Burn Injuries Often Require Life-long Care

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Kim Sutherland suffered burns to 40 per cent of her body in 1990. She and Saskatoon firefighter Jay Protz are co-chairs of a fundraising event on May 4. (Photo by Cam Hutchinson)

The fundraising event is called the FIRE in the Kitchen Cook Off. Kim Sutherland can relate to the words fire and kitchen.

In 1990, when she was 11 years old, the back of her shirt touched an element on the stove and went up in flames. She suffered burns to 40 per cent of her body, and spent two months in hospital. At the time, there was a burn unit in Saskatoon, so her treatment was here. 

“I got out Christmas Eve that year; a little bit early. Mom said, ‘We’re taking her home.’ I was really fortunate because I had amazing family support and my mom was a nurse.” 

With a burn, leaving the hospital is the start of a journey that is lifelong.

“A burn isn’t like other injuries. It’s not like you can put a cast on a leg and then in six weeks you are good. . . . Chances are you won’t have any lifetime issues,” she said.

Sutherland had further surgeries until she was 14. At that point, her surgeon said there wasn’t more that could be done for her.

“I went through high school and it wasn’t great. It is what it was, and it was tough.”

As an adult, Sutherland went to a Canadian burn survivor conference. There is a back story to it.

Sutherland was facing leg surgery to fix a problem from a previous surgery. A week before her surgery, she told her doctor she couldn’t do it. She was at her breaking point and was physically sick. Her doctor told her how important it was, and said not having the surgery could result in Sutherland not being able to walk.

“She prescribed me some medication to calm me down. She said, ‘Take this; you’re going to have the surgery and you’re going to be fine.’ She said, ‘I think we are going to get you some help.”

Sutherland was baffled.

“I think you have some post-traumatic stress,” the doctor said.

“I was like, that’s what soldiers get; I don’t have that.”

The doctor thought Sutherland did.

“I brushed it off; had the surgery and everything was fine.”

And off to the conference she went. Sutherland attended a session on post-traumatic stress.

“I sat in on it and all the check boxes (were being ticked). I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is a bit of a wakeup call.”

A burn survivor at the conference convinced her to talk with a professional. He was surprised she had never done that. He said she should also ask for a referral to a plastic surgeon because of neck pain, and numbness in her hands from a buildup of scar tissue.

Sutherland came home from the conference and asked for the referrals. 

That was about 10 years ago.

Sutherland waited for five years, only to be told it was beyond the skill set of local plastic surgeons. She was referred out of 

province. In Sutherland’s case that was Alberta, where she would see a burn team in Edmonton.

She had her first surgery in Edmonton in 2016. Her fifth one will be in June. It will be her 21st trip to Edmonton, with her expenses for those trips now at more than $25,000 — and counting.

The services she and other burn survivors need are no longer here.

“Burn care is specialized. You need people trained in how to deal with scar management and how to deal with pain management, how to replace fluids properly,” Sutherland said. “It’s just a special subset of care. Once you have dealt with that initial trauma, how do you get the psychological help? How do you deal with your after-therapies? You can’t go to just anybody. That’s where you need that team approach.”

Sutherland knew she wasn’t the only person from Saskatoon travelling out-of-province for treatment. She had an idea for what became the Saskatchewan Burn Support Network. She wanted to support these people through the journey that will last for the rest of their lives.

She is fortunate to have the flexibility to take time off to go to treatment and has been able to pay her costs of those 21 trips to Edmonton.

“But what does the family on a single income do? My fear is that they just don’t go.”

The forming of the network included the involvement of Saskatoon Fire Chief Morgan Hackl — twice.

When Sutherland had her accident, Hackl was the chair of the burn fund. He visited Sutherland at the hospital and made arrangements for her to go to a burn camp.

In more recent times, Chief Hackl was the one who brought Sutherland and firefighter Jay Protz together in the project.

“Chief Hackl had actually seen my sister at an event and mentioned that they were looking for a burn survivor for a story on Burn Awareness Week, which happens in February each year.

“I told him I would come do the story if he would help me start a burn support group. It was one of those times when things happen for a reason. He put me in contact with Jay and the rest is history.”

Protz said he was touched by the stories of survivors. First responders don’t always learn of their patients’ outcomes.

 “Until you are in it and you start talking with survivors, you don’t realize the surgeries they go through — life-long surgeries,” Protz said.

Protz said the burn fund doesn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would like but spends some of it to fund travel expenses. Those are done on a case-by-case basis.

Advocacy wise, he said making people aware helps immensely.

There is a now a doctor — Annika Card — in Saskatoon, who did a fellowship in burn and wound care in New Zealand.

“This is a passion for her,” Protz said. “She is starting to help us build a little momentum and we are very fortunate to have her on our side. She is very motivated to help people.”

Protz said some of their funds will go to help Saskatchewan Health recruit — and train — health care professionals in the area of wound treatment. 

 “The burn support network was never intended to be an advocacy body,” Sutherland said. “The point was to support families and burn patients through the emotional and mental recovery of these injuries. Burn injuries do not happen in nice ways. Some big trauma has happened there. They are always unexpected and come out of the blue.”

The third annual FIRE in the Kitchen Cook Off fundraiser, which Sutherland and Protz co-chair, will be held May 4 at Prairieland Park.

It is put on by the Saskatchewan Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association Burn Fund. Paramedics were officially added to the already-long name last fall. And so they should have been, given they won the competition in 2018. That’s something that didn’t sit particularly well with firefighters. (Note to paramedics: The firefighters want their axe back.)

There will be teams of firefighters from Saskatoon, Prince Albert, North Battleford and Regina competing this year, along with local paramedics. 

Each team is judged on an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert for celebrity judges in front of a live audience. It’s like a combination of the cooking shows on TV in many ways but better, Sutherland and Protz said.

In the FIRE in the Kitchen Cook Off, there are penalties for a number of things, including dropping a food preparation item or an f-bomb. Heaven forbid a team drops a spatula.

“The penalties are emergency services related,” Sutherland said. “The team might have to do a round of CPR, start an IV, do a hose roll, drag a dummy.”

There are eight penalties in total.

“It’s all what we do,” Protz added. “It’s job related.”

Many include members of the audience. 

Prince Albert won the inaugural championship before those pesky paramedics took the title.

“The first year really surprised us,” Sutherland said. “(Prince Albert Fire) had cold-smoked their meat; they made a brand and branded their meat. It was unbelievable. I don’t think anybody quite realized how incredible it was going to be.”

Last year, the event fell on Cinco de Mayo, so the teams cooked using that theme.

“It was unbelievable, the stuff they did — like shrimp tacos. It was incredible,” Sutherland said. 

This year’s event will have a Star Wars theme — you know, May the Fourth Be With You.

“We have embraced that because we have a number of kids that are burn survivors that are going to be in attendance. Darth Vader is a burn survivor,” Sutherland said with a smile. “When you tell people, they say, ‘I didn’t think about that.’ And it’s a fun theme, so I’m interested to see what all the chefs are going to cook this year.”

For more information, visit
www.burnfund.ca. Information about
the event can also be found on Facebook:
FIREInTheKitchenCookOff.