Burn survivors reach out to help others, offer support

Burn survivors reach out to help others, offer support

By Elizabeth Simpson
The Virginian-Pilot  Click Here to see the original story!
© July 28, 2014

They know the bizarre dreams of induced comas.

The dawning of consciousness through thick layers of medication.

The scraping away of ruined tissue.

The excruciating wait for the growth of new skin.

“I thought I looked like a monster,” says Steve Joyner.

They know what it’s like to be on fire.

Not metaphorically, as with a passion, but literally, to look down and see their bodies ablaze.

They share much, but each of their stories is as unique as the victims themselves.

Like the genesis of their accidents: A ceramic oil lamp. A house fire. Molten metal in a welding lab. An outdoor explosion.

And the length of their recoveries: For some, a few months; for others, years.

Some scars twist across faces and arms; others are hidden behind clothing, a dragon’s breath pattern dotting a torso.

For the most part, there’s a sense of pride, rather than shame, in these reminders – a sign of moving from victim to survivor.

Joyner, 51, will tell you he’s a better man, post-accident. He speaks introspectively about the three Fs – faith, family and fight – that pushed him forward.

“You have to accept how you look, because you’re alive,” he says, his smile flanked by scar tissue. “Looks become secondary. I was thankful that, by God’s grace, I was still alive.”

Cliff Golby, 42, is more blunt, a little funnier. He doesn’t entertain any “rising from the ashes” sentiments.

What was the most important life lesson he learned from the experience?

He raises an arm crisscrossed in skin grafts and says: “Don’t pour gas on a fire or it’ll blow up.”
___

Fair enough.

Let’s start with Golby. He’s sort of the patriarch of a support group that meets monthly at Sentara Healthcare’s corporate offices in Norfolk. His injuries were the most severe of the bunch, and his hospital stay was the longest – in and out over a year and a half.

He begins with a small irony. Before his accident, he had his own business in an industry he’d spent two decades learning about:

Fire sprinklers.

He was working at his home office in Virginia Beach one day in November 2009, shortly after a nor’easter had blown down some tree limbs. He had a pile of debris in the backyard he wanted to burn. He tried lighting it, but nothing seemed to happen.

He didn’t see it, but a tiny spark was glowing far back in the pile. He grew impatient, so he got a can of gasoline from the garage.

The hidden flame ignited the fumes from the gas can, engulfing Golby in seconds.

He can still picture it, like a slow-motion movie: the flames racing into the gas can, the explosion, the fire consuming his arms and torso. The horrifying knowledge that his flesh was burning and that this could be the end.

“I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” he screamed, over and over.

His daughter, 23 at the time, was watching from inside the house. She saw him do a 360-degree turn, spot their above-ground pool and catapult himself over the side.

He landed on the plastic tarp, which melted onto his skin, but the water below extinguished the flames. When emergency crews arrived, there was no skin on his arms, so they couldn’t start an IV of pain meds there. He begged them for drugs to knock him out of his pain. They bored a hole in a leg bone to insert a tube to administer drugs.

He remembers all that, and climbing into the ambulance.

Then, there’s a gap.He spent four months in a drug-induced coma at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, the region’s burn trauma unit. That allowed treatment that would otherwise have been excruciating – cleaning wounds, removing infected and dead tissue, transplanting skin grafts from other parts of the body.

So much of Golby’s skin had been lost – he had third-degree burns from the waist up – that he needed to have new skin grown in petri dishes. At first, they didn’t think he’d have his ears or hair, but he still has both.

Those hazy, drug-filled days brought dreams so vivid he swore they were real. He heard a nurse talking about a trip to Thailand and started dreaming every night about flying to that country. His wife would watch the TV show “NCIS” in his room, and he’d dream he was at the center of a murder plot. While awaiting skin transplants, he dreamed he was getting a new heart in a prison hospital when a riot broke out just as the organ was being transferred.

When he was brought out of the coma and moved from ICU, this thought hit him: “What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” He would try to sleep from drug dose to drug dose. He was so depressed he didn’t want to be awake.

“I was crying my ass off.”

After his discharge, he had to return to the hospital numerous times for infection treatments and surgeries. His stomach muscles were so damaged by high amounts of narcotics that he can no longer take them. Feeling never returned to his hands.

He was watching TV at home one day when he saw a different reason to return to the hospital: a news report about Steve Joyner, who was severely burned from a barrel fire.

Golby reached out to Sentara chaplain Amy Johnson, who connected him with Joyner’s family members.

He met them in the waiting room with a gift for Joyner: a pillow.

He explains: “The hospital pillows are flat as a pancake.”

___

Meanwhile, Joyner was in the middle of his drug-induced coma, with family members keeping vigil and writing logs in a journal that began Dec. 13, 2010.

That’s the day he was helping friends sell Christmas trees in Portsmouth. He was restarting a fire in a barrel and poured gas on some crate boards, then threw a match on top. The fumes caught fire, blowing gas and flames back on him.

He was ablaze from head to foot, screaming: “Put me out! Put me out!”

Three people pulled him away and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher, which saved his life.
He remembers the incident in vivid detail, including a comment he heard in the ambulance: “I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

Joyner spent a month on a ventilator and woke to scars across his face, arms, torso and legs. He’d been on the breathing tube so long that scar tissue had stiffened around his mouth, which now needed to be stretched out so he could eat and talk. His vocal cords had been damaged to the point where he could barely speak.

Chaplain Johnson was the first person he remembers seeing. She prayed with him. He looked at her and said, “I can’t take this anymore.”

But he did. His siblings, his mother and his two children rallied around him, keeping a journal of his progress: “Steve, We (Mom and Rob) are here in the hospital to be with you on Christmas Eve. We know there is nothing physically we can do for you here, but we both are here for ourselves, just to be close even though we know you’re in good hands.”

It wasn’t until after he was discharged the following March that he read the journal and realized just how close to death he had been and how much his family had done for him during the months of skin grafting. The accident strengthened his faith.

“I had a sense of peace even on fire. A sense of God saying, ‘You will be OK whether you die or make it.’ I had a calmness I never thought I would have.”

Joyner, who had been separated from his wife for years, divorced in 2011. At first, he worried that he might not be able to go back to his job as a boat salesman at Centerville Waterway Marina in Chesapeake. His voice was weak, and he couldn’t spend time in the sun. Scars covered his face, and he wondered what customers’ reactions would be.

Surgery on his vocal cords removed scar tissue, reviving his voice. Still on the mend, he received an invite for the 30th anniversary of his Woodrow Wilson High School class in October 2011. He looked and sounded so different, he didn’t want to go, but friends persuaded him to attend.

He reconnected with an old classmate, Catherine Ferrell. Even though they had traveled in different social circles in school, they hit it off and married two years later.

Their relationship gave him new confidence as he learned that he is more than what he looks like. In 2012, he returned to work – wearing a hat and lots of sunblock.

“I wondered about meeting new clients with the face I have now,” said Joyner, who lives in Virginia Beach. “But I have not had one person refuse to do business with me because of the way I look. When you look different, you feel different, you feel stronger, my character comes through. People see through the scars.”

As Golby had done to him, Joyner reached out to Sam Caterine.

___

Caterine was taking a welding class at Thomas Nelson Community College when he joined this fraternity of burn victims on April 4, 2013.
He was supposed to be wearing a welding apron for safety, but he wasn’t.

A molten piece of metal fell on his flannel shirt, which he immediately discovered was flammable.

Caterine, a 20-year-old Poquoson resident, has a dry sense of humor, sort of like Golby’s, and relays the incident with a wry smile.

“I remember looking at my hands, and skin was melting off my fingers. I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to die.’ As morbid as that sounds, it was kind of comforting. At least I went out in a pretty cool way.”

As that was going on in his head, his outer self was freaking.

“I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” he screamed. The smell of his skin and shirt burning, and the acrid taste in his mouth, was horrible, memories more indelible than the flames.

His instructor told him repeatedly to lie down, and his lab partner dumped a tray of water on him.

Caterine remembers Joyner coming to visit him once he emerged from a coma: “Finally it was someone who could relate to what the hell was going on.”

Because Caterine had had a drug problem in the past, his parents worried about possible addiction to the pain meds. These were “really good drugs,” he said, but once he felt better, he didn’t want them. “I feel happier for some reason. I realized life is pretty awesome. You really you don’t need to get high.”

When Chaplain Johnson, Joyner and Golby asked if he was interested in coming to the support group, Caterine said yes.

____

And so they meet monthly.

At first, Joyner didn’t like Golby. Didn’t care for his brand of humor.

An example of that: During a recent support meeting, Golby admits to suggesting they call the group “the Crispy Critters Club.”

That was vetoed.

Now they’re best buddies, bound by scars and headed this fall to a Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors conference in California.

What the two of them have done – help other survivors – is a concept that’s been adopted in hospitals across the country through the Phoenix organization’s program called SOAR: Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery. It taps into this concept: “To glide or fly in the air, to climb quickly or powerfully.”

Chaplain Johnson no longer works at Sentara, but Golby and Joyner continue the effort to start a SOAR chapter. In the meantime, it’s happening informally through annual burn survivors reunions, monthly meetings of the Tidewater Burn Survivors, and members talking with victims who’ve just arrived on the unit that treats about 200 patients a year.

What’s the best lotion to stop the itching that goes on for years? What was the moment you decided to wear shorts, scars be damned?

“I have never been embarrassed of my scars,” Golby said at a recent meeting. “I don’t care. What does bother me is not being able to use my hands.”

Ella Osmore, another member, has a pattern across her torso she describes as dragon’s breath. She was lighting a ceramic oil lamp in April 2009 when it exploded, burning her stomach and inner thighs.

Nancy Redburn was one of many friends who came to visit. Two years later, in October 2011, Redburn’s husband called Osmore to let her know Redburn was in the same burn unit after their gas dryer had malfunctioned, catching the house on fire.

For the group, Golby is a sort of a touchstone, someone who came back from severe burns and put his experience to good use.

He’s frustrated about not being able to work. About losing feeling in some parts of his body. And ruined sweat glands, which prevents him from spending much time in the heat. And being forced to give up his job and hobbies – working on cars and flying – because he can’t use his hands.

But he can still use two fingers to move a cursor on a screen, and his foot to operate a computer mouse.

He talks with teens about fire safety. He participated in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University of a bionic prosthetic arm powered by thought.“I think you need to make a good reason for why you survived,” Golby said. “When you survive something like this, all the other stuff is not a big deal.”

“We’re here for a reason,” Joyner said. “I’m not going to say we’re thankful for the experience, but in a lot of ways, we’re better.”

Collectively, they share scars, etched in their memories and their skin. Individually, they’ve learned to adjust, to appreciate what they have.

They won’t forget what happened, but they don’t dwell on it either. As new skin grows, so do new lives.

Elizabeth Simpson, 757-222-5003, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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