Burned in Fire as Infants, Triplets Try to Erase Scars of Their Painful Past

Identical sisters burned in fire that claimed the life of their mother.

July 15, 2009, 3:02 PM

July 16, 2009— -- Identical 22-year-old Texas triplets Chandra, Jordan and Trae Berns have spent their lives catching the eyes of strangers. "We've just kind of gotten used to — if people stare," Chandra said. But they're never sure if it's because of their matching features -- or something else they share.

If you look past the three beautiful girls' hair and makeup, you will see that scars and burns cover their arms, hands, faces, backs and chests.

The triplets understand the looks that they receive when they go out in public. "When you see something different ... it's hard not to look," Jordan said. "So, you know, we don't blame anybody for looking or whispering or wondering."

It's said that every scar has a story -- for the Berns triplets, that story begins with innocence and joy. Born in 1987 to proud parents Scott and Patti Berns, the triplets have always been inseparable. As babies, they dressed in matching outfits, and were so close that they would climb into a single crib at night and sleep in each other's embrace.

That's where they were Sept. 21, 1988, only 17 months old, when flames suddenly and inexplicably engulfed their North Richland Hills, Texas, home. Their father, Scott, rescued them through their bedroom window. Their mother Patti was found lying unconscious in a back room of the home. Paramedics raced her to the hospital in critical condition from smoke inhalation. She died three days later, at the age of 27.

"Our hearts were, you know, just broken," recalls the girls' maternal grandmother, Sue Dusek.

Meanwhile, the girls, too young to understand their enormous loss, continued their own battle to survive. "They were so bad we didn't know if they were going to live or not. It was horrible, just very traumatic," said Dusek.

Miraculously, the girls survived, despite third-degree burns on a third of their bodies.

Eldest triplet Chandra had the most severe injuries, with burns on her face, arms and back. "What I've been told is that I probably, you know, got on top and was on top of the girls in the crib, so I got burned the worst," she said. Jordan was burned on her arms and chest, and Trae on her left arm and face.

The triplets spent their early years undergoing a long and agonizing recovery process, physically and mentally. Over several years, they underwent numerous surgeries, skin grafts, facial masks and courses of physical therapy. They even had to wear tiny compression suits to treat their burns.

"It was just horrible trying to put [the suits] on them because they would cry it would hurt. They would just cry knowing when you'd come at them with them. And my husband and I would cry too," said Dusek.

"It's probably one of the most painful things that anyone could, could have or experience on a daily basis," said Donna Crump, a physical therapist who treated the girls as infants.

Ignoring Ridicule and Gossip, Sisters Form Inseparable Bond

Luckily, the triplets do not remember the agonizing pain they endured as toddlers. While the physical pain subsided, the emotional pain of growing up without their mother endured. "They didn't know anything about her. They didn't want to ask much about her," said Dusek.

The trauma would only worsen. When the triplets were 4 years old, prosecutors determined that the fire was not an accident, but arson, and charged their father, Scott, with setting the fire. He went to trial and was ultimately acquitted.

At the time, the triplets were living with Dusek and she shielded them from the flurry of news reports about their father. "We just didn't talk about it ... They'd already been through so much that I didn't want them to have to face all that," she said.

Chandra, Jordan and Trae frequently endured ridicule and misunderstanding when they left home.

Many of the jokes were obvious. "One girl, I remember she said, 'you know, your last name suits you well,'" said Jordan. "Children can be very mean."

As cruel as kids can be, some of the most egregious behavior came from adults. "I remember one time we were at this public pool swimming and this mother, her kids were playing with us in the pool and she grabbed her kids up and she was like, 'Don't play with these kids ... this is what happens when you play with fire.'" recalled Jordan.

Like many other teenagers, the triplets became increasingly insecure in high school, and the stares became harder to bear. In order to cope, the girls used heavy makeup and long sleeves to hide their scars.

The triplets also missed out on the fun of dating. "If we had a little crush on somebody or, you know, on some guy, you know, it would get back to us, 'oh, yeah, he thinks you're pretty but, you know, you have burns,'" said Jordan.

Through it all, the triplets looked forward to the future, hoping that new technology would eventually be able to remedy their scars.

One night, a glimmer of hope arrived. The triplets stumbled across a story online about a woman who was burned in a grease fire and received laser treatments to treat her scars. She had been treated by Dr. Jill Waibel of the Palm Beach Esthetic Dermatology & Laser Center in Palm Beach, Fla.

A pioneer in treating burns, Waibel is just as sensitive to the emotional journey of burn victims.

"Scarring can be psychologically traumatic for any patient ... bad scars remind that patient over and over about an event that happened," she said.

Their Scars Healing, Triplets Look to the Future

Unable to contain her excitement, Trae called Waibel's office and left her a voice mail detailing the triplets' story. The girls waited anxiously for a response and soon received the call they had waited for -- Waibel wanted to set up a consultation.

A few weeks later, the girls and their grandmother made the two-day journey to Waibel's office. "We had such high hopes and we were so excited, we could barely contain ourselves," Jordan said.

The triplets arrived at Waibel's office with excitement and anxiety for the treatment, hoping it would make a difference. After the meeting, the triplets were greeted with an even bigger surprise: Lumenis -- the laser company, was going to pay for each girls' procedure.

With nerves running high, Waibel was determined to help the girls heal their 20-year-old burns, something that is even harder than it sounds. Thick, deep, and inflexible, burn scars are the most difficult skin wound to treat. According to Waibel, over the past 50 years, scientists have researched new technologies to treat burn scars, but nothing has worked to reduce the appearance of these scars.

Waibel's secret weapon in the battle against the scars was Lumenis's Ultrapulse Total FX laser. Often used to treat other skin problems, such as acne scars, Waibel discovered that it could also be used to treat burn scars. The Ultrapulse laser uses two different light settings to stimulate new collagen growth, lighten dark colors on the scar and even removes some of the scar tissue.

"We are literally taking that scar out, and then we are stimulating new collagen to form where that scar was. We are improving the scar, and we are creating new healthy skin where there was a scar," explained Waibel. "We are able to treat scars that we were never able to treat before."

The treatment is remarkable not just because of its efficacy, but also because it is relatively painless and quick. Treatments can take as little as a few minutes, depending on the size of the scar, and the side effects are comparable to a sunburn -- patients might be red and swollen for the first 24 hours. Even the results are fast -- although it can take up to a year to see full results. It's also cheaper than many other options for treating scars.

"We will never have completely normal-looking skin where you have a scar. But our hope -- and our goal -- is that it will be as minimal as possible. And if you were to walk in a room with them -- or to meet them -- you would not be aware that they went through a traumatic burn injury," said Waibel.

The triplets say that no matter what comes of the procedure, they love their lives, even their harrowing past.

"It's shaped who we are today and it's definitely made us stronger girls. And we're kind of appreciative for what's happened in our past. Of course, there are times where it has been painful but we've gotten through it and risen above adversity and it's made us a lot stronger," said Trae.

For more information on scar treatment, click here.

Watch "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET to see the results of the laser treatment on the girls' 20-year-old burns.

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