My shirt caught fire… I nearly died. That's why I try and squeeze every drop out of life
02:56 GMT, 15 April 2012
Geraldine O'Callaghan suffered third degree burns when she was a child
Geraldine O’Callaghan shudders when she talks about fire,
the goosebumps visible on her fair, freckled skin.
The former Apprentice star
has honed her image as a tough, hard-working TV personality, but, in this
moment, there is an obvious vulnerability to her. Then she takes off her floral
cardigan, and it is easy to see why.
Geraldine’s left arm and back are badly scarred, the
remnants of a day that almost killed her when she was eight years old.
too near the fire in her family home, Geraldine’s shirt caught fire –
combusting so rapidly that she suffered third degree burns, the most severe
Geraldine’s father rushed her to Temple Street hospital, beginning a long
and arduous recovery process.
Geraldine is now a high-profile ambassador for
the hospital, constantly fundraising – because she believes she would not be
alive today without Temple Street and its doctors.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday, she
recounts the injuries she suffered, how she can still smell the burning flesh
and how even the sight of a cigarette lighter terrifies her.
happened at Christmas time when she was eight, but Geraldine recalls it like it
‘I was sitting at the fire around Christmas time when I
caught fire,’ she told the MoS.
‘I was sitting on the step in front of the
fire; my older sister was upstairs blow drying her hair. The shirt I was
wearing was a bit baggy and it just caught fire. My sister’s friend started
beating me down with tea towels and pouring water on me.
‘My sister couldn’t hear me screaming over the hair dryer.
Eventually she heard the screams and she put me into a cold shower.
'But she had
to take me straight back out because the skin was just dripping down my back.
She tried to push all the skin back up and she was rubbing Sudocrem on it.
‘Then my dad came in, wrapped me up in tin foil and rushed
me out to Temple Street hospital,’ she said.
‘Had I had been wearing a (polyester) shirt, I would have
been dead. It would have stuck to me and burnt in to my skin; they wouldn’t
have been able to pull it off. I know if I wasn’t wearing that shirt, I
wouldn’t be here today.
‘What I remember the most about it – and it’s so scary –
still to this day what’s vivid to me is the smell. The smell of burning flesh,
I still smell it now.
Geraldine isn't insecure or self-conscious about her scars, as they show she 'got through it'
‘It was the worst smell. My sister couldn’t even sit beside
me because the smell was so bad. It was rotten, and it took months to go.
‘For three years after that, I wouldn’t blow-dry my hair.
The noise was too loud and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hear if something
bad happened. I wouldn’t even let anyone have their music on too loud,’ she
But it took a long, long time before Geraldine even got to
the point that she could dry her own hair.
Third degree burns: The skin on Geraldine's arm was melted down to the muscle
Following the burns, she had to
endure painful skin grafts over a two-month period. She had to remain in
intensive care, but Geraldine said that it’s not the pain that she remembers –
it’s the sight of her burnt skin dripping from her arm as her mother held her.
‘After a while they took skin off the back of my legs, they
grafted it and they put staples in my back. I remember my mum lifting me up
while they changed my dressing; it frightened the life out of me.
third-degree burns, which meant that there was basically no skin left on that part
of my body. It was just down to muscle.
‘I don’t remember the pain but I remember seeing the
dripping of my skin. It was just drip, drip, drip – my burnt skin was still so
hot and it was just dripping.
‘I could bear the pain. What doesn’t kill you makes you
stronger; I’m a strong woman now. I’m so lucky to be alive. It’s made me a
fighter,’ she said.
‘I’m a very strong person and I think I’ve gotten over it to
a certain extent but there is residue there, definitely.’
Much of that residue is a severe fear of flame. The sound of
fireworks at Halloween terrifies her; when she glimpses someone playing with a
lighter absent-mindedly, she gets chills all over her body.
‘The fear of it is horrible. Even when people are messing
with lighters, I can’t take it. It freaks me out. Even bangers around
Halloween, I hate it.’
The skin on Geraldine's back was also melted down to the muscle
She had to confront her fear head-on while filming last season’s Celebrity Head Chef, when
Geraldine was required to cook over an open-flamed cooker.
The hissing sound from the flame petrified her, and the
producers and chef Conrad Gallagher had to step in to help and comfort her. But
employing all the strength her ordeal gave her, Geraldine eventually got
through it with the assistance of the production team.
Because she has been through such a grave health ordeal
herself and come out the other end stronger, Geraldine is committed to helping
other children being treated at Temple Street.
Telling anyone who will listen that she owes her life to the
children’s hospital, Geraldine has been a fundraising ambassador for them for
the past three years – and spends significant amounts of time visiting
‘I feel very lucky. It could have been my face that was
burnt. I feel like now I can do something good with what happened,’ she said.
‘Just after I did The Apprentice, I realised I had a profile
and I could use it.
‘I have become close to some of the children in there. You
become so wrapped up in them, so many of the kids have such great personalities.
‘I don’t think I could ever walk away from Temple Street.
Because the more you get to know people, the more you get involved.
‘I feel so happy to be able to help them. Really, I owe them
my life,’ she said.
‘My dad owns a shop that’s like a stone’s throw away from
the hospital. So there is not one kid in my area that has been in Temple Street
that I haven’t met.
‘My cousin Michael has a daughter who has cystic fibrosis,
and my other cousin Edel has a daughter who has Type 1 Diabetes, which is the
worst type – she is in there every week. So everything I do is personal too,’
Geraldine was in intensive care and had to have skin grafted from the back of her legs. Having her dressings changed was agonising
Especially after being launched into the Irish showbusiness
world by The Apprentice, Geraldine feels her work with Temple Street gives her
perspective and thankfully grounds her.
‘Whenever I’m in there I ask them to bring me around the
wards, and it really hits home,’ she said.
‘It really does motivate me to go on with the fundraising.
It really shows how shallow the showbiz world is.’
Geraldine attended a launch party for Harry’s On The Green –
where she previously worked – on the same day she had visited children at
For a moment, she considered ditching the party because she
had no new shoes to show off – and then she realised how frivolous she was
being, and how to put things in
‘I was crying as I walked down the street,’ she said. ‘I
felt so guilty because I wasn’t going to go out because I didn’t have any new
shoes to wear.
‘I was looking around at all the glitz and the glamour.
Rosanna (Davison) was there, Georgia (Salpa) was there.
‘I thought, “It’s great for you all, but you have no idea
where I just came from.” It really puts stuff into perspective.’ Geraldine
can’t say enough nice words about the staff at the hospital – not just the
professionals who nursed her through her own ordeal, but the people whom she
still sees nursing children back to health on a regular basis.
‘I don’t believe in God, but the doctors and nurses in
Temple Street are angels,’ she said.
‘The atmosphere is so warm in there and they make you feel welcome,’
she said. ‘I know going in there that I am going to see some horrible things.
But they are just so lovely there.
Geraldine and her brother two weeks before she got burnt
‘The adaptability of human beings is amazing. I know that
you can really deal with anything. When you go to Temple Street and you see
what other people are dealing with it makes you realise that life goes on.
‘No matter what heartbreaks, what ups and downs or whatever
– you will definitely get over it,’
Since fundraising for Temple Street, Geraldine has set
herself a goal of raising €15,000 a year.
Last year she joined a group of nearly 70 bikers and
travelled down the famous Route 66 in America. She proudly told me that she
raised €10,000 for that trip – and all the money went to opening the new cystic
fibrosis ward in Temple Street.
When Geraldine isn’t fundraising she is busy working; the
entrepreneur has just launched a new business called Celebrity Night Out, which
helps customers enjoy a night of luxury at a reduced price.
And she makes no
apologies for enjoying nights out herself – saying that, after surviving such a
harrowing injury at such a young age, she tries to live each day as if it were
‘I party hard and I make no excuses for it,’ she said.
‘I earn my money and I spend it how I enjoy it. I don’t believe
in saving up for a rainy day because you could be dead tomorrow.
‘Believe me, what I’ve seen in Temple Street, I know you
could be dead tomorrow – so I work hard and I party hard,’ she said.
When she shows her scars, her skin still looks fragile – and
it’s clear her body has endured traumatic grafts.
But Geraldine says she doesn’t care about the disfigurement;
it’s part of who she is and shows she has won a tough battle.
‘So many people have insecurities about scars and they cover
them up,’ she said.
‘I never developed self-consciousness about it. Other people
get a scar and they spend their whole life hiding it.
‘A scar is a story, it means you went through something and
you got over it. It’s proof that you’ve lived.’
To donate to Temple Street hospital or to find details of their upcoming fund
raising events, log on to www.templestreet.ie