When I was 10 years old, I would look at the girls that the other kids said were pretty and perfect: they were skinny and they had perfect skin.
Then I would come home from school and look at myself in the mirror, and wonder why I didn’t look like that. I thought it was because I had scars that made me different.
When I was two years old, an incident led to 70 percent of my body being burned. It happened at my childhood home in Cali, Colombia, while my mom was at work, and my nanny was distracted.
I opened the oven in the kitchen and the boiling water on the top rack fell on top of me, starting at my head and going down my legs. I don’t remember anything about the incident—which is probably for the best.
I was taken to the hospital and the nanny called my mom, who fainted when she heard the news. My mom says she remembers my skin being very red and blistered my whole left arm was burned, as well as my right bicep, the left side of my torso, including my left breast, my left leg and thigh, and the whole left side of my face my cheek, my left lip down to my chin, my whole forehead, and half of my scalp.
Cami Restrepo as Child
Cami Restrepo as a child, wearing bandages on her scars to protect her skin. Seventy percent of Restrepo’s body was covered in burns, after an accident when she was 2 years old.
Every time someone touched me, I would cry. My mom says she had to step out of the room because she couldn’t bear to hear me in so much pain.
My mom quit her job to look after me. I was in hospital for three months and I had 11 surgeries, where the doctors and nurses had to take off the top layer of my skin, with its dead tissue, so the cells underneath could heal.
My mom really held on to her faith during my hospital stay. She says that doctors and nurses called her the “crazy lady” because any time they would come in, she was always kneeling by the side of my bed, praying.
She was scared that I might die. The doctors kept telling her, “Anything could happen. She might feel better tomorrow, but things could take a turn for the worse at any second.” She was really worried as I was so little. I could have easily got an infection, especially because of how exposed my body was, and the fact my immune system was already so weak.
About a month into my stay at the hospital, I had to have a big surgery on my head, which would remove the dead layer of skin from my scalp. My mom was very scared about that surgery because it would be invasive and right by my brain. She says she prayed for a miracle, and pleaded with the doctors and nurses in the days before: “Please give her more time. A miracle is going to happen.”
They apparently told her that the longer they waited, the more prone I would be to an infection, which would lead to a higher risk of me not surviving.
On the day of the surgery, the nurses washed me and checked my head closely. They noticed that there were follicles starting to open, just the tiniest bit, on my scalp—like when you shave your legs and you see the little black dot in the follicle. That’s what they saw.
It defied all science because when you’re a burn survivor, your hair isn’t meant to grow there: all the tissues and cells under your skin are completely dead, so how could the hair grow? The follicles should have been closed, and the doctors thought I would be bald.
Cami Restrepo as a Kid
Cami Restrepo as a child. Restrepo suffered burns on the left side of her face, as well as up her arms, legs and torso.
The nurses looked in shock and called in the surgeon. My mom says he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. She remembers the room being full of nurses, staff and even the front desk girls, trying to comprehend this.
They didn’t need to do that surgery on my head anymore because my hair was growing back. My mom kept saying, “It’s a miracle.” And the surgeon, who was an atheist, apparently said, “It’s not a miracle,” but they couldn’t come up with an explanation for how my hair was growing back.
My mom later connected with one of the nurses on Facebook, who told her that the atheist surgeon completely converted after I left the hospital. He decided to go to church and now he’s apparently a Christian. He said that in the years he had been a trauma surgeon working in the burns department, he had never seen anything like it.
Life after the accident
When I returned home, after my stay in hospital, my mom had to completely cover the windows with black plastic bags because the sun couldn’t touch my skin. We lived like vampires for a year, inside the house every single day as the top layer of my skin healed.
Following that period, any time I went outside I had to wear patches over my burns, which I did up until the age of seven. Even though my scars were subtle and I had no discoloration, I felt different from everybody else. Nobody stared at me weirdly, but I was bitter about what had happened to me. When I was 10, I would go to church and pray, asking God why he had done this to me and not to somebody else.
A year later, we moved to the States. In our new home in California, I felt like such an outsider, as I didn’t speak English and every kid had their friendship group already. I figured I didn’t need any more eyes looking at me. I covered my scars and would wear long sleeves almost every day. Nobody ever asked me about my scars you can’t really see the ones on my face as they healed really well—but I felt insecure about them throughout middle school and high school.
When I graduated high school in 2019, I started embracing my scars. I thought: This is my body, and I’m going to have it forever. Why am I sitting here, pouting about it, when I could be embracing it, and the fact that I’m different?
My mom calls me her “miracle.” To this day, I have so much hair—not just on my head, but on all of my scars, which is really crazy.
Recent photo of Cami Restrepo, 21, at her home in Los Angeles. Restrepo’s scars are now so subtle that people often don’t notice them.
My skin doesn’t look like a typical burn survivor’s skin, either. Usually, a survivor’s skin is webby and feels rough to the touch, whereas my skin feels more skin-like and elastic. There also isn’t any discoloration—my scars are a tiny shade lighter, but it’s not very noticeable. People often don’t notice until they’re close up.
I think this has a lot to do with the fact I was so little when I was burned, so my skin was able to stretch, along with my burns, which means I healed well.
Even so, my left breast is completely burned, and I have stitches where my nipple would be. When I got pregnant, one of my worries was that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. I asked my OB GYN what we could do and she had no idea—nor did the hospital where I gave birth. They said to just wait and see.
But when my son was born a year ago, my nipple kind of grew back. It’s very strange; you can’t really see where the hole is, but when the milk needs to come out, the hole is there. All of these things feel like such a miracle.
Now, when I look back, I’m honestly just happy that this happened to me. I can’t see myself any other way. If I had perfect skin, I wouldn’t be me. The struggles I went through because of this accident made me a stronger person, and more independent. They made me who I am today.
Cami Restrepo is a full-time student and mom, who also creates content on TikTok at @camirestrepoo.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Katie Russell.