Brave mum speaks of horror burns following BBQ blaze

Joanne McMahon
Joanne McMahon

The extraordinary courage of a Limerick mother who was engulfed in flames in a horrific accident at a family Confirmation two years ago has been captured on a new RTE series, which followed her as she underwent her 43rd operation.

The deep bond of Joanne McMahon and her husband Mike is apparent as she waited to go into theatre to undergo facial definition surgery at St James’s Hospital, as part of the gruelling series of reconstructive surgeries on the mother-of-five since 2014.

Strong sunshine blinded her from spotting the open flame already lit on a Bain-Marie type cooker before she poured methylated spirits on it.

Mike and Joanne McMahon

The front of her body down to her knees, including her face, neck and hands, were engulfed in a ball of fire.

In RTE’s new series, Keeping Ireland Alive, the Limerick nurse shows remarkable good humour at the Burns Unit of St James’s Hospital as she speaks of how it took her a year to be able to have her picture taken.

“I had a full 12 months where I didn’t go near any cameras and then in the last 12 months I’ve gradually got back into it. Gradually definitely seems to be the word,” she says with a little laugh.

Joanna before the accident 

“Now it doesn’t bother you at all,” says Mike.

She talks as the couple look at a picture of them with their five children at a Communion ceremony a few years before the accident.

“We all look well that day. We all look well today, too,” says Mike. “Gradually is the word. Everything is slipping back into place.”

He says when the accident first happened he didn’t know if his wife would survive.

“I didn’t know what was in front of us and what was going to happen and if even Joanne was going to survive at that time. It was shocking.

“She was all bandaged from head to toe, but as time has gone on it’s all improving. It’s all changing for the better.”

Joanne tells how her life was turned upside down in an instant on the June bank holiday weekend in 2014.

She says: “My niece had her Confirmation and that afternoon we were out at their house for a barbecue.

“I have a small little Bain-Marie that I use to keep food hot and underneath there is a tiny little stainless steel container and you put methylated spirits into that and light it. 

“Because of the strong sunshine I didn’t realise it had been lit. I didn’t see the flame so I poured methylated spirits on this tiny little container and it ignited and I was leaning over it. 

“So it was all instant really. The extent really was my head, the front of my body from my head to my knees.”

The mother-of-five was initially airlifted from her home to Cork University Hospital, and then transferred to the National Burns Unit at St James’s Hospital, where she spent a month in an induced coma, and a total of 131 days relearning how to walk and swallow.

RTE’s Keeping Ireland Alive series – filmed by 75 camera crews spread across the country – captured a single day in the HSE at the end of May. The five-part series is a warts-and-all look at the health service.

In the RTE Series, Odhran Shelly, Consultant Plastic Surgeon explains he carried out Joanne’s 43rd surgery to try and improve her facial definition by taking fat from her stomach and putting it into her face and taking some of the bulk around her neck.

As she goes into theatre, she is filmed as she nods resolutely and kisses Mike, before saying: “OK. See you later. Mind yourself.”

After the surgery she says good-humouredly: “I have the painkillers so it’s all eased away. And we’ve had soup and sandwiches. So it’s all good.”

At the end of the episode, she is filmed telling Odhran how her badly burned hands are now working well as he speaks about carrying out more surgery on them.

“They’re very functional.  They mightn’t look the best, but they’re very functional,” she smiles.