Fire Survivor Inspires Others by Refusing Obstacles

House fire survivor Gina Patterson

Gina Patterson teaches physical fitness, sports and conditioning classes offered through the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas.

Doctors told UT Dallas instructor Gina Patterson that she’d never play sports again after suffering extensive burn injuries during a home fire in Arkansas.

Patterson was 19 years old in 1993 when the fire occurred. The athletic teenager was burned over 88 percent of her body. Her father, sister and two friends died in the fire. She went on to endure more than 35 surgeries and underwent an intensive recovery.

“Lots of physical therapy,” she recalled. “That was my full-time job.”

Doctors told Patterson that she would need a personal caregiver for the rest of her life.  

Nineteen years later, Patterson not only takes care of herself, but also is an athlete who teaches physical fitness, sports and conditioning classes offered through the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas. She coaches a girls’ volleyball team for fifth- and sixth-graders in Rockwall. She also plays indoor soccer and volleyball for an adult league in Rockwall.

Gina Patterson

Gina Patterson has worked at the University since 2005.

“I try to do my best in everything that I try,” Patterson said. “I’m not always successful. I like to give my all. When I’m coaching, I’ll tell the girls, ‘It’s a privilege to be able to walk, and to be able to be on this court playing because someone else may not have legs. They may be paralyzed, and they would give anything to be here.’ It’s kind of a little motivating tool, too.”

Her students are inspired by her story, her positive attitude and athleticism.

“It was amazing to hear it because most people wouldn’t recover from it,” said Paul Wroblewski, a senior biology major at UT Dallas. “If anything, it was more of a shock to me. From there, it was inspiration. If she could do it, then I can pretty much do anything I want as well.”

The ordeal she went through did not dissuade her from pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a firefighter. Patterson was inspired by her grandfather, Claude Jackson, who told her stories when she was growing up about fighting fires in Arkansas. “When the accident happened, I never told myself that I wouldn’t do that (firefighting),” Patterson said. “I didn’t even think about it. I was in survival mode. Then in 1999, I made the Eastfield College volleyball team. As I got stronger and more confident, I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Gina Patterson doing push-ups with UT Dallas students

Patterson's students say they are inspired by her story, her positive attitude and athleticism.

With the support of family and friends, Patterson underwent training and became a volunteer firefighter at the Cockrell Hill Fire Department in 2009. She said she wasn’t sure how she would react to her first firefighter assignment.

“I did fine,” she recalled.  “I didn’t freak out or anything.  My heart raced a little. But once I did that, I thought ‘I could do this.’” Twice a year, Patterson volunteers at the Great Lakes Burn Camp for Kids in Michigan. She gives public speeches about her experience to various groups such as Boy Scout Troops, medical students and most recently, the Rockwall chapter of the National Charity League. Her overall message speaks to what is possible in life.

 “I’d rather look back when I’m 60, 70, or 80 years old and be able to say, ‘I did give that a shot,’ ” she said. “I lived life with no regrets.”

Patterson (center) underwent training to become a volunteer firefighter in the Cockrell Hill Fire Department in 2009.

Survivor Shares Fire Prevention Tips

October is National Fire Prevention Month. Patterson shares these fire safety tips from the Dallas Fire Academy.

Get a few fire extinguishers for your house. They are typically about $20. Ask your local fire department for recommendations for proper placement. Read the instructions so you know how to use one if needed.Change smoke detector batteries twice a year. Press the test button. Make sure you and your family are familiar with the sound.Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. The cost is about $20.Devise a clear escape plan for your home. Have a meeting place and practice the plan.If you live in a home with more than one story, you may want to consider getting a fire escape ladder.Become CPR certified as well as certified in first aid.Know your surroundings. Each time you walk into a building, make a mental note of exit signs, alternative escape routes and know the location of fire extinguishers.Don’t refuel a hot lawn mower. Let it cool down. If gas spills onto the hot motor it, it could result in a flash fire.Use proper ventilation when using chemicals. Make sure that you’re using the appropriate chemicals for the job. Contact your local fire department for recommendations.Get auto rescue tools, which allow you to easily break out a side window as well as cut through a seatbelt.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].