On 10/21/10 Don called me at 12:49pm. It was the kind of call you never want to get. He told me the house was on fire, which at the time I thought was on the list of most upsetting things you could hear. That information paled when he then told me he was burned. So as not to alarm me, he told me it was just his hands.
Don had been working in the garage and went back into the nearby furnace room to get a rag. Fumes had accumulated in the furnace room and when he went back in there, the hot water heater happened to click on, causing an explosion. He was on fire head to foot and experienced unimaginable terror as he tried to process his circumstances and figure out how to get out of the now pitch-black room that was filling with smoke. There was a moment where he felt it would be easiest if he just lay down and let the fire take him, that it would all be over within minutes. The fire had already burned through his nerves, so he wasn’t in any pain.
Don then thought about his family, about the neighbors potentially in danger, about all he had to live for and managed to feel his way out of the burning room and back into the garage. He found his cell phone and was able to get out to the driveway as he kicked off his burning, melting nylon shorts (never wear nylon if fire is a possibility — but most don’t think it is a possibility), pull of his burning sweater and call 911. Then he called me.
I was in downtown Denver (about 20 miles from home) at the time and had taken the train to work so I couldn’t jump in a car and drive to the hospital — probably a good thing not to drive at a time like that. Thankfully my friend Jane literally dropped what she had in her hands and ran out of the office with me to her car. The sheriff on the scene called me during our mad dash and cautioned me to be careful and not get in an accident, to not come to the house, but to go straight to the hospital. So we headed for Littleton Adventist Hospital (nearest Trauma 1 from our house) where the ambulance had taken Don with his “hand burns” – or so I thought. As we were on our way, the hospital called me to tell me that a chaplain, a nurse and a doctor would be waiting for me in front of the ER when I arrived. As an aside, that tops my list of what NOT to say to a family member driving as fast they can to get to their loved one. If you want to meet me in front of the ER, great, but don’t tell me a chaplain is there — it just makes you think death is imminent. So I asked the caller if my husband’s life was in danger (remember, I thought just his hands were burned so I thought there was some sort of mix-up) and they said “not at the moment,” which wasn’t very reassuring. They also told me they were waiting for me to get there before they helicoptered Don to the University of Colorado Hospital Burn Center. My first thought was they were waiting so I could say good-bye because he might die en-route.
It was with enormous relief that I then saw Don lying in the ER, his hands and legs bandaged, emotionally distraught, but alive and talking coherently. His face looked smokey and the back of his neck was bubbling with blisters, but he seemed of right mind given the circumstances and not about to die. It didn’t enter my mind that things can turn quickly for the worse. Or that in many cases like this the person doesn’t make it out of the burning building alive. And I was happily ignorant about burns — I didn’t know the very high mortality rate of burn patients (often from infection while they’re in the hospital) or that burns continue to deepen and declare themselves long after the fire is out. I was of the mind that is was a big injury, but even big injuries tend to heal pretty fast and Don was extremely fit and healthy going into it, so I was optimistic that this would clear up quickly and without permanent damage. I had a lot to learn.
Jane and I watched them wheel Don to the helicopter out in the parking lot (our neighbor Ray and his son-in-law Steven even made it over to see Don – amazing friends) and the helicopter quickly took off and headed out, so we did too. The helicopter ride was only about 5 minutes, but it took us about 25 minutes to get from the Littleton hospital to the University of Colorado Hospital Burn Center. Neither of us had ever been there, so we started in the ER where they told us where burn patients are taken — 3rd floor Trauma/Burn ICU. My first entree into the world of burns.
The goal of this blog is to tell our story of survival and recovery and to provide insight into the methods we use to recover in the hopes of helping others dealing with traumatic injury. I hope it will also inspire every day people living normal lives to dig a little deeper, push a little harder to achieve their goals.