Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It Was Just A Nice, Calm Spring Afternoon...

(Just fyi - I realize the font in this post changes throughout and I don't know why, but I can't fix it and I'm tired of trying. So, onward...)

Last week, on the day before his 16th birthday, my son caught on fire. Yep - caught on fire. Now how's that for a way to start off a blog post? Figured I may as well just "jump right in" to the topic du jour.

It was a kind of freak accident with his new charcoal grill, an early birthday present he'd received from his grandfather the day before. He'd wanted to do a back yard cook-out for his birthday and do all the cooking/grilling himself. Kind of show off his skills to all his friends and family. See, my son has been a Boy Scout for eleven years. He is one project away from being an Eagle Scout, as a matter of fact. So it's not as if he is new to working with a grill. The kid's been cooking over fires for years. Sometimes he makes our family dinners in his treasured Dutch oven, out in the yard over a fire pit in the ground. He is not inexperienced.

Now, here's what my son didn't know (nor did I): If you need to add some charcoal to your grill that's already got some going, it is recommended that you pick up the individual briquets out of the bag one at a time with tongs rather than tipping the bag and just dumping a few of them out. Well, that is what he did - tipped the bag.

Even though he didn't add his charcoal in the "recommended" way, I am now told by people with more expertise (i.e. a lot of old guys, including the doctors) that what happened next should never happen. Apparently, bags of charcoal can often have - for obvious reasons - bits of dust and debris in them from the briquets. Bits. Some. A little. This bag had a massive amount of charcoal dust, and when my son tipped that bag it all poured out onto the already-hot coals, instantly bursting into a huge fireball that engulfed his upper body.

He knew, being a Boy Scout, to "stop, drop and roll". Then he plunged into the swimming pool. Now here is a very fortunate coincidence: I had just filled that pool the day before. Prior to that it had been empty for months because we had to have some work done on the pump and drain. And as an added bonus, because I had literally just filled it, I hadn't added any chlorine yet (which would have irritated the burns). So, at least there was that. I'm looking for all the "positives" I can in this situation.

Here's how things went down from my perspective: I was in the front yard planting some flowers. I had been in and out of the back yard checking his progress with the new grill, so it's not like I didn't know what he was doing. I just wasn't worried, since everything seemed find and normal. A fine and normal Spring afternoon. Sigh...

About five minutes into my hole-digging I heard a sound. A scream? I wasn't sure. It was loud and echoed around the neighborhood, so at first I didn't even know where it had come from. I lifted my head and I'm pretty sure I cocked it to the side like a dog does. Then I suddenly just had a feeling (all of this happened within about three seconds). I dropped my little shovel and ran into the house.

As I neared the sliding glass door that opens to our back patio (hauling ass, even though I wasn't quite sure why yet - just "mom instinct"), I saw my son emerging from the pool, fully clothed and yelling, "Hospital! Hospital!" I didn't even get a good look at him and I didn't ask any questions. I just reached to the key rack that happened to be on the wall right next to me, spun around and headed for the car with my son following. Oh, and just in case you're wondering why I didn't just call 911, I know from much experience that the hospital is exactly a three-minute drive from our house. So I didn't think - just ran.

In the car I caught a glance of his arm as I was driving. Just what I could see out of the corner of my eye as I tried to drive fast but safely and stay focused on the road. The arm looked horrific and frightening, and I could smell the smell of burning flesh. I know that sounds really graphic, but there's just no other way to put it. As I was driving, my son started to frantically tell me what had happened. And then the screaming started.

It was awful. Awful! He's a tough kid, a big and strong kid, and to hear those screams... I can't even express the feeling. And the feeling of helplessness as I could do nothing except let him scream; I had to keep my eyes on the road and not lose it.

When I pulled into the hospital parking lot, my son just flung open the car door and ran straight into the ER. I pulled into a parking space and headed in after him. There was an available parking space right in front, so it took me probably less than 30 seconds to park and run in, but when I got into the ER the place was empty. Empty. They'd all rushed him back that fast! I stood for about five seconds before a door flung open and someone said, "Are you mom?" I nodded and they held the door for me, nothing needing to be said. I followed the sounds of the screaming.

I have no idea how many doctors and nurses and people were in that room, but it was crowded and chaotic. It was at that moment that it started to sink in with me - this is really serious! I stepped out into the hall. Not only did I want to stay out of the way, but there was absolutely nothing I could do and I could not bear the screams. I'm a pretty tough cookie, but I couldn't take it. I moved even further away, from the hall to a nearby waiting area. I could still hear him, but not so much. I hated the helpless feeling and was just trying to maintain my composure. A couple of doctors (both of whom I already knew - that's how often I'm at the ER with all these kids of mine) came out and asked me questions about what had happened, what kind of charcoal, whether he was using lighter fluid (no) and other questions that I mostly couldn't answer. I signed forms that were put in front of me. I paced the floor. I wanted to ask how he was, wanted to ask how bad the burns were, but I didn't want anyone to stop whatever they were doing long enough to talk to me.

Someone came out and told me that an ambulance was on the way to transport him to the Arizona Burn Center (the best in the southwest U.S.). That's when another wave of this is bad came over me. I signed papers giving permission for him to be transported. The ambulance arrived very quickly and one of the EMT's came over to ask if I would be riding along or following in my own car. I answered that I should probably follow, since I didn't know how long we'd be there and I had no other way home. The EMT paused for a moment, took a look at my probably-pale face and said, "Are you okay to drive?" I took a deep breath and pulled myself together, and answered that I was.

When I went to my car in the parking lot I saw the ambulance pulling away from the hospital. It was moving fast and had all the lights and sirens going. One more wave of this is bad hit me. It was all happening so fast, and I was only absorbing the severity of the situation a little at a time.

I followed, but obviously couldn't travel at the speed of the ambulance, so I arrived a little while after them at the burn center. By the time I got to the room where they were treating him, he'd been pumped full of morphine and, while clearly still in pain, had stopped screaming and was beginning to show bits of his real personality. He - being 15 years old, keep in mind - remarked that he "hadn't been burned this bad since back in 'Nam" and also at some point said, "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning" (the reference to Apocalypse Now from such a young kid drew chuckles in the room).

They told me immediately that he'd be staying, and they didn't know for how long (this is bad again). I asked about the burns, and they explained to me that they wouldn't know the severity for a few days. I was getting my first real look at him at this point. Fortunately he was bandaged up pretty thoroughly, so I didn't have to see the worst of the damage, but his face was exposed and it looked horrible. I almost felt sick, but I didn't want him to see any such look on my face and be further alarmed, so I kept my cool. On the outside, anyway. I was glad to see, though, that while his face was definitely burned badly, I didn't see anything that looked like it would result in his being disfigured. Except maybe his lips. I'm still not sure about his lips...

More paperwork was put in front of me and I signed, signed, signed. Then I was escorted to his room along with him on his gurney (is that what they're called?) in a staff elevator. By the time we got to the room I was totally lost in this huge hospital, having paid no attention whatsoever to where I was being led. The grandparents had arrived at the hospital by then and were calling my phone asking where he was. I didn't know, I told them. I didn't know where I was, I was disoriented and stressed, and they'd just have to ask and find us on their own. Out his window I could see the airport in the distance, so I knew the room was facing east. That was about all the help I could provide.

I stayed with him that night, sleeping in a chair. He was mostly knocked out anyway, but I didn't trust the staff to adequately understand some of his already-existing issues. For instance, he has been in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of a near-death experience he had (that's a whole 'nother story), and when he falls asleep he sometimes jolts awake in a panic because he feels like he's dying again. I was glad I stayed that night, because the morphine caused a bit of a "vicious circle" issue in that regard. The medication would make him drowsy, but then as he began to doze off he would suddenly sit up screaming. I had to go to him and hold his "good" hand, comfort him tell him where he was and that he was okay. This happened twice on that first night, one incident being fairly severe and the other not quite so bad. After that I think the staff understood the seriousness of that particular problem, and then I felt able to go home and get some rest because I trusted they'd look out for him. And they did.

He's been there for a week now and I'm sure I don't have to tell anyone that it's been a very painful process of treatment. Here's a not-very-good picture of his face on the second night (I had to take it as I caught him dozing off, so couldn't really get a good angle):

Here's what his forearm looked like on day three (upper arm is worse, but I have no pic of that - not that I'd probably post it anyway):

I haven' seen it since that picture was taken, so I don't know how it looks now. Honestly, I try not to be there when they change the dressings and do the treatments. I can't handle seeing it and I can't bear the screaming and crying. Even though he's on morphine and other drugs, the medication can't keep those treatments from hurting brutally.

Poor kid had to spend his 16th birthday there in the hospital, but we did throw him a little party with a few good friends - and a cake that had the candles painted on. LOL.

As of now, that's pretty much where things stand. He's progressing well I'm told, but he is still in a tremendous amount of pain and I don't know when he will be home. But I will keep y'all updated.

To end this post on a somewhat lighter note, though, there was one little anecdote in this whole incident that gave me a bit of a chuckle. Even while engulfed in flames, rolling on the ground and heading for the swimming pool, my son had the presence of mind to grab his iPod and fling it into the yard so it wouldn't get wet. Kids have their priorities. ;)


  1. Your narrative about that day was awesome. What a challenge you faced. Hoping the best for you and your son! Sandy

  2. Thank you so much, Sandy. I really appreciate all the support I have received from Bonanza members like yourself. I really cannot tell you how much. <3

  3. This story is so sad. You have a way with words that brings reality to the readers. There are no words adequate enough to help in this situation. I do care and pray for you.