It was a beautiful afternoon in southern Oregon in the summer of 1989, and I was 33 years old. After a scenic four-day fly-fishing trip with three of my buddies, we were all ready to hop on our little rental plane and fly back to California. As a captain with over 15 years of flying experience, I was ready for an uneventful takeoff, especially since we were much lighter than when we left California with full fuel and of provisions. What I hadn’t anticipated was the unseen challenge of the small airport, which was surrounded by 90-foot tall pines. Although I was aware of downdrafts and possible crosswinds, I could not anticipate their unusual strength that afternoon, for as we attempted to take off, the plane could not develop enough lift to overcome wind shear and clear trees. With the treetops grazing under our wings and further slowing our forward progress, it was clear that I would not be able to maintain my flight.
I don’t have a clear recollection of what happened next, but my best friend Bill, who was sitting next to me, said I told everyone “don’t panic”. I then asked my friend Tim in the backseat to lie down so that the backs of the front seats protected him on impact, and managed to land us in a clearing in the woods.
I am told the plane landed in the spot but my face hit the dashboard in front of me which broke my jaw and knocked me out. The impact also broke the landing gear and ruptured the fuel lines in the cockpit, so gas started leaking on me. As my friends were being helped off the plane by a family having a barbecue at their nearby ranch, a fire started in the engine and spread to my legs and left arm. Someone pulled me out and rolled me in the dirt to put out the flames, and apparently, within a minute of us all escaping, the whole plane was on fire.
I didn’t regain consciousness in the ICU for a week later, but when I did and was told what had happened, I immediately thought to myself: “If you haven’t done anything good in your life yet, you better start now.” And that’s exactly how I’ve lived my life ever since.
Luckily none of my friends were burned and they didn’t sustain any permanent injuries. As for me, I spent about a month and a half in the burns unit of the hospital. During this time, I underwent several surgeries in which the doctors and nurses removed the skin from the unburned parts of my body and surgically grafted it onto the areas that had been burned, including my legs and arm. left. Then, I needed physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions to learn how to regain the use of my legs and my left hand. For over 18 months after my discharge, I wore custom-made compression garments to flatten and promote the healing of my grafts. As a result of the traumatic brain injury I suffered after banging my head against the dashboard, I needed cognitive therapy to relearn how to think clearly.
How is it to live with burns on a third of my body
I’m very lucky that most of my burns can be covered by long pants and shirts, which makes me a “hidden survivor” as they say in the burn community. But I live with challenges that many people may not realize. For example, one limitation I face is that skin grafts are actually strips of scar tissue, which are very fragile and don’t function like normal skin. My transplants don’t have nerve endings, hair follicles, or pores that allow sweating, so with 33% of my body transplanted, I lost 33% of my “air conditioning,” or my ability to cool off. It is crucial that I stay out of the sun as I can overheat quickly which can be dangerous in hot weather. It is also important that I clean and treat any scratches or wounds on my grafts to avoid infection, and that I stretch and massage and apply lotion to my grafted areas each morning to keep them supple and moisturized. I can no longer run or walk long distances, but I am working to maintain my mobility through cycling.
I also need to manage my mental effort. After my brain injury, it took me a long time to be able to focus and process again. To this day, I have to remember to get enough sleep and take breaks from work to recharge my brain, or I’ll start forgetting things and losing focus.
Some of the hardest parts of my early accident were regaining my self-esteem and figuring out how I was going to live with these permanent disabilities. Before the accident, I never imagined that at 33, I would need to relearn how to walk, read and drive. I was – and still am – a hydrogeologist and environmental consultant. And throughout my recovery, I wondered how I was going to get back to work, if I would dance salsa again, or if I could develop a relationship with a woman who saw me for who I was and looked beyond of my scars.
My disability didn’t change my dreams
I am proud to say that I was able to do all of these things and more. And a big reason for that was the support I received from family, friends, and other burn survivors. When I was still in the hospital, my surgeon put me in touch with a former patient who came, listened to me and guided me through the recovery process. I was so grateful for their friendship that I later trained to become a Peer Supporter through the SOAR (Survivors Offer Assistance in Recovery) program run by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. I have made it my mission to be there for other burn survivors, to listen to them and guide them and their families to cope and begin their own journey of recovery.
My other mission? To fly a plane again. The accident did not diminish my love of flying. Even though it has become too expensive for me to rent a plane and fly regularly enough to keep my license up to date, I still hold out hope that I can do it again. Maybe one of my lottery tickets will reach me. Part of maintaining my emotional well-being is following my dreams.
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