Around 5 p.m. Thursday, May 19, five TXI Cement plant workers in Midlothian were burned doing routine maintenance on an industrial oven used in making cement.
Fire departments in Midlothian, Mansfield and Cedar Hill were dispatched to the cement plant at Highway 67 and Ward Road, 25 miles south of Dallas. Three of the more severely burned workers were airlifted to Parkland hospital.
All local television stations reported the episode, complete with helicopter footage carrying survivors. By the weekend, news coverage stopped.
But the survivors’ pain – physical and emotional – continues.
Nick Hunt, 52, one of those cement workers airlifted to Parkland, stayed two months in the Burn Intensive Care Unit. Over 75 percent of his body was burned. Hunt has had seven skin graft surgeries, requiring more than 40 units of blood.
But the emotional tailspin of his post-burn life – loss of work, limited use of limbs, constant pain – has been equally challenging.
To better cope with the stress, Hunt and his wife Lea spent Nov. 4 – 6 on the Parkland burn retreat with 18 other burn survivors, family members and support staff off the coast of Lake Ray Roberts at Lantana Resort in Pilot Point. The retreat, Parkland’s second for adult burn survivors, is an effort to treat the whole patient, not just the burns.
"It was definitely helpful," Lea said. "During one session, on a Sunday, I think, we laughed for well over an hour."
Recognition of the psychological and physical needs of the recovering burn patient has led to camps for children across the country. But with adults making up 74 percent of all admissions to burn centers nationwide, there’s now a push to address the same psychological needs in adults.
"When a burn injury occurs and scars result, a person is forever changed, whether it is how we view ourselves or how people see us," said Sue Vanek, burn program manager at Parkland. "The healing process for a burn survivor is not only physical but also emotional."
Invitations were mailed to previously admitted burn patients to participate. Patients had to be at least 18 years old and have more than 20 percent of their body requiring skin grafting surgery. With North Carolina’s model and funding from generous donors through Parkland Foundation, the first retreat was held in November 2010 with 29 burn survivors, caregivers and facilitators. Patients and caregivers alike agreed it was a success. Attendees were also contacted six months after the retreat as a reminder to practice the coping tools they learned.
This year Parkland brought in psychotherapist Robert Friedman, author of "How to Relax in 60 Seconds or Less," to serve as facilitator of the retreat, – held in a spacious red barn turned into a conference room, adjacent to horse stables, nestled on a 500-acre park with breath-taking views of the 30,000-acre lake. The three-day retreat intertwined motivational speeches, soul-bearing exercises and relaxation tricks.
"Your past does not dictate your future," Friedman told burn survivors. A timely message given that many were still grappling with how their burns occurred. Some expressed difficulty trusting others.
Friedman also admonished the group to "be responsible for your thinking patterns." If you’re unhappy, do something about it, he advised.
"We have 60,000 thoughts a day, but 90 percent are the same thoughts you had yesterday," Friedman said.
Attendees drummed rhythms to release inner tensions, shouted positive affirmations of love and self worth and meditated back to happy childhood moments when they were most at peace.
A highlight of the weekend -- at least for Lea -- was when her husband temporarily forgot about his pain, slowly walked over to another burn survivor in tears, and lifted his arm to give a hug.
"I got goose bumps watching that," she said.
By Jason Roberson