To look at Laura Thomas today, you would never know that she quietly suffers from life-altering burn injuries that have left her scarred and in constant pain.
The wife and mother of three was a patient at Via Christi Regional Burn Center for six weeks after being burned in a flash fire at her workplace.
That was nearly eight year ago. Now she is a frequent visitor to the center as a volunteer for SOAR — Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery — to give hope to others.
"She is instrumental in building a rapport and a connection with people,” says Curt West, a case worker in the burn center. “I think they find her a positive role model because she is articulate, passionate about life and she’s recovered well — emotionally and physically.”
“I just want to tell patients, ‘Yes, you will get past this and follow what the nurses and doctors tell you,’” says Laura. “‘They know what’s best. You’re blessed to be here at Via Christi.’”
Laura’s optimism, infectious smile and friendly demeanor are inspirational to burn patients.
Shel Hughes, the first patient Laura counseled as a SOAR volunteer, was burned as she was pouring gas into her riding mower.
“When Laura first visited me, I was scared and I had a lot of questions about what my life would be like,” Shel says. “She understood what I was going through. Laura comforted me and let me know everything would be all right.”
Shel says Laura motivated her to become a SOAR volunteer, too.
“I feel like helping burn patients is my calling,” she says. “I need to be there for them like Laura was for me.”
A disastrous chain of events
On Jan. 3, 2005, the Winfield, Kan., office manager was looking over a newly painted hallway when someone kicked over a can of acetone. She then slipped and fell in the caustic substance. As she struggled to her feet, a spark of static electricity ignited the chemical fumes and caused a powerful flash fire that threw her into a glass cabinet and severely burned her legs.
On fire, Laura dropped to the ground and rolled while one co-worker removed his shirt to help her extinguish the flames. Another co-worker tried to help douse the fire with a nearby pot of coffee, scalding her already sensitive skin and compounding her injuries.
Badly burned and in tremendous pain, Laura was taken to the town’s hospital, then transported by ambulance to Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, which houses the only dedicated burn care facility within 180 miles of Wichita.
The slow journey to recovery
Laura was brought directly into the center’s admit room, which is kept at 110 degrees to prevent hypothermia, a lower-than-normal body temperature caused by losing skin, which serves as the body’s insulation.
Nurses washed and removed dead skin, an excruciating process.
A skin graft taken from her own body was applied to Laura’s burns within a day of her arrival. She would require several more during the next few weeks.
“The pain from a severe burn is so indescribable that you have to mentally keep your head above it just to cope,” Laura says. “I prayed, I focused on the faces of my children in the photo by my bed and found comfort with my husband’s hand on mine.”
“The nurses and the doctors provided me with exemplary care and helped me live through that time. I knew that I was safe, that I was cared for and I felt like a person and not just a patient in bed 28.”
Understanding what had happened to her body and why was challenging.
“She went through a lot physically, spiritually and emotionally,” says Karen Kelman, RN, who has worked in the burn center for 19 years and cared for Laura’s wound cleanings and bandage changes.
“I worked with her because she enjoys humor, which is what I bring to my patients when they need it. With the mix of personalities in our unit, we are able to give our patients all the support they need when they need it.”
Saying thanks by giving back
Although many years have passed since Laura’s accident, the scars, pain and memory of her caregivers’ kindness remains.
Coming back as a volunteer is her way of returning the favor.
“I just want to give back. The way that I feel I can do that is through the SOAR program and to let other survivors know the other side.”