A Burn Victim's Comeback|
Love, Support and 'Heroic Efforts' Save a Teenage Boy From Near Death
"There was a big flash and a loud popping noise," recalls John Gurga of the 2004 explosion that would alter the then 14-year-old's life. "I didn't feel anything, but I knew I was on fire everywhere."
The accident occurred when John, who lives in the small town of Perth, N.Y., was camping with friends in the woods near his home. When their campfire started to go out, John tried pouring gasoline on it. The can caught fire and exploded.
"It all happened really fast," he remembers. His friends ran home and called paramedics, who saw how badly John was injured and called a helicopter to take him to Westchester Medical Center's burn unit. "I remember one of the paramedics asking if I had ever been in a chopper before," he says. "Then I blacked out."
A heroic effort
He didn't fully awaken for more than two months. John had third-degree burns (the severest kind) over 75 percent of his body. "He suffered full-thickness burns, which meant there was essentially no skin left," says Roger E. Salisbury, M.D., Chief Emeritus of Plastic Surgery and Emeritus Director of the Burn Center. "His odds of survival were minimal. It took heroic efforts to give him any chance of making it."
Back in Perth, state troopers told John's parents, John and Andrea, of the accident. The couple raced to Westchester.
"When we saw how bad it was, we knew there was no way we could leave," says the boy's father. He and his wife took paid leave from their jobs and found various places to stay in the area, spending six months in the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Westchester's Maria Fareri Children's Hospital.
From the outset, Dr. Salisbury's team had to prevent John from going into shock and help him fight off infection, the most common complication of deep burns. They also took cells of his unburned skin and sent them to a lab in Boston, where they could be cultured and "grown" into sheets containing cells to stimulate new skin.
Over the next several weeks or so, they removed John's dead skin, about 20 percent of it at a time, which is all the body can withstand. Then they started grafting new skin in place. By five or six weeks after the accident, John's open wounds were covered by grafts containing maturing skin cells. But his ordeal wasn't over.
"He had every complication you expect in these devastating cases," says Dr. Salisbury. They included pneumonia, blood clots in his lungs and infections throughout his body. "Just when you thought he'd turned a corner, the bottom fell out again," says the elder John. "At first it was a minute-to-minute thing. Then it was hour-to-hour, and it stayed like that for months."
For the first several months, young John was heavily medicated – he remembers little from this time. He does recall his father sitting by his bed, talking to him. That's not surprising. "The father never left his side except to change clothes," says Dr. Salisbury. "As a father myself, I respect him a great deal. He was my partner. He was always there, supporting us but not intrusive. He saw how hard this was and the energy we were expending, and wanted to help."
Help he did, changing his son's dressings, feeding him, doing whatever he could.
The staff helped the Gurgas celebrate John's birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas in his hospital room. Indeed, during the many months of John's treatment at Westchester, the family developed a kinship with the hospital surgeons, nurses and staffers.
"At an absolutely insane time, it's amazing how bearable they made it," says Gurga. "Everyone in the hospital, even the folks running the coffee carts, knew how bad John was, and they tried to make us as comfortable as possible."
"I love and respect this family more than any other patient I have had in 42 years," says Dr. Salisbury, who has since moved on to administrative duties. "That boy never complained once about what was happening or the pain he had to undergo in order to live. I have taken care of Marines and paratroopers who weren't as brave."
Onward and upward
After about 11 months at Westchester, John was finally stabilized, but still had months of surgeries and rehabilitation ahead of him. For this stage of his care, the Gurgas transferred him to Shriner's Hospital in Boston.
"The feeling the staff had when we saw John leave was like winning the Super Bowl or taking a victory lap at the Olympics," says the doctor. "It was very exhilarating."
John spent four months in Boston and came home in a wheelchair, which he still uses. His ankles were badly deformed by the fire, and future surgeries will be needed to get him on his feet. But John says he doesn't care about that, or about the scar tissue across body. "My mom tells me I look great every day," he says. "And some girls tell me I'm pretty cute, so that's cool."
He cares more about college. John will graduate from Broadalbin-Perth High School with honors this spring, and intends to attend a local community college while continuing his treatments and surgeries—unless, that is, he's accepted at Harvard. He applied there after learning the school offers scholarships to students who have been through ordeals like his.
Wherever he goes, he'll take with him the laptop computer that Westchester's staff bought him as a Christmas present while he was recovering—a reminder of how far he has come, and of the extended "family" there that will always wish him well.