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Image / Self / Real-life Stories
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‘That day changed my life forever’: Survivor Zoe Holohan on grief, beauty and rebuilding

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By Shayna Sappington
14th Sep 2023
Sponsored By

Daragh O'Neill

‘That day changed my life forever’: Survivor Zoe Holohan on grief, beauty and rebuilding

In 2018, survivor and author Zoe Holohan tragically lost her husband to the Greek wildfires, and she has been on a journey of healing ever since.

On July 23, 2018, vicious wildfires tore through the seaside town of Mati, Greece, just off the coast of Athens, tragically taking the lives of 102 people. Among them was writer and speaker Zoe Holohan‘s husband Brian O’Callaghan Westropp.

“We were on our honeymoon at the time,” recounts Zoe. “Just four days after we married, Brian died right before my eyes. Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine our life together would end so abruptly.

“Miraculously, I survived; I was rescued by a volunteer fire-fighter who carried me from the boot of a burning car just seconds from death. But I didn’t escape unscathed. I suffered severe burns all over my face, chest, arms, hands and legs.”

Zoe faced an impossible situation of not only grieving her partner, but also having to fight for her own life in hospital. “That day changed my life forever. Not only did it rob me of my soulmate and my happiness, but I was left with life-altering injuries and a very different perception of the world around me ever since.”

Here, Zoe opens up about her journey of healing over the past five years. Now, a best-selling author, motivational speaker and columnist, she chooses to share her powerful story, guiding others through grief and encouraging them to embrace vulnerability as their greatest strength. She’s learned to love her scars and champion her sensitive side.

After the fires, what injuries did you sustain and how has your skin recovered since?

My road to recovery was complicated, from both a physical and a mental health perspective. Not only did I lose my beloved husband that summer, but my father also passed from a heart attack just three weeks later, so I had to endure layer upon layer of grief. Coping with third and fourth-degree burns is no easy feat either; I spent many months in hospital, first in Greece and then back in Dublin and had dozens of crucial operations.

The surgeons worked miracles putting my body back together but unfortunately, the whole process was made all the more difficult when I contracted a very rare form of sepsis called TEN. About one in a million contract this in Europe each year (I was actually the first burns patient to be treated for this in Ireland) and very few survive. So, in a weird way, you could say I was the lucky one in a million this time around. I was placed in a coma to give myself the best chance but ended up with a myriad of life-threatening conditions. I had multiple organ failures, was placed on dialysis and even had to have a tracheostomy to keep me breathing. It was nothing short of a miracle I survived.

Zoe Holohan

The months after my ‘awakening’ were spent learning how to walk, talk, eat, breathe and use my hands again. My arms and legs were fully grafted and the surgeon effectively rebuilt my left hand. In short – I had to learn all my life skills from scratch. A major part of my recovery was learning how to love my skin again and truthfully that took a lot of time and patience. My skin needed to heal from the grafts and from the sepsis (which inflicted a lot of other wounds).

Once I left hospital, I realised my new ‘full-time job’ was learning how to nurture, treat and bind my limbs and that time was very well spent. I discovered very early on there were lots of lotions I could no longer use; my sensitivity was off the Richter scale… but Aveeno® was one lotion that never let me down. My time spent moisturising and massaging my limbs almost became a meditative state and slowly I began to see the positive changes.

Sensitivity is often seen as a negative attribute, but Aveeno® are hoping to break that stigma. What does sensitivity mean to you?

For some admitting you have a sensitive side is seen as a weakness. In fact, many people worry doing so will make you vulnerable. I believe the very opposite – I believe there is power in my vulnerability. I am a burns survivor and every blemish, every scar, tells the tale of my battle for survival. In exposing my scars and my tattoos (I like to think of those as my warrior stamps), I’m at my most vulnerable, but equally at my strongest. We can all feel a little exposed in revealing our sensitive points but we should never perceive these to be weaknesses; these are what make us human and help us connect with each other on a deeper level.

How have you learned to form a healthy relationship with your skin?

My skin was severely damaged all over and yes, my skin is incredibly sensitive these days. There are so many products that I can no longer use, so you can imagine my delight when I realised the entire Aveeno® range worked beautifully on both my face and body. I use the Skin Relief Lotion on very dry areas when I need it and daily I use the Skin Relief Body Wash along with lotions from the Daily Moisturising range. My journey back to loving my canvas was a slow and complicated path.

Zoe Holohan

A really important part of that journey was taking the time to nourish and pamper my skin once more and Aveeno® played a huge part in that transition. Not only did the creams leave my skin soothed and deeply moisturised but I also found the process itself so relaxing and, well, several years down the line, the results speak for themselves.

What are your favourite products from the Aveeno® range and why?

Oh, now that’s a tricky question because there are so many products I love in this range. My go-to pump bottle is the Daily Moisturising Calming Relief with Lavender Lotion. It smells yummy, but not overpowering and it soaks straight into the skin. That’s key; I’m never left with a sticky residue, which is my pet hate incidentally. The Daily Moisturising Yoghurt Body Cream with Apricot & Honey is also utterly delicious. It smells good enough to eat! (Though, of course, I wouldn’t recommend you do that.)

Zoe Holohan

My latest wonder product (oh, I’m giving away all my secrets now) is the Calm + Restore Triple Oat Serum. I have had amazing results with this product. Again, it soaks straight in and my face feels like it’s had a big drink of moisture every evening before I turn in. Most importantly to me, all of these products leave me feeling comfortable and soothed and I never have to worry about sensitive reactions – I know I’m in safe hands.

Over the past few years, you’ve shown immense resilience. What inspired you to share your story with others?

I think because my life has been so utterly transformed since 2018, I had to discover a new way to move forward. This hasn’t always been easy to do. Being resilient doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be strong all the time, it means you have the ability to pick yourself up after a fall and start again. Believe me, in the last five years I’ve had many falls (sometimes literally when I was learning how to walk again) but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some incredibly supportive friends, family and medical professionals who helped pick me up time and time again.

My experience has opened my eyes to the world around me and given me a fresh perspective. I’ve been gifted with a second chance at life and I firmly believe I need to do something positive with that chance. Giving motivational talks presents me with the opportunity to not only share some of the incredible experiences I’ve lived over the past five years but also hopefully inspire others to keep pushing forward when life throws tough challenges their way.

Zoe Holohan

Did you feel under pressure to ‘be tough’ rather than vulnerable with others?

Of course, it took a long time before I felt comfortable enough in my own skin (pun fully intended) to open up, even to my closest friends. My situation was extremely traumatic and initially, I just wanted to isolate myself from everybody. More than being tough, I think I was trying to protect them from the depth of my inner pain. However, there is so much truth in that old saying “a problem shared, is a problem halved” and it was only when I started my intense therapy sessions that I realised taking on all of this trauma alone was not going to work.

Sharing my story in my memoir As the Smoke Clears was hugely cathartic. It left me vulnerable for sure; let’s just say I didn’t hold much back, but it opened up so many new opportunities in my life. Showing vulnerability in this instance worked out rather well for me and it allowed many readers (I’ve received thousands of letters and messages over the last few years) to do the same in return. Like I said earlier, sometimes being vulnerable helps us connect on a deeper level and it definitely rewarded me in so many unexpected ways.

Videography by Dan Dunne

Photography by Daragh O’Neill

Zoe Holohan shares her story in partnership with Aveeno®, who seek to celebrate the beauty of sensitivity and vulnerability while demonstrating how these sensitive moments are what make us strong – even for those we consider to be the most resilient. Visit their website to learn more about this campaign.