'Scars are tattoos with better stories': Destin resident spends a week in D.C. at burn survivor

Jennie McKeon

It's an accident that could've happened in any kitchen to any family.

Parker Benz was barely 2 years old when he tipped over a pot of scalding hot oil leaving third-degree burns on his face and 40 percent of his body. After a call to 911, Parker was life-flighted from his home on Indian Bayou to Pensacola. From there, he was sent to Mobile and finally to Shands Children's Hospital at University of Florida.

"It's really difficult to see a child go through," said Parker's dad, Michael. "When they sent us home, we had to put a feeding tube down his throat every night."

It would take two years of skin graft surgeries before Parker could take off the burn suit he wore from wrist to chest — a burn suit is a heavy garment, similar to a wet suit that constricts skin and allows for skin grafts to adhere.

Today, Parker is 14, a freshman at Fort Walton Beach High School in the Duke Honors Program. Inspired by his years in hospitals, he'd like to be a doctor one day. While he doesn't feel sorry for himself, his dad explains the past decade hasn't been exactly easy.

"Kids used to make fun of him since the skin grafts came from his backside," Michael explains.

Today, Parker still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is common among child burn survivors.

"We would drive through Gainesville on our way to Disney World and Parker, even as a small child, would start to get anxious," Michael said. "He remembered going to Shands."

Part of Parker's healing process was going to child burn survivor camps, where he could meet kids with similar issues. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, more than 500,000 people in North America suffer from burn injuries every year and 4,000 die from fire and burn injuries every year in the United States.

Scattered across the country, these camps, most of them free of charge, offer kids the chance to hang out and have fun without feeling abnormal. An estimated 2,500 children attend burn camps every year.

"Just because it happened, doesn't mean you're the only one; you're not alone," said Michael. "It's a celebration of surviving."

Parker has been visiting Camp Hopetáke in Tampa for the past four years. At these camps, Parker and dozens of child burn survivors hang out with the local firefighters and nurses from Tampa General Hospital, taking in trips to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Wild Adventures and more.

"Everybody's really friendly, it makes for a great environment," Parker said.

Every year, campers from around the United States and Canada are nominated to attend the International Burn Camp, held in Washington, D.C. Nominations are based on camper's efforts and leaderships at their respective camps and this year, Parker was recognized for his great attitude displayed throughout the years in Tampa.

"I was very proud," Michael said. "In the Army, I was assigned to work for the Reagan administration at The White House. I think it's neat that Parker found his own way to D.C."

Parker, along with fire fighter Lawrence Carter who was nominated from the Tampa camp to chaperone, spent a week, Sept. 21 to 28,  in the nation's capital, taking in the scenes, enjoying premier seats at a Washington Nationals game, trips to the Smithsonian and more.

"One of my favorite days, we had a carnival at the camp complete with a dunk tank, cotton candy, funnel cakes and inflatable slides," Parker said. "There was also canoeing and golf."

Parker is fairly lucky compared to some of his fellow campers. Being just a toddler at the time of the accident, he doesn't recall much of the initial pain from being burned and surgeries. His scares are easily hidden beneath everyday clothes. Perhaps a major eye-opener for Parker and his parents was the realization that 10 to 20 percent of burn injuries in children are intentionally inflicted according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information.

"When Parker was in the hospital, they asked us a dozen times what happened," Michael explained. "It was because they were checking our story."

In D.C., Parker was able to make some international friends, mingling with kids from Canada. Being surrounded by people that have shared the same experiences as him is uplifting.

"There's one kid at the camp that has a saying," Parker said. "Scars are tattoos with better stories."