Unlike many of you who might be wearing a mask for the first time in your lives during the pandemic, I’m an expert at wearing a mask. In fact, this is the second time in my life that I’m donning a mask, though today’s version is much lighter and feels inconsequential in comparison to the first one I wore.
In 1981, when I was 17 years old, I suffered third-degree burns on my face while serving as a volunteer firefighter in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
After agonizing weeks of recovery, skin grafts, and two near-death experiences in the burn unit at St. Agnes Hospital, I spent 23 hours a day for 23 straight months in a compression mask to mitigate thick scarring on my face and neck. If you haven’t seen a compression mask, think of a tan-colored neoprene mask, two sizes too small, from scalp to neck, covering your entire head—with holes for your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
I don’t have to tell you how anxious I was when I returned to high school during my senior year, looking and feeling nothing like the Brian I was before the fire. Not to mention the staring and unsupportive looks from students, teachers, and—well—everyone. I share this brief snapshot of my early experiences of wearing a mask not to garner attention or sympathy but to shed light on the reason I wore a mask and why you should too. Consider three reasons:
Quality of life: During recovery, wearing a mask was optional, but there was really no question whether I should, simply because of the quality of life it would provide. If I chose not to wear the mask, I would have suffered hardened scarring, which would have made everyday events very difficult, from opening my mouth to eat, to smiling and engaging in expressive conversations. Even wearing the mask like I did, I underwent procedures like “z‑plasties” when the skin on my neck got so tight I couldn’t turn my head – surgeons cut a Z just under the back of my jawline and grafted extra skin over the incision to open things up. I’ll be honest; it looks cooler on Zorro.
Today’s pandemic mask also contributes to our quality of life. If we choose to wear one, we can go about most of our daily tasks and jobs with a much lower infection risk to ourselves and others. Equally critical, mask wearing helps hospitals that are overburdened with COVID patients. Health care workers can focus on patients who are fighting long-term illnesses such as cancer or who need non-COVID emergency care and may be ignoring symptoms because they fear visiting a hospital with a virus outbreak.
Medical implications: Wearing a compression mask after the fire also had legitimate medical implications for me. I had more than 40 reconstructive surgeries as I healed over the years, but that number would have been greatly increased at a higher personal risk if I had not kept the scarring under control with my compression mask. Every time you go under the knife, there are considerations like infections, anesthesia complications, delays in healing, paralysis, numbness and tingling, and poor results, to name a few. No surgery is risk-free.
Going without a pandemic mask also has mortality implications. The virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. If you contract the virus, there is no clear body of evidence that predicts how severely you will react. Young, old, fit, obese—the disease doesn’t care who dies and who doesn’t.
We’re in this together: Though wearing my compression mask after the fire didn’t offer anyone else benefits, pandemic masks are precisely the opposite. They serve as protection for you and for everyone else with whom you come in contact. This is a battle we’re all fighting together. Think of WWII: If you couldn’t fight in the war or join the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations (USO), your family bought war bonds; planted victory gardens; and rationed tires, oil, coal, fuel, meat, dairy products, coffee, and other staples to support the war effort.
This was a massive collaborative undertaking that benefited our American troops. Today, wearing masks is not only beneficial to you personally, but to everyone in your community. I’m confident that those who are lagging will come around.
Take it from a mask expert. It’s worth it.
Brian Walsh is an author, speaker and cofounder of Walsh & Nicholson Financial Group, serving over 1,000 clients in wealth management, estate and retirement planning, and more. His first book, Beyond the Mask: Lessons I Might Have Never Learned, was released in May 2020. He holds the esteemed designation of Certified Financial Fiduciary, serves as Vice President of the Million Dollar Round Table Foundation Board, and is deeply involved in charitable pursuits, including finding a cure for juvenile diabetes and supporting firefighters. Brian lives in Haverford, Pennsylvania, with wife Mary Ann. They have three children and two beautiful granddaughters.