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A Survivor of Severe Burns Beats the Odds and Gets Back to Living

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle offered up the amazing story of Derek Thomas, a 19-year-old athlete who for the past year has endured indescribable pain during the process of healing from third-degree burns so severe that he was given a 1 percent chance of survival by doctors.

But he has made it through the ordeal, and is working not only on getting stronger but also on becoming just another person with a normal daily routine, which is a blessing too many of us take for granted.

One day in August 2010, Derek sat in an SUV that was returning him home to San Diego from athletic training in the mountains. As he dozed off, the driver swerved the SUV, and it skidded across lanes of traffic, rolled over, and grinded along on its side. It then burst into flames.

When Derek arrived by emergency jet at the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital & Medical Center, he had third-degree burns across more than 85 percent of his body.

The hospital doctors had seen terrible cases before: firefighters burned on the job, students burned in chemistry labs, toddlers scalded with boiling soup. But Derek’s case was among the worst–his burns penetrated to the muscle, threatening to shut down his kidneys and liver. He also could have started bleeding uncontrollably at any time.

For the next four months, Derek lay in a medically-induced coma to spare him excruciating pain. Every inch of his burned skin had to be scraped off to protect him from infection. His body swelled to more than twice its normal size.

Derek’s parents and two sisters sat in a small waiting room during each of the many surgeries. Doctors had to peel skin from the few areas where Derek wasn’t burned (his inner thighs and lower abdomen), stretch the skin with a machine, and then graft it a little bit at a time onto Derek’s body.

Every few days, doctors repeated the process, trying to fight against infection. Derek’s fever often reached 105 degrees. He also took in 7,000 calories a day through a tube, which is how much his body needed just to stay alive. He still lost more than 60 pounds over the months in a coma.

But about four months after the accident, Derek started to emerge from the coma. He learned to swallow again, and to tighten his left hand. He also learned to speak using a special tube. And on December 11 he spoke his first three words: “Happy Birthday, Mom.” His family was overjoyed.

After five months, Derek was no longer in critical condition. He was alert enough to ask about his girlfriend Amanda, who was also riding in the SUV when it crashed. His parents had to tell him that she had died, which caused Derek so much psychological stress that it threatened his physical recovery.

His family and mental-health specialists helped him with the grief, but even today, it hurts Derek too much to discuss Amanda, his girlfriend. But Derek often talks to her, and he talks to God. “I channel my bad thoughts toward Him. I look to Him,” he said. “It’s not easy, but I try.”

For Derek, the hardest part is finally over. But he will face difficult issues for the rest of his life. Here is just one of them: Before the accident, Derek was a very good-looking boy, said his friends. Now, he will never look anything like he did before the accident–but his inner strength plus counseling will help him make peace with his new appearance.

In fact, Derek’s recovery will last for the rest of his life. But Derek the survivor is an inspiration to others who are severely burned. As they endure the physical and emotional pain of their injuries, other burn survivors have Derek’s outstanding example to look to when they need strength.