'They couldn't get the water cold enough to ease the pain, my head felt as if it was on fire'
A simple trip to the hairdressers changed Banbridge woman Rebecca McParland's life for ever after she suffered horrific burns during a treatment. She tells Karen Ireland how the healing process following the traumatic experience has made her stronger.
Following the turbulent break-up of a long-term relationship, Banbridge woman Rebecca McParland decided she wanted to reinvent herself by having her hair coloured bright red.
A student at the Ulster University at the time, Rebecca had a consultation with a hairdresser and was told her hair could be changed from red to blonde during a day-long sitting, so she happily booked in.
But the 23-year-old had no idea that day close to Christmas in 2013 would change her life for ever - and send her on a journey, both literally and emotionally, which continues today.
"Sitting in the chair under the dryer I began to feel very hot and unwell," Rebecca, who works in retail, recalls.
The bleach treatment had been placed on her hair prior to going under the dryer, but she felt uncomfortable.
"I asked one of the hairdressers in the salon to turn the temperature down, which she did, but that didn't help and I started to feel my face and head burning - I knew something was wrong.
"I asked for the dryer to be removed as it felt too hot," she says.
The owner of the salon was alerted to how Rebecca was feeling by now and she was taken to the sink where a plastic bag was peeled away from her hair.
"They couldn't get the water cold enough to give me any relief, but they insisted there was no redness and they continued with the treatment.
"My mum popped in at one stage to see how I was getting on and I've never felt as much like a little girl who needed her mum.
"Inside I was panicking that something had happened but everyone kept reassuring me I was fine. I told mum it was going okay and she left.
"After the appointment I rushed home to my mum and burst into tears. I told her my head was really sore and felt like it was on fire. Again, she assured me there was no redness and encouraged me to go out that night with my family.
"During the evening out I felt sick and my hair started seeping - but I thought it was the treatment they had put on it in the salon to soothe it. The next day my hair started to fall out in clumps the size of a 50p piece.
"It felt like straw and I was worried about the pain in my head. A hairdresser, who is a friend of the family, opened up her salon over Christmas to give me a treatment.
"At that stage my friend said she couldn't treat me as there was an open wound where my hair was falling out and I needed to go to the doctors.
"As it was Christmas time I got an emergency appointment and was told I had been burnt and needed antibiotics and to come back a week later."
With her hair falling out every day, Rebecca found it a long, emotional week until she saw her doctor again.
The prognosis wasn't good, the wound wasn't healing and was getting bigger and Rebecca's doctor rushed her to the burns unit at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.
"The doctors there told me I had third degree burns and I would have to have an operation to have a skin graft from my leg on to my scalp."
By this time Rebecca was wearing scarves or hats to cover up the damage to her scalp.
She couldn't sleep in bed at night as the pillow hurt her head and she had to sleep on a recliner chair in the living room.
A few days later she had the first of what was to be one of many panic attacks as she sat close to the fire at her grandparent's home.
"I felt that the fire was burning my head and I broke down. The same thing started happening when my mum dried my hair with the hairdryer.
"I got really panicky with the heat so she had to stop and let my hair dry naturally."
A week later she had her first operation and for the first time felt relief from the constant pain in her head.
"I went back to university but really struggled on nights out and if someone made fun of my scarf or said anything I would spend the night in the toilets crying.
"That wasn't the worst part as I was studying Silversmithing and making jewellery.
"I found I couldn't cope with the heat of melting the silver and using the torch and ended up behind with my work.
"Everything just started to fall apart around me.
"I knew I couldn't cope with being at university and wanted to go home but I felt like such a failure and that I had let my parents down," she says, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
"So even though it broke my heart I left university and went home.
"Even worse than that people had started to call me the 'burns girl' and wanted to know how I was and asked questions about what had happened.
"Eventually I went to my doctor who prescribed antidepressants which helped me cope with the panic and anxiety; but didn't help with all the questioning and people talking about me."
Rebecca added: "I knew I needed to get away so I applied for a job as a holiday rep in Spain which I got - a week later I packed up and left home.
"My parents begged me not to go but I just needed to get away from everything and everyone for a while and just have a completely fresh start.
"In the beginning I was happy - I was 'smiley' Rebecca who helped everyone have a good time on holiday. It didn't seem strange that I wore a cap or scarf and no one asked any questions."
Rebecca stayed in her resort for seven months trying to put the pieces of her life back together.
But, as the season got busier and more people arrived and it got hotter, she started to panic again.
"I knew I was running from my demons," she says. "And I knew I couldn't keep doing that. So, after seven months I handed in my notice but I still wasn't ready for home.
"I stayed for another month to have an extended holiday, but when I ran out of money I knew I had to go home and face up to things."
Delighted to see her, Rebecca's parents, Martin and Angela, made a phone call that was to be the turning point for her.
"Mum handed me the phone and told me there was a counsellor on the other end and she wanted to talk to me.
"That helped a lot as she taught me that the way I was feeling was normal.
"I had been badly burnt so it was normal to be frightened of fire, of cooking and anything that was hot.
"She helped me stop blaming myself and feeling guilty all the time.
"Only then did I start to face up to things and not run away. My mum and dad were a terrific support as was my brother Calvin.
"I couldn't have got through it without them.
"I also went to a course at Trasna House in Lurgan which taught me how to deal with the panic attacks as well as coping mechanisms for anxiety.
"Slowly I started to put the pieces of my life back together. I got a job and I went back to school to study beauty therapy."
Last week for the first time in two-and-a-half years Rebecca did something she vowed she would never be able to do again - she went back to the hairdressers and had her now long hair coloured and styled.
"I went to my friend Kathy Mallon's salon in Dromore as I trust them and knew they would make me feel comfortable. Sitting in that chair I was so nervous but I knew this was the biggest demon of all and I needed to conquer it."
Her Facebook status that day said it all - "I took a huge step today to walk out and see the sun again. I feel comfortable and beautiful again for the first time in two years."
"I'm still on a journey and I know there will be good days and bad days but I feel good about the future. I can honestly say that I don't regret what happened to me or wish it had never happened.
"Now I think it has made me the person I am and I am stronger and more positive.
"I feel I could cope with anything now after what I have been through. It has made me determined to have something to smile about every day of life.
"It has taken time and there are memories I'd rather not have and it was the loneliest period of my life, but in losing myself I've built myself up and I've learnt so much more.
"I don't look back now - I can look forward."