Utah’s sizzling summer months can be hard on Brad Wiggins.
A nurse at University of Utah Health Care’s Burn Center in Salt Lake City, that’s when Wiggins sees the moments that should be fun —the camping trip or Fourth of July celebration —sometimes go awry, bringing patients young and old to the unit.
“One of the things that’s so hard for us in the burn center is that probably about 75 percent of everything we see is preventable,” said Wiggins, who has worked in the center for 23 years.
The 12-bed center annually provides critical care to about 350 patients with acute burn injuries from across the Intermountain West. Roughly 30 percent of patients —some 130 people annually —are under 18 and 90 percent of those are kids under age three, Wiggins said.
Some common sources of injuries: Campfires, fireworks and lightening strikes.
“The dangers are different in Utah, because of our recreation,” said Wiggins. “And we’ve got a double whammy with July 4 and the 24th. July and August are challenging for us with childhood injuries from fireworks.”
Parents need to be diligent and vigilant to keep children safe. Wiggins suggests frequent conversations about safety and modeling behaviors that set a good example for kids. That means, no jumping over fire rings or spraying accelerants on a BBQ when standing upwind. It means heading for the car when a summer storm breaks out and resisting the urge to hand a young child something like a sparkler to play with.
“They don’t understand the risks,” he said. “And that moment is the moment that every parent wants back when someone gets hurt.”
But burn risks aren’t limited to outdoor recreation or acts of nature, Wiggins notes. Home can be an equally dangerous place, especially in summer when kids are out of school and may be left unattended. In fact, most of the youngest burn center patients have been injured by scalding hot water as a result of accidents in the home, he said. Everything from a hot cup of noodle soup to a curling iron or a can of gasoline in the garage can be tempting to a young and curious child.
“Home safety is the biggest place to start,” said Wiggins, who also teaches community educations classes. “Talk to your kids about the dangers and what can happen when mom and dad are at work.”
That includes talking about what do if something goes wrong and someone suffers a serious burn injury, he said. First step: Stop the burning process by extinguishing any flames. Then keep the person warm, keep the burn covered with something dry and quickly seek medical attention. Wiggins cautions against applying very cold water or ice on a burn.
“That will make you hypothermic and it will cut circulation,” he said. “Burns heal when they have good circulation and oxygen.”
For those with the most serious injuries, healing requires more than just medical attention. That’s why each summer Wiggins and a team of nurses, firefighters, physical therapists, and volunteers also offer a series of Burn Camps for survivors. The camps are funded through donations and are offered free to anyone who received treatment from the Burn Center.
“Camp is a community, a place for survivors to feel safe,” said Wiggins who has been involved with the camps since their start in 1992. “It’s a place for them to to feel welcome, a place for them not to be judged.”
A pre-school camp serves children ages four and five, with a day camp experience at a Boy Scout facility in Millcreek Canyon. That same site is also home to Camp Nah Nah Mah, a four-night, five-day experience for campers ages six through 12 that includes canoeing, rock climbing and archery.
Campers between ages 13 and 17 spend six days rafting a 90-mile route on Utah’s Green River through Desolation and Gray canyons. The river trip was the first program to be offered back in 1992 and ran for six years before additional camp programs were launched.
Most recently, Wiggins added a retreat-style camp for young adults aged 18 to 21 at a Park City home. That program is focused on helping survivors tackle issues like living on your own, cooking, job and interview skills and sexual intimacy. A fifth camp, also a six-day river trip, for adults 21 and older, is offered every other year, Wiggins says.
Camp provides not only outdoor recreation experiences, but an important psychological counseling piece that helps survivors cultivate the kind of life skills and mettle they’ll need to navigate their injuries. For some that includes a lifetime of physical challenges. For most it also means weathering judgmental looks, unkind remarks and awkward questions.
“At camp, we say: You’re burned? So what? What are you going to do about it?” said Wiggins. “How are you going to hold yourself and how are you going to react when that person stops you in a grocery store and asks what happened to you?”
Transformation comes quickly even among the most reluctant of campers, said Wiggins who can cite dozens of examples. One year, despite the mid-June, 100-degree heat, a 17-year-old girl arrived for the annual river trip wearing a turtleneck to cover the scars criss-crossing her neck and chest.
“On the morning of the third day, she comes out in her bathing suit,” Wiggins said, beaming with fatherly pride. “No one said a word to her, but it’s part of the natural transition. That’s powerful stuff.”
Eleven-year-old Payton Wilhelmsen is another shining example of what the camp experience can do, Wiggins said. Injured in 2007, the South Jordan boy is outgoing, confident tells the story of his injury with a matter-of-fact ease.
“Some people think of it as something bad,” says Payton. “How I see it is that it makes you different. It’s something that you have that no one else has. I try to see all the positive sides of it.”
Payton was five in 2007 when just after Christmas, he and a cousin were playing a game in the basement of his family home. The boys were taking turns standing in front of a propane wall heater trying to see who could “get the hottest,” Payton said. That’s when the polyester fibers woven into his new sweatshirt started to melt down.
“There was a little spark and it caught on fire,” explains Payton, who suffered third-degree burns from his shoulder blades to his waist and on part of his left arm.
Recovery took just over a year, including spending more than a month in the hospital Burn Unit, skin graft surgeries and a week at camp, despite his mother, Michelle Wilhelmsen’s concern for his safety.
“I almost did not let him go,” said Wilhelmsen, a restaurant manager who also has a 6-year-old daughter, “But it was so helpful. it changes them so much. There’s a certain understanding that they get that none of us, no matter how hard we try, will ever understand.”
Through camp, Payton has made close friends and gained a self-assuredness that beyond his years. Last summer at a local water park when another boy pointed out Payton’s scars and called him a “freak,” Wilhelmsen said her son just shrugged it off.
“He said, ‘mom, he doesn’t know my story’,” she said. “He’s amazed me at how far he’s come and what he’s overcome.”
Payton, who dreams of working as a marine biologist, admits to being “terrified” ahead of his first camp experience. Now he waits anxiously each year for camp week and is eager to encourage other young survivors to participate.
“What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be scared to let people know what happened to you,” he said. “At camp you can just explain your feelings and everyone understands because they have been through it.”
Camp has also worked it’s own magic on Michelle Wilhelmsen.
“I think it was the beginning of me saying, OK, I can slowly start to heal too,” she said. “We focus so much on our kids, that we forget about us and how much it’s damaged (the parents) too. We need just as much support.”
Wilhelmsen now works as a Burn Unit volunteer, providing support to families of injured children. Payton is often at his mother’s side and learned to make balloon animals to entertain the unit’s young patients.
“I take him so that other kids can see how well he’s done. He’s sort of a mentor now to a lot of kids,” she said. “It’s such an amazing journey that he’s been though.”