A few weeks after Brad Wiggins was on the phone trying to calm a Salt Lake City Police officer who was about to arrest one of his nurses for refusing to allow a blood draw from an unconscious patient, he was on the Colorado River — once again caring for burn victims.
You all know the story of Detective Jeff Payne’s arrest of nurse Alex Wubbels at the University Hospital burn unit because she was following hospital regulations by not allowing the blood draw of burn victim William Gray.
The truck driver who had been struck head-on by a driver fleeing from Utah Highway Patrol troopers in Cache County was unconscious so he could not give consent, and there was no warrant.
Gray has since died from his injuries.
As we’ve seen on the police body camera footage and the hospital video that was released by Wubbels’ attorney and has since gone viral, Payne lost patience, grabbed the nurse, handcuffed her and forced her into his police car.
Wiggins, the nursing supervisor at the burn unit, had been talking to Payne through Wubbels’ cellphone, trying to explain the hospital rules.
That was an example of hospital staffers looking out for the patients, sometimes at their own peril.
The Colorado River trip, which took place in mid-September, about six weeks after the July 26 dispute at the hospital, is another example of the staff’s love for the often severely burned patients who come through their unit.
The relationships between staffers and the burn victims continue even years after the patients have been released from the hospital.
“This was life changing,” said Brad Wheeler, who spent weeks in the hospital‘s burn unit after his leg was crushed by a car several years ago.
“The scenery was incredible. It changed every few minutes as the sky in the canyons moved around you. The [river guides] knew so much about the botany and archaeology, the way the river ran, where the stars were in the sky, what sounds the birds were making.”
But Wheeler, a former disc jockey for KRCL 90.9 FM known as “Bad Brad Wheeler,” said the beauty of the trip was secondary to the relationships built with other survivors on the river and the shared experiences they discussed on the shore each evening after a day on the water.
“A lot of survivors come from different walks of life,” Wheeler said. “For being so different, we all could so relate after sharing our stories. There were things I learned about myself on the river. I didn’t know I had that much fight in me.”
The river trip, which took the rafters through Cataract Canyon, was just one of a series of programs hospital staffers conduct each year. They also have kid camps for the children and a youth river trip for teens.
It’s all paid for through private donations.
There were 27 participants on the September river trip, said Wiggins, including five hospital staffers. The rest were survivors, and some brought spouses or partners.
Wiggins has been putting together the river trips and camps for 25 years and tries to ensure as many survivors a possible can get a chance to attend. The adult river trip takes place every other year.
“We have about 400 patients come through the burn unit every year,” Wiggins said. “It becomes a community.”
Andy Boldizar was 10 years old in 1997 when he was severely shocked by a downed power line in Yellowstone National Park. He was flown to the university burn unit, where he spent months. As a result of the accident, he lost his right arm.
When Boldizar, who is from Flagstaff, Ariz., arrived at the hospital, he felt frightened and alone. Lost.
But when he was discharged, he cried. “ I didn’t want to leave,” he said.
Wiggins was like a big brother. “He would come into the room. We would have water fights. We would laugh. It was a good distraction.”
This was Boldizar’s first adult river excursion, but he went on several of the teen trips.
“What i took from the river, ever since my first time, was a sense of maturity and growth. With these camps, watching how I grew as a young boy and as a man, I wish I could say more. I keep in touch with the kids I went to youth camp with who I haven’t seen in 10 years.”
“When you spend as much time in the burn unit as we did, you get to know the people who come and go,” said Michelle Moffat, whose husband, Jeff, was burned over 38 percent of his body in a houseboat explosion on Lake Powell last year and spent 40 days in the unit.
“Some get better. But some don’t, and you never see them again. There is emotional baggage with that,” said Michelle Moffat, who accompanied her husband on the trip.
“The trip really helps people,” she said. “There is a lot of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. There were people on the trip who had never disclosed their story. But they were able to talk about it, get it off their back, without being judged by anyone. We consider them family.”