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Burn Patients Face Long, Difficult Recovery

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Life is getting back to normal for most of us in San Diego County. But that’s not the case for people who were severely burned in last month’s wildfires. For them, recovery will be long, difficult,

(Photo: A burn victim is treated at UCSD Regional Burn Center. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

Life is getting back to normal for most of us in San Diego County. But that’s not the case for people who were severely burned in last month’s wildfires. For them, recovery will be long, difficult, and painful. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

When the wildfires first broke out a few weeks ago, staff at UCSD Regional Burn Center had a feeling they’d be busy soon. They were right.

Katherine Ridgeway: This patient here, he was a civilian that was unfortunately caught in the fires. He has pretty severe burns to his face and his arms. This patient here was caught in the brush fire as he was attempting to cross the border, I think. And he had a very severe inhalation injury, for which he’s on a respirator, right now, also developing pneumonia.

Katherine Ridgeway is a physician’s assistant. We’re standing in the burn center’s intensive care unit. Each one of these patients has been badly burned, and they’re comatose. Ridgeway says they’ll be here for awhile.

Ridgeway: Well, for a skin burn, like a coetaneous burn, you average one day per percentage of burn. So let’s say they have 50 percent of their body burned, they will average 50 days here. However, if you add a lung injury to that, it could prolong it months. 

Eventually, these patients will need to take an active role in their own recovery. Right now, they’re completely immobilized.   

Allyson Roach: You’re lying on a bed, you can see only what’s above your head, the ceiling, for example. I can’t tell you how many times I counted the little dots on the ceiling trying to keep myself busy. But it’s very scary.

Allyson Roach was savagely burned in the 2004 Paradise Fire. She was overcome by flames as she tried to leave her Valley Center home.

Her sister died in the fire. Roach suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 85 percent of her body. Roach spent the first part of her recovery in the UCSD burn unit.

Roach: The only time I really remember experiencing any severe amount of pain in the beginning, was when I was initially burned.

Janine Dubina is the nurse manager in the burn center’s ICU. She says there’s a reason Roach doesn’t remember more.

Dubina: When they’re severely burned and in this, we put them actually in a chemical coma, so that we can provide the care that we need to do, with minimal psychological strain or physical strain.

Dubina says that care includes changing their bandages twice a day.

Dubina: We remove all the dressings, which can be uncomfortable, and then we actually look at the burn sites, try to remove any dead tissue, and we provide a topical cream or ointment to the skin, and then we rewrap it.

There’s another treatment that’s often performed daily. Dr. Colleen Channick sticks a long tube with a light on it down a burn patient’s throat.

Channick: In the burn patients we’ve been using it because a lot of them have inhalation injuries and, they’ve been on the ventilator for awhile and they’re paralyzed, not able to cough up secretions. So we use the bronchoscope to go down to the airways, see the secretions and actually remove them. You help open up parts of the lung.

In time, these patients will have numerous skin grafts. They’ll probably also have multiple reconstructive procedures, including plastic surgery. Eventually, they’ll have vocational and physical rehab, too.

Allyson Roach says recovering from burn injuries it’s actually tougher psychologically than physically.

Roach: You know, the pain goes away after a little while. But you have to deal with getting up in the morning and looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, this is my new face. Or looking at your hands and saying, this is my new hands, or my new body. And that’s difficult to deal with.

For now in the intensive care unit, burn patients are fighting just to stay alive. All told, 20 people who were burned in last month’s wildfires were treated at UCSD. Some are still in critical condition. Six people have already been released.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.