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'Lucky to be alive,' Fergus burn victim returns home after life changing fire mishap

After multiple surgeries, Cathy Bilton, a well-known hairdresser in Fergus returned home late August
Cathy Bilton prior to her accident. Supplied photo

The past three months have been a life-changing experience for Cathy Bilton, a Fergus woman who fought all odds to survive a bonfire mishap that left her with third-degree burns on nearly 60 per cent of her body.

“I’m very lucky to have another chance,” said Bilton who finally came home from hospital in late August. 

“I’m healing slowly. It's good to be home.”

The hairstylist, well-known in the Fergus community was airlifted to Hamilton in late May after her clothing caught fire as she and her husband were enjoying a night around a campfire.

Bilton spent three months in hospitals alternating between Hamilton, where she spent a month in a coma and a month in rehab and St. John’s Rehab in Toronto, where she underwent multiple skin graft surgeries primarily on her leg, upper torso and her head. 

Her family said that health workers were all surprised at the rate her body healed. 

“I just recently came back from my doctor in Hamilton who actually did all the operating on me and she hugged me and said that I’m very lucky to be alive,” said Bilton.  

While her skin has healed, Bilton is required to wear a full-body compression suit for 23 hours a day for approximately two years to help minimize the development of scars and protect her healing skin.

She said emotionally, she hasn’t healed from the traumatic incident at all.

“It’s very hard,” said Bilton in tears. “I have a lot of PTSD.”

She said her family, friends and community support over the past three months has made her feel truly loved. 

Bilton’s fundraiser created by her ex-husband Peter Serra surpassed its $5,000 goal in three months by reaching $13,320. Bilton said the funds are being used for her medical expenses such as a walker, psychiatric therapy, supportive devices installed at home and transportation services to and from her medical appointments. 

“I look at everybody and I’m so blessed to have such a great community. I’ve lived here for 30 years, I’ve raised my four children here, started my own business and the community has wrapped their arms around me and said we’re going to look after you,” said Bilton. 

She said there is always a family member around her whether it’s her husband or her children. 

She said Serra has remained her best friend with whom she shares four children, with daughter Samantha in particular being her rock throughout her healing journey. 

Samantha said the most difficult part of the incident was grappling with the idea that she might lose her mother.

She said the whole experience, particularly during a pandemic, has been terrifying. 

“I would call every day, I would talk to the nurses every day twice a day, I would ask about her vitals, because of the fact that you couldn’t go in and see the person for yourself, you had to go off of what somebody else is saying,” said Samantha. 

“It was really distressing It was hard for me to sleep at night,” said Bilton's daughter, adding that all she could think about at any given moment whether at home or at work was her mother. 

“It was really really hard her being in a medically induced coma,” said Samantha in tears. “I would go home every night and I would just cry.”

After the hospital lifted restrictions on visitors due to COVID, Samantha said she would head straight to the hospital after her 12-hour shifts to visit her mother and care for her. 

“This woman is resilient,” she said. “She is resilient and she is a fighter and she just keeps pushing through and she is amazing.”

She said she is really proud of her father (Peter Serra)  who always cared for Bilton.

“It’s so amazing that there’s still compassion between them even though it has been so long,” said Samantha. “He would even call me and see how I am and just not even talk on the phone. You know like a blank conversation and I knew there that he was hurting.” 

She said it was amazing to see how many people really care for her mother. 

“Everybody was so supportive of her. So many people were praying for her to pull through.”

As for her mother's mental health, Samantha said she thinks it will be a long process.  

“The mental impact is huge. Think about it, it’s your body, you have to look at yourself every day,” said Samantha.  

Samantha said the incident completely changed her mother by giving her a new perspective on life where she doesn’t take anything for granted. 

“She’s realized that life is really short in an instant. Everything can turn around and everything can change,” said Samantha.