When April Charlesworth went to her local pub last year to mark her 28th birthday, it should have been a night of celebration. It was her first outing since the start of lockdown, and she was excited to have fun with her friends. But after a bottle of ethanol was poured onto a portable heater in the pub garden, causing it to explode and cover April and her cousin Ashleigh in fuel, the partying quickly turned into a nightmare. The two women suffered third- degree burns to their faces, chest, arms and hands, as well as permanent scarring.
Sixteen months on a there is still an ongoing investigation into the incident, and they are still recovering. April, 29, who lives in Sudbury, Suffolk, says, “This has been the hardest year of my life. Some days, I can’t get out of bed and just cry. I’m still in pain and the emotional toll has been far worse than my physical injuries.
“But my eight-year-old son, Franklin, has been my source of strength, and he’s given me the fight to keep recovering. Now I want to inspire other burns survivors.”
On 24 April 2021, she and her friends were celebrating at the pub, but a couple of hours in, they noticed a man messing around with an outdoor heater next to them.
April recalls, “It all happened so quickly. One minute we were sitting there chatting away, and the next we heard a loud bang when the heater exploded. The pain was instant. My partner Mark threw his drink over me to put out the fire then rushed me to the bathroom.”
In the chaos, April was unaware that Ashleigh had also been hurt. When emergency services arrived, due to bed shortages, the girls were taken to two different hospitals. April says, “I woke up four days later thinking I’d just fallen asleep. My mum explained what had happened, but I couldn’t comprehend it. I just wanted to see my son.”
While coming to terms with her injuries, April couldn’t look at her reflection for two weeks. She admits, “I’d always been self-conscious about my appearance, so I was terrified of what I’d see. I was encouraged by doctors and Ashleigh – who sent me a selfie of her similar burns – but I found it difficult to deal with.
When I finally saw myself, I cried because I felt like I looked like a monster.”
April spent a month in hospital receiving donor skin grafts and having her bandages changed, before being cared for at her mum’s house. Her face and hands were still bandaged, and her mum had to feed her and take her to the toilet.
Two weeks later, Franklin came to visit, which was tough for them both. April recalls, “I’d missed him so much, I burst into tears as soon as I saw him. He hid behind the sofa and didn’t want to speak or look at me because of my injuries. Luckily, he came around and was soon able to chat, then sit in the same room as me.”
April and Ashleigh’s first meeting was a month after the accident. April says, “It was emotional – we hugged and cried. We went for a walk and said we were glad we had each other, because we understood what the other was going through.”
Over a year on, April is still affected by the tragedy. She says, “My birthday was very different this year. I used to love going out to celebrate but instead I just had a meal at home. As it was the anniversary of the accident, it felt bittersweet.
“I didn’t drink alcohol for a year after that night, and I’ve only just been able to go back to my job as a hairdresser. Franklin has recently started to kiss and cuddle me again, but he’s worried he’ll hurt me so he won’t touch my scars.
“I have laser treatment every six weeks to reduce the redness and flatten my scars, which is very painful and draining. I also have regular check-ups to measure my mouth as skin has grown over my lips, and I can’t open my mouth wide enough to eat comfortably. Whenever I laugh or smile, I cover my mouth because I’m embarrassed by it. But I’m lucky in that my scars are healing well, and I’m able to use make-up to cover the redness.”
"I can now leave the house without wearing make-up"
But April is determined to use her experience to help others. She says, “I share my story on Instagram and TikTok to spread awareness, and some of my videos have millions of views. Although I do get the odd nasty comment, I want to help other survivors and show them that it does get better. I can now leave the house without wearing make-up, which I never did even before the accident. Ashleigh and I make progress every day, and I want to make my little boy proud.”