The Burn Center at University of Colorado Hospital is sharpening its focus on the 18-to-25-year-old demographic; spearheading the effort is a man who belongs to it.
Taylor Sherwood, 25, a UCH burn technician, was chosen in May as the sole recipient of the Phoenix Society’s first-ever Young Adult Support Program Internship focusing on the unique needs of young adult burn survivors. Sherwood, selected from a pool of about 100 applicants from across the country, started the 20-week program on June 20.
Throughout that period, Sherwood will spend about 12 hours a week of his own time going through a curriculum developed by Jessica Irven, the Phoenix Society’s program manager for adults and support services. The idea is to get Sherwood up to speed on the challenges young adult burn victims face and how to address them. He will then apply what he’s learned by helping to develop a multi-day program tailored to young adults at the Phoenix Society’s annual World Burn Conference this fall. He also aims to leverage his insights into new ways to help this particularly vulnerable survivor population in the UCH Burn Center.
University of Colorado Hospital Burn Center technician Taylor Sherwood was selected from a pool of 100 applicants across the country for a Phoenix Society internship to help young adult burn survivors thrive.
If it seems strange to call people in the pro-athlete age bracket “vulnerable,” first consider the challenges facing any burn survivor. The vast majority of injuries and medical conditions – broken legs, heart attacks, cancers – heal or are repaired in ways that are largely hidden. Burn survivors tend to scar in places open to the public. In addition, they have often gone through multiple operations to graft and repair skin and other tissue, each of them with a painful recovery. They can spend months in the Burn Center.
This all exacts a psychological toll: Burn survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder rates of 15 percent to 44 percent, according to the Phoenix Society. Compare that to the roughly 20 percent PTSD rate among soldiers returning from the war in Iraq.
Now consider young adults. They’re post-adolescent, but often not yet totally independent. They’re just starting out in life, with plans and hopes and dreams devoid of scarring and how it might affect their job prospects, friendships, or attractiveness to the opposite (or same) sex. And suddenly that all has changed.
“A burn injury is a life-changing injury,” Sherwood said. “This is not something that, once you leave the hospital, you get better and it doesn’t affect you anymore.”
Irven, who first assigned Sherwood to read and discuss a 64-page dissertation on therapeutic programming, described a few of the young adult population’s key needs. One is decreased isolation. These burn survivors in particular need validation that they’re not alone in their journey, she said. Peer support is an important way to impart that message, and one that the Phoenix Society has long emphasized through its “Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery,” or SOAR, program. The UCH Burn Center has offered SOAR since 2010; Sherwood helps lead that program, which includes one-on-one meetings between survivors who are at least a year out of the hospital and patients/families. There are also twice-monthly support group meetings at the Burn Center, which Sherwood co-moderates.
A second key need among young adult burn survivors has to do with “values, clarification and purposeful direction,” Irven said. It boils down to a core question, she said: “Who am I and where am I going?”
Such musings aren’t unique to burn survivors, Irven said, but they’re particularly poignant among them because of their frequently disadvantaged socioeconomic background and because “burn injuries will derail self-confidence and purposeful direction.”
Sherwood added a couple of other common needs among the young adults he’s worked with: tools to help them get back to school or the workforce and approaches to dating and intimacy after a burn injury.
“You’re a 19-year-old burn survivor. You’re thinking, ‘Who’s going to date me? Who’s going to want to be intimate?’” Sherwood said. The answers to such questions, he added, are part of “finding the new normal,” a basic Phoenix Society tenet.
“You’re not going to be the person you were before the burn injury,” Sherwood said. “But we want to find a way for you to be a productive member of society.”
Sherwood has already been focusing on young adult patients, who are, from the perspective of earthly tenure, at least, his peers. Yes, his main job is wound care: taking patients to the tub room, washing, cleaning, scrubbing, and scraping burns, and then re-dressing them. But he’s also been found reading to young adult patients, or taking them to the roof of the UCH Critical Care Wing late at night to give them a brief look at the stars again.
“I connect the most with them, I think,” Sherwood said.
Hard to connect
Still, he said the 18-25 cohort is the hardest patient population to deal with as a provider. Mary Holden, RN, MS, the UCH Burn Center’s nurse manager, agreed.
“It’s frustrating sometimes, because some of our patients in that age group can be very withdrawn, and it’s hard to bring them out,” Holden said. “They’re usually the ones struggling the most when they get out of the hospital.”
In addition to what Sherwood’s internship yields, the Burn Center is working with the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte to launch the first winter sports camp for young adults, Holden said. The Burn Center also plans to start a Skype-based remote support group for 18-to-25-year-olds. Slated to launch in August, the support group will connect burn survivors across the multi-state territory the UCH Burn Center serves as the region’s sole American Burn Association Center of Excellence.
Holden is counting on Sherwood to share his knowledge with others on the Burn Center team. He will help them to address questions such as “How do you approach this age group? What works for them? Is there some technological thing we should be doing? Are there ways we could be doing better with pain control? Are there diversionary activities? Because they are so multimedia,” Holden said.
Sherwood, for his part, soon will be juggling the internship’s various dissertations with 12-hour shifts as well as University of Colorado classwork that will ultimately bring him his bachelor degree in nursing. One thing for sure, he said, is that he aims to be with the Burn Center for the long haul.
“Once you’re bitten by the burn bug, you never leave,” Sherwood said.