When Amy Farnsworth-Stratton was about a year old, her mother put her in the bathtub and walked away.
She’s still not sure whether her mother forgot to check the water temperature or if she, as a baby, turned on the faucet. Farnsworth-Stratton’s dad found her, when he came home, still sitting in the scalding water, her legs covered in third-degree burns. Her mother hadn’t heard her screaming.
“That incident, in a few minutes, changed my life,” Farnsworth-Stratton said, “changed my family’s life forever.”
Now, Farnsworth-Stratton, who said scars cover about half her body, is taking a stand in hopes of preventing others from going through what she did. After years of insecurity about her appearance, she has been selected as Mrs. Utah International 2014 and will represent the state in the national competition in Florida in July.
Farnsworth-Stratton, who owns a tutoring company, has never participated in a pageant before. But, in July, she’ll don an evening gown, model fitness wear and answer questions along with about 70 other contestants. Utah didn’t have a competition, but accepted applications and she was selected.
“I thought how ironic would that be if someone like me,” she said, “who all their lives has felt ugly ... how ironic would that be if I was able to become a beauty queen and then could use that title for something good.”
Farnsworth-Stratton hopes to use the pageant — which is for married women ages 21 to 56 — as a way to raise awareness about and help support burn survivors.
She wants to show other survivors they’re not alone — something that took her a long time to understand.
Farnsworth-Stratton, who grew up in Texas and now lives in Vernal, didn’t meet another burn survivor until she was an adult.
As a child, she thought she was the only person with scars covering her body. She dreaded being in a bathing suit. Other kids asked her if she was contagious. They called her lizard legs.
Her mother left the family when Farnsworth-Stratton was about 3 years old, and her father found it too painful to talk about.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to relate to.”
She wants other burn survivors to know they don’t have to go through that.
That’s why the 41-year-old mother of three on Monday visited the University of Utah’s Burn Center — the only one in the Intermountain West.
She met with Brad Wiggins, who works as nurse manager at the center and runs its camps for child and adult burn survivors, to learn how to help support the programs.
Farnsworth-Stratton spent about a year undergoing outpatient treatment for new skin grafts at the center three years ago, driving to Salt Lake City from Vernal several times a week at one point. She felt lucky she didn’t have to drive farther, as many of the center’s patients must.
Monday was her first visit back to the center since it was recently rebuilt. The center doubled in size, increasing its number of beds from 12 to 15 and improving patient rooms, giving them more space and comfort.
Lisa McMurtrey, a staff nurse who showed Farnsworth-Stratton the updated center, said the old rooms were generally too small for family members to stay with patients. It was a problem, considering burn patients typically stay at the center about a day for every percent of their bodies that are burned. That can mean months-long stays in some cases.
“This is absolutely a life-changing experience for them that’s going to go on,” McMurtrey said. “This isn’t just like having your appendix out. It’s much bigger than that.”
Wiggins said it’s helpful when burn survivors such as Farnsworth-Stratton speak out.
He noted that burn survivors aren’t always portrayed in the best light, with characters such as horror movie character Freddy Krueger coming to mind.
“Society has made burn survivors ... seem a little awkward and out there,” Wiggins said. “Burn survivors showing the world their ability to succeed is a really important thing. ... Other survivors need that.”
Farnsworth-Stratton also wants to spread a wider message, to burn survivors and others, about the value of inner beauty over physical appearance.
It’s not the type of message some would expect at a beauty pageant. But Farnsworth-Stratton isn’t a typical beauty pageant contestant.
“We all have things about us that are beautiful,” she said, “and it’s who we are and what we do with our lives that make us beautiful.”