Turia Pitt survived against extraordinary odds. And she wants you to know it shouldn’t take a tragedy for you to step into your own power and potential.
On September 2, 2011, when the starting siren blared for the Kimberley Ultramarathon, Turia Pitt was one of around just 40 runners with 100kms of gruelling Kimberley terrain ahead of them. But a few hours later, she was fighting for her life after being trapped in an out-of-control bush fire. Months before, Turia had registered her interest in the marathon, but baulked at the $1600 registration fee and decided she’d wait for another opportunity to come up. “I wasn’t going to enter because I thought the entry fee was a rip off, but then I got an email two weeks before the race asking if I would like to go in it for free to help them increase numbers,” Turia explains.
Saying yes would become a sliding doors moment; the decision that would turn everything upside down – she went from having everything to live for, to fighting for her life. “I didn’t know there were fires in the area when I started the race,” Turia tells me, “I had run about 25kms when I saw it.” Turia, along with five other runners were trapped by the fire in a narrow, rocky gorge. Fellow competitor Kate Sanderson was running behind Turia and remembers seeing Turia running straight toward a wall of flames. Kate told 60 Minutes, “I couldn’t call out to her because the fire was so loud. I remember hearing Turia’s screams.”
Turia was engulfed by the flames and left with severe burns to nearly 70% of her body. “I remember screaming and screaming for help, but no one came,” she says. For four hours, Turia and Kate, who were both badly burnt and four other runners who had minor burns, waited for help. They had no means of communication, no medication and were starting to worry if they’d ever be rescued from their remote location. “I was obviously in a lot of shock because I thought I was fine. I was a volunteer for the paramedic’s emergency response team out of the mines so I knew about burns and what sort of impact they had, but I honestly thought they’d take me to Kununurra hospital, patch me up and I’d be at work on Monday.”
Just 25 at the time, the brown eyed beauty was living and working in Western Australia after landing her dream job straight out of university. With her high school sweetheart Michael, she relocated from the NSW South Coast in 2011 to start an exciting new chapter of their lives. With a double degree in Mining Engineering and Science, she had everything going for her having scored a job with Rio Tinto at their prestigious Argyle Diamond Mine.
Turia was eventually airlifted by helicopter to Darwin hospital and then to the burns unit at Sydney’s Concord hospital where the severity of her injuries started to become clear. Her doctor, burns specialist, Professor Peter Haertsch said at the time, “She was literally cooked. I have not ever had a patient with such deep burns survive.”
Turia’s burns were so great she was put into an induced coma for two weeks so her body could fight life threatening infections. With too little unburnt skin, Dr Haertsch had to get skin brought in from America for skin grafts and Michael, her partner, had to make the decision to allow doctors to amputate four of her fingers on her right hand. When she was brought out of the coma, Turia had to come to terms with wearing a full body compression suit and mask for 23 hours a day for the next two years. She’s spent six months in hospital and endured more than 200 surgeries. She has had to relearn the most basic of tasks – walking, feeding herself, even rolling over in bed.
Turia, now 28, has been tested more than most of us will ever be; no one would have criticised her for curling up in a corner and never wanting to come out. But it’s her attitude about the cards she’s been dealt that’s captured Australia’s heart – she may be slight in stature, but has an inner strength that’s hard to break. When speaking for Business Chicks in Melbourne, she told the audience that it shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to reach our full potential and she’s now on a mission to make sure we live in this mindset every day. “I think it’s about letting go of that future ideal of yourself. So many people think that when they lose those 20 kilos, or they get that job, or when they achieve X, they’ll emerge as this person they dream of being. My message really is about letting go of that, and realising what you have and what you’re capable of today. It’s about choosing to be active in the present, in the moment right now. All you’ve got to do is choose to live now, while you can. Like my friend David Mesnard says, “Everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives”.”
Although Turia’s life is now completely different to the path she was on before the fire, she is still unwavering in her belief that she has everything to live for. Her strength and courage touched many Australians when she told her story to Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes, the show revealed that Turia is one extraordinary woman … not that she thinks so.
“I think I got my strength from my mum, I think she has a bit of mongrel in her too. I think we all have a little strength inside of us, we just never get tested.”
“It’s not until you need to be strong that you find out how strong you really are. And I think everyone is just as strong and powerful, they just never get tested.”
And tested she has certainly been; in 2013 she spent six weeks at a clinic in the south of France that is a world leader in burns rehabilitation. She underwent treatment to smooth her skin and stretch her muscles, as well as psychological treatment to prepare for the permanent removal of the mask. In August of 2013 she was finally able to remove the compression mask she’d worn for two years. “When I look at photos of myself from before, I think, bloody hell, I was actually really good looking,” she told 60 Minutes in her quintessential Aussie way. “And I’m a really determined person so I’ll try and get as much of that back as I can. I’m not just going to accept the way things are now and say ‘Oh, this is me, for the rest of my life’. No way.”
The saying, ‘true beauty comes from within’ is no truer than with Turia. She makes no effort to hide her scars, instead presenting a version of beauty we need to see more of in the public arena. “When you see me, it’s pretty obvious that I’m burnt, so really what’s the point in covering up my scars?” Of course, like the rest of us she has her bad days. “I guess I’m like most people. You know, yesterday I had an operation and I looked in the mirror and thought, dear god, what the hell have they done to my face?! Sometimes I wake up and look in the mirror and I’m like ‘who the hell is that starting back at me in the mirror?’ and other days I can look in the mirror and think, ‘You know what, I look pretty today!’”
Her advice for the bad days?
“I just say to myself today is a bad day, but tomorrow will probably be better. Because that’s just being human isn’t it?”
“There are bad times, but there are a hell of a lot of good times too.”
Turia thinks about her life as ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire’. Her life began in Tahiti where she was born in 1987. “I was born in Faaa, Tahiti. My dad was an Australian surfer, living in Tahiti and making surfboards. He fell in love with Mum, a Tahitian, who was sixteen at the time. They had Genji, my older brother and I in Tahiti, and decided to move to Australia when I was two.”
“We lived in Maroubra, Sydney, for a few years, before we settled down the South Coast in a town called Ulladulla. I was really active, we didn’t have a TV so my older brother, two younger brothers and I would just go surfing and play all day and then at night time I’d read. It was a very simple life.”
Turia met her now fiancé, Michael Hoskins, when she was just 14 and he 17, and they’ve been together ever since. After school, she moved to Sydney to study at the University of NSW. “I don’t really know why I wanted to become a mining engineer. When I went to pick my subjects for my final year of school, one of the teachers told me that I wasn’t capable of doing the ‘heavier’ subjects like physics and maths extension. That teacher ended up doing me a huge favour – if you want me to do something, all you have to do is tell me that it can’t be done! I wrote down a list of things that I was good at and what I wanted in a job and out of that came engineering and then I saw mining engineering on the internet and the opportunity to make a lot of money and it got me really excited.”
A full life
Turia and Michael are now back living on the South Coast in Ulladulla. Rehab is ongoing, but Turia is determined to push pass her limits. She is currently studying for an MBA and training for, wait for it, an Iron Man! 2016 is set to be a huge year – Turia is to release her second book, a reflective account of what she’s been through, what she’s learned and the strategies she’s developed to cope with challenges. And she’ll launch her own program, ‘Turia’s School of Champions’. “The School of Champions is really for anyone ready to step up into the next level of their life. It’s for people who want to kick big goals, challenge themselves, feed their passion and accelerate their success. I’m so excited to launch it. I’m working pretty hard on it at the moment and I really think it’s going to resonate with a lot of people,” she says. “The catalyst for it was really the feedback I receive from people every day. I get so many emails from people telling me that after hearing my story they’ve given up smoking, or ran a marathon, or left a violent relationship – it’s pretty amazing. It’s empowering to know that my story has helped someone to change their life for the better and that’s why I’m developing School of Champions – I want to help more women kick goals and take charge of their life.”
Turia is also an ambassador for Interplast. A not-for-profit that works to improve the quality of life for people with disability who are disabled as a result of congenital or acquired medical conditions such as cleft lip and palate or burn scar contractures.
Like the title of her memoir, Turia certainly has everything to live for. The events on September 2, 2011 may have altered her path, but they didn’t lessen it, not one bit.
“I got a letter from a young girl once and she said she didn’t believe in superheroes until she heard of me. I thought that was pretty cool,”
Turia tells me. And it is pretty cool, and pretty true too.
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