On a remote patch of land near Riverton, Wyoming in June 2007, Shannon Kelley’s life went up in flames.
Kelley, who was then 36, was working a natural gas well as a relief pumper that afternoon. She entered a small metal building with a wood interior and moved to the dehydrator, a machine that separates “dry” natural gas (methane) from “wet” (natural gas liquids, such as propane), when a tremendous explosion occurred.
The cause is still not completely clear, but Kelley believes some wet gas somehow got through the machine’s spark arrester, which is designed to block emission of flammable material during combustion. Gas got on her clothes and caught fire.
“We think there was a leak on the unit,” she said. She had no warning from the odorless natural gas.
The building ignited, leaving Kelley with no choice but to run through a wall of fire or “stand and die.” She ran through it, becoming a “human torch.” Outside, she stopped, dropped and rolled – textbook procedure except that the road she fell on was oil-based, which fueled the flames.
She managed to strip off everything she wore except her boots, but Kelley then realized that the
well compressor was still running, pumping gas that would lead to an even greater disaster if no one stopped it. She ran to the compressor, shut the valve, then jumped in her truck to drive to the top of a hill, where she could get cell phone service. She dialed 911, summoning the fire department, 15 miles away.
Slim threads of survival
Amid the disaster, Kelley had two small but important pieces of luck. Prior to the accident, she’d noticed a pole with fire markers – vital for firefighters navigating the mostly featureless landscape – was obscured by brush. With no inkling of what lay ahead, Kelley had pulled the brush away, leaving the marker clearly visible. Thus the fire department was able to save precious time getting to her after the 911 call.
In addition, on a second 911 call, the operator advised Kelley to cover up if she could to preserve warmth she would rapidly lose from her burns. Kelley looked at an eiderdown sleeping bag that she’d picked up from the cleaners for her husband on a completely unplanned trip a couple of days before. Reluctant to soil it, she nonetheless draped it over her body at the operator’s urging. She also hydrated by drinking from a bottle of water she opened with her teeth because the hands she thought were too wet to turn the cap had in fact lost their skin.
By the time an ambulance arrived, Kelley was in severe pain and had to struggle to a gurney, naked but for her boots, to be covered and rushed to the hospital in Riverton. As she put it, the fire had burned her “from my cankles to the top of my forehead.”
The grim math behind that description: Kelley had sustained severe burns to 87 percent of her body. Soon after she arrived in Riverton, Kelley was airlifted to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital’s Burn Center.
“Burns of that size are rare; we get maybe one a year and very few of them survive,” said Laura Madsen, RN, outreach coordinator for the Burn Center. That Kelley did is a testimony to her “mental and physical strength,” Madsen said.
Back from the brink
Kelley relied on those resources during her own arduous battle back from her injuries. She drifted in a medically induced coma for six months – more on that later – and had dozens of skin grafts, three corneal transplants, and surgeries to remove several fingers on both hands. She toiled through extensive physical and occupational rehabilitation to regain the considerable physical strength the burns had consumed. But nearly a decade after the fire, she lives an active life, running a horse ranch on 680 acres north of Byers, Colorado.
“It took me years to get back,” Kelley said, describing how she only slowly regained the ability to move about with a walker. After discharge from UCH, she lived for a time at a handicap- accessible home in Arvada and completed a lengthy rehabilitation regimen at Spaulding Hospital in Denver. She said she now can hoist 55-pound bales of hay, fitting the nubs of her fingers under the straps.
Kelley’s brother, Jim Bennett, expressed no surprise as he listened to his sister one recent afternoon. “We grew up in Alaska,” he said. “She’s tough.”
“Something good has to come out of it,” Kelley said.
Others have benefited from her boundless determination. When the Burn Center started its SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) Program in 2010, Kelley immediately expressed interest. She received eight weeks of training to become a peer supporter and still meets regularly with survivors working through the considerable challenges – both physical and emotional – that severe burns inflict.
Through the fire
One of those Kelley helped is Elaine Fowler of Aurora, who suffered second- and third-degree burns, mostly to her lower body, in a kitchen grease fire in August 2011. Fowler was cooking French fries on the stove when the fire started. She hustled her two kids out of the house, then went back to the kitchen and unwittingly grabbed the still-hot pan. She burned her arm, slipped on the splattered grease, and fell on the fire. The burns covered 21 percent of her body.
Fowler, now 38, spent two full months in the Burn Center, going through two skin grafts. After discharge, she returned to UCH for two more grafts. The physical pain was “tremendous, hard to put into words,” she said, but the emotional damage was longer-lasting and even more challenging. Fowler said she blamed herself for causing the fire, and struggled to come to terms with the scars the fire and surgeries seared into her skin.
She attended Burn Support Group meetings and met with Wendy Clyne, PsyD, then the Burn Center’s psychologist, who recognized the emotional trauma the injury caused. But depression set in, sending Fowler to “a deep, dark place. I had thoughts of suicide.” Those thoughts receded after Kelley began offering peer support.
“She was such a help,” Fowler said. “I had been burned on 21 percent of my body, but she had suffered so much more. That gave me perspective about my own injury and helped me to see that it was not the end of the world. She gave me a link back to reality and hope.”
The changes didn’t occur instantly. Even today, Fowler said, she “struggles with her vanity.” Going to the swimming pool, as she once did regularly with her kids, is a challenge. But with Kelley’s help, she has worked through it. “I didn’t want my kids to miss out,” she said.
Fowler has also joined groups of burn patients to talk with nursing students and help them learn about the subtleties of treating survivors – in part by allowing them to see and touch the repaired skin. “It helped me greatly to open up about it,” Fowler said.
She is now back at work full-time at Dex Media, but she also works part-time as a certified nursing assistant, which she became after her accident. “I did it because of the care that I got from the nurses and CNAs at the hospital,” she said. “It satisfies my desire to be there for other people.”
The roots of her recovery run back to Kelley, Fowler said. “She is not a person who feels victimized,” she said. “She is a survivor. In my life, there have been times that I have felt victimized. Shannon changed my way of thinking, not just by talking, but through her life and getting back to doing the things she did before. If not for her, I’m not sure mentally where I would be.”
Kelley downplays her role in helping Fowler and others, but she readily admits how important support is for survivors. In the early stages of her road back she met Paul Merrick, who suffered similarly extensive injuries in a work-related accident in 1994 accident and survived after months of care in the Burn Center.
“Over time I really looked forward to seeing him,” Kelley recalled. “He was somebody who really knew what it was like.”
Filling in the blanks
As much as she draws on her own experience to connect with survivors, there is one block of time that remains a mystery to her: the six months she spent in a coma following the explosion. She remembers nothing of it. That is a blessing in one way: her burn surgeons at UCH performed four dozen skin grafts during that time.
She awoke in January 2008 thinking she was in Salt Lake City – memory of the zoo there was in her head for some reason – and worried about paying her property taxes on time. They had been due July 1 and she’d wanted to get them in to avoid having her picture in the paper, she explained.
When she learned she’d “been asleep a little while,” Kelley tried to hug her mother, but found her badly atrophied arms wouldn’t let her. The back pain she thought was accident-related was also the result of atrophy. “I swore my back was broken,” she said.
Burn care providers use medically induced comas much less often today, Madsen said, in part to avoid the physical wasting Kelley experienced.
“If we don’t have to, we don’t do it,” Madsen said. “We want patients to be able to participate in their care while we control their pain and anxiety. The more physical movement patients get, the less rehabilitation they will need, and they spend less time on a ventilator.”
For the most part, Kelley’s demeanor about her ordeal is matter-of-fact. She has even gone back to the site of the accident. She walks away from the occasional reminder of the fire – the scent of roasting chili peppers recently produced a difficult moment – that changed her life. Listening to her speak, it’s easy to see how much she appreciates still having one.
“Shannon is the rock of the SOAR program,” Madsen said. “She sees her burns as one chapter in her life and has taken everything that happened and learned from it.”
That makes Kelley and other peer supporters vital caregivers, Madsen added.
“Patients have nothing but time on their hands to think about how their lives will be after their burn injuries,” she said. “To have a SOAR peer supporter walk in the door in regular clothes, not using any assistive devices, gives patients hope that ‘Wow, that’s what I can look forward to.’”