BIOMASK: A Fire Fight to Help Burn Victims

HealthMatt DamonRoger StaubachGeorge Clooney

A young Texas war veteran is in GQ Magazine this month.

 He’s a strong man with style but he doesn’t look like George Clooney or Matt Damon.  He is the face of many soldiers returning home from the front lines and his face may help change lives.

Lt. Sam Brown thought he was prepared for the horrors of war.

“I mentally prepared for what was in my mind the worst case scenarios,” Brown said.  “I even mentally prepared for losing a leg or being shot.”

But, he says nothing could prepare him for catching on fire. 

“I was instantly engulfed in flames,” Brown said.  On his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, his humvee hit a roadside bomb.

“My memory of it was just seeing a flash,” Brown said.  “Feeling the vehicle being thrown in the air and I couldn’t hear anything.   And the next moment I was standing outside the vehicle burning from my waist up.”

Brown said he ran in circles and tried to roll around in the sand.

“I couldn’t see anything but the flames,” Brown said.  “As my face was burning I threw my arms up in the air and asked for Jesus to save me and then essentially gave it up.”

He was airlifted out of the firefight and woke up two weeks later in the burn unit at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio. This started a three year surgical battle to save his face.  As the wounds started to heal the disfigurement started.  The scars ran deep, down to Sam’s soul.

“In my lowest points it’s when I’m with inside myself,” Brown said.

Then people would stare at his face.

“I had everything from just curiosity like hey what happened to you?” Brown said.  “To a young gal in St. Louis turning to her friends and saying look there’s Freddy Krueger.

Its stories like Sam’s that initiated a revolutionary research project called the Biomask.

“The idea is to have a mask that would be able to go on top of the face and be put in place and stay there to be able to monitor the condition of the wound and treat it in real time as the healing progresses,” said University of Texas at Arlington researcher Eileen Moss.

Eileen moss and her team at the University of Texas at Arlington is collaborating with plastic surgeons at Brook Army Medical Center and researchers at Northwestern University.  The goal of the Biomask is to re-grow burn victim’s faces to near normal levels without the disfigurement scars.

The Biomask has a hard outer shell and the inside will be lined with micro sensors and fluid delivery systems.

“The sensors would be in contact with the wound itself so you would really be monitoring what is happening at the surface of the wound and then we would have integrated micro fluidics that can then take fluids whether their drugs, saline or other types of solutions that can take from a reservoir and deliver them throughout different locations in the mask,” Moss said.

Right now a burn patient can undergo dozens, sometimes hundreds of surgeries to reconstruct the face, but with the Biomask doctors hope it will create better faster healing and cut down on those surgeries.

“The way our whole team sees this mask is being able to allow the body to heal itself or help the body heal and re-grow that tissue in place so that is actually becomes native tissue as opposed to a transplant,” Moss said.

It’s too late for Sam to benefit from the Biomask technology that is still at least five years away.  He says the stares and the comments don’t bother him like they used to when he was first injured. More importantly he says someone looked beyond the scars and saw the beautiful person that was always there.  He says the masks potential to rescue burn victims is priceless.

“The great thing about it is that saving your face you know, literally, is a powerful, emotional, you know experience,” Brown said.  “Some people deal with the disfigurement better than others and if we can minimize the number of folks who have to emotionally and psychologically go through that, that’s good for everyone.”

Sam Brown in currently working with Roger Staubach and a new outreach called Allies in Service.


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