A brave woman has revealed how she forgave her husband after he accidentally set her on fire in a horrific firepit accident that left her with agonizing burns all over her body – and seen her forced to undergo more than $2.9 million worth of reconstructive surgery.
Influencer Tonya Meisenbach, 48, from Atlanta, Georgia, recalls how she ‘went up like a match’ after her husband Donald accidentally poured lighter fluid on her while trying to set a fire in the garden of their home back in December 2018.
The mistake caused Tonya’s arm, face, and hair to go up in flames – leaving her writhing in agony and with such severe burns that she had to be placed in a medically-induced coma for two months, in order to give her body time to heal.
Tonya was taken to the hospital immediately and while she was in her coma, doctors performed a series of extensive reparative surgeries, including a full face skin graft.
Agony: A 48-year-old woman was left with horrific burns all over her face and body after her husband accidentally set her on fire while trying to light a firepit in their backyard
Devastating: Tonya Meisenbach, from Atlanta, Georgia, was enjoying an outdoor dinner with her husband Donald when he accidentally sprayed her with lighter fluid
‘I went up like a match’: The accident left Tonya with such severe burns that she had to be placed in a medically-induced coma for two months while doctors rushed to save her life
In total, Tonya spent six months in hospital – but even when she was released, she would return regularly for various surgeries.
Furious with himself for the accident, Tonya’s husband Donald stayed by her side at all times, keeping a diary for her to read once she was taken out of the coma.
The hospital provided $2.3 million for her surgeries but were unable to pay any more – and Tonya had no insurance. Luckily, the staff applied for state assistance for her, and managed to secure her extra funding.
In total, her surgeries have cost over $2.9 million – and she’s only halfway done.
‘My husband and I were outside with a firepit, a week before Christmas in 2018. It got late, so I decided to go inside and get the meat to make dinner,’ Tonya said.
‘When I came back out, I reached in to put the meat on the grill. My husband was still building up the fire, but I didn’t realize it. He squirted the lighter fluid, which hit my hair, my arms and my clothes.
‘I went up like a match.
‘After that, I was in the hospital for six months. For the first two months, due to the pain and the fact that I had to have a surgery every week, I was put in a medically induced coma.
Recovery: While in her coma, Tonya underwent multiple operations, including a full face skin graft – and she has had to face many more operations in the months since she woke up
Struggle: It took Tonya months before she felt confident enough to step out in public
Ongoing: Tonya’s surgeries have cost a staggering $2.9 million – and she believes she is only halfway through her treatments
‘All the skin that you see on me – none of that is my burned skin. That skin was too badly burned to be salvaged. Even my face is a full skin graft.
‘When I woke up, I spent a month trying to get my bearings by working with physical therapists. All my muscles had atrophied.
‘I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t even wiggle around in bed.
‘While I was in hospital, my husband was angry with himself for the accident, and terrified of losing me. He kept a diary that’s just between us, because he said the worst part was not being able to speak to me.
‘Then they sent me to a rehab center for a month, but while I was in that facility, I got a terrible scalp infection. It was a fungal infection – a type of fungus not usually found in humans.
‘I couldn’t reach my scalp at the time because my arms wouldn’t bend, so I couldn’t scratch my head. I would use tongue scrapers or things that the doctors left behind because my head was so itchy.
‘Ultimately, I ended up going septic because of all the scratching, and had to go back to the hospital.
‘I’ve just had surgery on my eyes – I’ve always had weak eye muscles, but when I was in the coma, my right eye turned the opposite way.
‘I’ve had trouble recovering, but I feel so blessed because I’m going to have straight eyes.
‘I still have a minimum of 15 to 20 more surgeries to go. If you get burned over 50 per cent of your body, you can expect to have 50 to 100 surgeries over your lifetime. I was only burned over 35 per cent.’
Tonya and her husband were connected to Miriam Lazo Chavez, 52, a caretaker from Marietta, through a friend of a friend, and she has been Tonya’s nurse and friend for over two years.
New perspective: Tonya always loved playing with makeup, but after her accident, she lost all her confidence and had to spend months working up the courage to show off her face
Bravery: She has learned to embrace her altered appearance and now happily shows off her scars on social media in the hopes of inspiring others
Tonya credits her amazing support system and her love of makeup for helping her get the confidence to enjoy life again and help other people to do the same.
‘I’m very blessed with the people around me because I couldn’t survive without any of them,’ said Tonya.
‘My husband was amazing – he stayed with me the whole time. He was there for me in hospital for all six months, and then he learned about administering my medicine, cleaning my wounds and bathing me – everything.
‘My daughter was a veterinary major at the time, and when I woke up, she told me that she’d switched her major to nursing after seeing what the hospital had done for me.
‘My ultimate goal is to be able to raise a lot of money and help a lot of people, but you need recognition, because there’s a lot of charities out there.
She hopes that by gaining publicity through modelling and makeup, she can make a real difference to those going through what she did.
‘Makeup gave me my confidence back – and it’s also getting me name recognition,’ she said.
‘I was depressed because I had always loved makeup and fashion, but after the burns, I looked so bad.
‘My bottom lip was down to my chin. My mouth was constantly open – you could see all of my teeth. My eyes were puffy, and my skin was different colors.
‘Makeup wasn’t going to fix it. Why would I bother putting makeup on if it’s not going to fix anything?
‘As my face kept healing, I was still scared to go out. I never wanted to be seen.
‘One day, Miriam said to me, “This is all in your head now. You don’t look like you used to.”
‘It was a pretty simple statement, but it hadn’t occurred to me. That’s when I really picked the brushes up, after Miriam encouraged me.
‘I think that, once you’ve been through a trauma, the first thing you have to do is be thankful that you’re still here.’