Childhood Tragedy Leads to Family's Legacy of Gratitude
March 31, 1956, was a life-changing day for Kathy Piper Tharp. She was just 6 years old that morning when she tiptoed downstairs in her flannel nightgown while her mother, Kay Piper, was upstairs with Kathy's 2-week-old sister, Lisa. Always curious, Kathy couldn't resist the lure of the ornate silver lighter in the "off-limits" living room. While her small hands managed to spark the flame, the lighter dropped onto her lap, igniting her nightgown. Kathy was quickly engulfed in flames.
Kay severely burned her hands and arms as she protected Kathy's face from the flames and extinguished the fire.
Neighbors quickly jumped into action and Kathy's grandmother rushed to the home. The Piper family's pediatrician, Dr. Maurice Lonsway, personally drove Kathy and her family to St. Louis Children's Hospital because he knew it was best equipped to deal with burns.
Kathy suffered second and third degree burns over 70 percent of her body and spent the next six months at St. Louis Children's. Meanwhile, Kay was recovering from her own burns.
"The nurses were so wonderful and gave me round-the-clock nursing care," Kathy recalls. "They were always smiling and encouraging me even during the most painful times. They gave my whole family so much personal attention."
Kathy's mom and grandmother also stayed by her side and set a strong example.
"One of my arms was so burned that some of the doctors wanted to amputate it from the elbow down, but my mom would not even consider it. She challenged them to save my arm," Kathy says.
They did and Kathy's arm was restored to full function. Over the next seven years, Kathy had at least 30 skin grafts.
Kathy credits her plastic surgeon, Dr. Minot Fryer, for "coming to her rescue."
"He would never give up on me," she says. Because Kathy's mom protected her face while her nightgown was on fire, Kathy had no facial burns. Mainly her torso and arms were affected.
Sharing Badges of Courage
When Kathy was finally able to go home in September 1956, she started second grade right on track. "I was constantly encouraged by my mom and grandmother not to let my burns define who I was or who I would become," Kathy says.
As she grew up, she thrived and had many adventures. A few months after she was home from the hospital, Kathy met Elvis when he played at the former Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. "As a 7-year-old, I remember feeling self-conscious about meeting him because I was missing my two front teeth, not because of my scars," Kathy recalls. "I was a huge Elvis fan and was jumping out of my seat at that concert!"
The brave, spunky girl later went to college, married and became a successful real estate agent. Her husband, Mike, calls Kathy's scars "badges of courage."
Kathy shares that courage with others and frequently counsels other burn survivors. "It's a joy to me to encourage other survivors and show them there's life beyond where they are at that moment," she says.
Along with her mother and sister, Kathy has felt lifelong gratitude toward St. Louis Children's Hospital. "If the nurses and doctors at St. Louis Children's Hospital hadn't taken such good care of me, I wouldn't have had the life I've had," Kathy says. "I put the hospital in my will because I owe them my life. They were there for me and they've been there for my family."
Learning From a History of Strength
While Kathy's sister, Lisa, was just a newborn when Kathy was burned, Lisa grew up admiring her big sister. "I remember Kathy went to her high school prom in a white, sleeveless dress with all her scars visible," Lisa says. "It's a testimony to her strength."
That strength and the lessons Lisa learned from her mother, became a lifeline when her daughter, Lara, was born 16 weeks premature in 1983—27 years after Kathy had been a patient at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
"When I had Lara, I finally understood all my mother really went through with Kathy," Lisa says. "My mom was at the hospital every day with Kathy, just as I was with Lara."
Lara was barely 2 pounds and just 14 inches long when she was born. Before the 1980s, many premature babies did not survive. She was immediately transported to the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
"I was scared to death," Lisa says. "I had never seen a premature baby before and wasn't prepared for what was to come."
Because Lara's lungs and brain weren't fully developed, she had trouble breathing. During her second week of life, Lara's weight dropped below 2 pounds.
"Lara, David and I overcame major hurdles because of the expertise of the doctors and nurses in the NICU at St. Louis Children's Hospital," Lisa says. "They were phenomenal and taught us so much. What impressed me most was every nurse's ability to deal with the tiniest babies in medical crisis while at the same time enlightening frightened parents of what was happening and calming them. It takes an exceptional person to do that."
Lisa says Lara was cared for by "angels on earth."
"That's what the NICU nurses at St. Louis Children's Hospital are. We're so blessed to have this NICU in our community," she says.
After nearly three months at St. Louis Children's, Lara went home in August 1983. "I was so worried about how she could be normal after all she went through," Lisa says. "But she went on to have scraped up knees and lost her teeth just like every child. I cried every year on her birthday—it was always a special day and still is."
In 2018, Lisa and her mother, Kay, toured St. Louis Children's Hospital's NICU together. "I talked to other moms to give them hope," Lisa says. "Lara understands what the hospital means to all of us, too. For Mother's Day, she handwrote 50 notes to give to moms in the NICU."
Because of her gratitude for the hospital, Lisa volunteered for the hospital. She has served on the Friends board, chaired the annual Table Tops event, and served on various committees. "I feel like I can't give back enough to St. Louis Children's Hospital," she says.
Generous Hearts Run in the Family
The whole Piper family feels that way. In addition to Kathy's giving, Lisa and her husband, David Holley, established the Lara and Jay Holley Fund, an endowment fund named after their children, to benefit the NICU at St. Louis Children's.
Before Lisa and Kathy's mother, Kay, passed away in early 2019, she created a legacy of giving. Her experiences with her daughters and granddaughter inspired her to volunteer at the hospital and to offer generous stock gifts in honor of her grandchildren.
"We miss our mom terribly," Lisa says. "She always told us 'Be stout of heart, for this too shall pass.' She was right. Lara couldn't have received better care so our story has a happy ending. My daughter was given a great chance at life and took it."
So did Kathy. "If not for St. Louis Children's, neither Lara nor I would be here," Kathy says.