucifix in a mask, arm splint, wrist splint, elbow splint.” For nearly three years after the attack, Dana wore a mask and skin-tight pressure suit designed to control her scarring, which rendered her both unidentifiable and completely conspicuous at the same time. Reflecting on life in a burn suit, Dana jokes, “I fashion repeated for three years!” It is not an exaggeration to say that humor has been one of her core survival strategies. Dana still visits the hospital daily for physiotherapy and has a long-term calendar of surgeries ahead of her, but somehow manages to inject laughter into an otherwise grim daily routine. Over the past three years, I’ve watched her inject social conversations with jokes that make people chuckle, wince, and divert their eyes up and to the right wondering, “is it wrong that I just laughed at that?” I’ve also noticed that Dana’s banter of cringe-worthy humor fits within a mindset of gratitude, which enables her to retain a firm grip on her situation. “When I feel down I do sit with that, but I also try to think of my positives—I’m so grateful I still have two eyes and a nose and even though some people look at me with pity, I feel so privileged to be alive.”
Due to the nature of being doused in an accelerant, Dana’s most severely burnt area was her chest. About a year after the attack, she showed me these injuries. To be honest, nothing in the world could have prepared me for what I saw. I had anticipated some pretty gnarly scars, but what Dana showed me were the kind of gaping wounds that rip the air from your lungs and pierce your eyes with tears. It was and still is incomprehensible to me that one human being could do something so abominable to another person’s body. In reaction to the horror of what I saw, my eyes diverted to Dana’s face, where I was met by a look that I will never forget. That moment was a silent exchange between two friends, a pledge of what I can only describe as raw empathy. I asked Dana if she remembered that moment as clearly I did. “Looking in your eyes, I just wanted to be in the moment with you. I was giving you my eyes to say, ‘hey, I’m ok, this is fucked but let’s be ok together,’ I wanted to comfort you.”
So how on earth does somebody (somebody? anybody?) survive being transformed into a human fireball. Specifically I want to know what happens to a person’s sense of self when their body is incinerated. Dana is eager to speak to this point, explaining that her sense of identity is exactly what has enabled her to survive:
“My looks were important to me. But more importantly, I knew who I was in my heart and my head. That’s what soldiered me through. If I’d just relied on my looks, I would have lost my sense of self when my looks were destroyed. But I knew the woman I was and that’s what got me through this. Now I guess I’m as unique on the outside as I am on the inside.”
Amid being questioned about the blackest of circumstances, Dana’s drive is a force to be reckoned with. “I can’t kick up a fuss, I’d rather focus my energies on kicking my burns in the face.” From the moment I met Dana six years ago, I was captivated by the magnetism of a human being who knows exactly who she is—blunt, generous, affectionate, and peppered with the filthiest sense of humor I have ever encountered. I can assure you that Dana Vulin’s completely bewitching personality remains 100% unburnt. What a woman.
Feature image courtesy of blesk.cz