Kevin Cook was a successful heavy equipment engineer when a welding accident left his face and most of his body severely burned. First he lost the way he had always looked, then his profession and before long, his marriage.
"The burns and the injuries magnified issues that were already there," said Cook, now 38, of Vallejo, Calif.
Relationships often crumble under the painful reality of recovering from catastrophic burn injuries. Cook was lucky. After his marriage failed, he cautiously stepped back into the dating world, scars and all, and found a new love in fellow burn survivor Jill Sproul.
The recently married couple were among those who attended this year's World Burn Congress and shared strategies for building strong relationships after burn injuries. The four-day event, which wrapped up Saturday at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, was organized by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The annual conference draws hundreds of burn victims from around the world. They learn about the latest medical treatments and cosmetic advances, and counsel one another on ways of coping with the pain, isolation and depression that often accompany burn injuries.
In addition to building relationships, seminar topics this year included the healing power of pets and navigating the legal system after a major burn accident.
For many, the annual gathering has become a place to reunite with old friends, meet new ones and draw inspiration from one another.
"People come up and give you hugs and share their stories," said Dmitrius Dantinne, 28, who was attending his first conference. "You see past the injuries."
Dantinne, a U.S. Capitol Police mounted officer, suffered burns over 35 percent of his body when the fuel from a tiki torch spilled on him and ignited during a July 2004 swim-club fundraiser.
Despite enduring more than a half-dozen surgeries, Dantinne felt fortunate. He was in a committed relationship with Andrea Miller, who patiently helped him through months of recovery, changing his wound dressings, helping him to shower and even to use the bathroom.
"His skin was so tender," Miller said Saturday. "I was afraid to touch him."
That fear of touch, along with the physical injuries themselves, can often lead to intimacy problems for couples dealing with burn recovery.
"I think a huge part of it is communication," said Bernadette Martinez-Wright, a social worker who counsels young burn victims and whose husband is a burn survivor. The couple frequently give seminars on intimacy and relationship issues that come after burn injuries.
"It's an adjustment to this new reality that, depending on the severity of the injury, can involve skin sensitivity, loss of mobility, a different kind of touching, and you have to be able to communicate your needs to your partner."
A burn victim can also put up a wall, fearful that no one -- not even a spouse -- will look past the scars, Martinez-Wright said. She counsels her young clients to believe in the possibility that they will find love and to have confidence in themselves and others.
In 1997, Cook suffered burns over 85 percent of his body, including his face, hands and legs, when diesel fuel spilled on him and ignited during a welding job. After three months of painful recovery in the hospital, he returned home, where he and his wife began growing apart. He decided he didn't want his two young children to grow up around parents who "basically didn't like each other."
His first conference in 1999 opened a new world to him, he said. "It was the first time being in a public setting since my accident that I truly forgot about my appearance and existence as a burn survivor," he said.
It was also where he met Sproul, who manages a burn center in San Jose. She had suffered burns over 60 percent of her body, including her face, in a campfire accident when she was 7.
The two became devoted friends until a friend nudged them to date. The couple eventually married and have a 22-month-old son.
"He was just so quietly confident," Sproul said. "Even though he was 85 percent burned, I didn't see the scars."