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Aiding the Inner Healing of Burn Victims

<i> Kornman is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

Ten-year-old Damon Kimball does not remember the accident in which his father backed over him in the family car, causing injuries that have permanently scarred his face and chest.

Damon was only 2 1/2 when the accident occurred. His father, who had a stroke and died two years ago, thought that his son was in the back seat when he pressed his foot on the accelerator.

Today, after several corrective surgeries and the passage of time, Damon’s burn-like scars on his left cheek no longer impair his vision or limit the use of his mouth. But when he is among strangers, some still stare or point and murmur, making it hard for the scars inside to heal fully.

Damon’s father was separated from his mother, Pat Kimball, when the accident occurred during an outing with two of his three young sons. Somehow, Damon survived, with deep-tissue abrasions--"tire burns"--over 90% of his face and chest. During his hospital stay, the outer layers of his skin were removed repeatedly in scrub baths to prevent infection and help the skin to heal properly.

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For two years, Damon wore a ski mask-like bandage over his head in an attempt to reduce the scarring. He also wore a pressure bandage around his chest to keep the reddish welts of scar tissue from swelling during the long healing process.

“The initial trauma is horrendous,” Pat Kimball said recently at the family’s Granada Hills home. “It follows you forever.”

But Damon and his family eventually found some relief from an unexpected source. Last year, a representative of the Alisa Ann Ruch California Burn Foundation visited Damon’s school as part of a public education program designed to teach schoolchildren how to prevent burn injuries.

The foundation, which has headquarters in Canoga Park, provides prevention programs to schools, businesses and community groups, and services to burn survivors and their families throughout the state. It also funds burn care research and operates a summer camp at Wonder Valley Ranch, about 30 miles east of Fresno, for burn survivors ages 5 to 18.

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During the talk at Tulsa Elementary School in Granada Hills, Damon said he learned how to “stop, drop and roll” should he catch fire.

Soon afterward, he learned about the ranch. Pat Kimball says a week at summer camp last year went a long way to help her son renew his confidence and focus on a goal: Damon says he wants to be a member of a police SWAT team when he grows up.

The foundation, which operates with a small full-time staff and a large number of volunteers, was created in 1971 in the memory of an 8-year-old Southern California girl who was fatally burned in a back-yard barbecue fire. It is supported solely by contributions.

Although much of the foundation’s efforts are aimed at burn prevention and helping children, the staff and volunteers also work with adult burn victims, their families and even their co-workers to help build understanding and cooperation when a burned person returns to work. A similar in-school program is conducted to prepare a child’s classmates and teachers for an injured child’s return to school.

After Damon’s accident, Kimball said, she did what she could to make sure that her son got the medical care he needed. While her marriage foundered, she went back to school and got a degree in early childhood education.

When her husband died suddenly two years ago, she filed for bankruptcy and began again, moving to Granada Hills from Sepulveda with Damon, Ethan, 14, and Justin, 18. She works full time with young disabled children in the Glendale Unified School District.

Before Damon went to camp, Kimball said she did what she could to be a model for her son when they were in public, showing him ways to manage on his own.

“I see you notice my son’s scars. We’re so lucky he’s alive,” she would tell adults and children who stared at Damon while they were shopping. The rehabilitation period was long and painful.

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“I’m a special education teacher, and I talk to parents all the time about their kids’ handicaps,” Kimball said. “It’s a very different story when it’s your own child.”

To be eligible for the camp, children must have sustained burns or burn-like injuries. They do not have to be severe. Foundation officials said the most important consideration is: Can a child benefit from spending time at camp, like other children, swimming, riding horses, playing with go-carts and playing games?

“Champ Camp” gives each child a week away from home under medical supervision. No one stops and stares; no one asks how or why. “Campers aren’t permitted to ask about the nature of each other’s injuries,” said Tom Kiefer, the foundation’s director of burn services. A registered nurse is on duty 24 hours a day.

Although the camp is in a rural setting, the facilities are not rustic. “Children with burn injuries must keep their skin especially clean,” Kiefer said. “All rooms are equipped with showers, and children are monitored by the nursing staff to make sure they take proper care of their healing wounds. Those who require medications receive them, under supervision and with the child’s doctor’s permission.”

The week at camp last summer marked the first time that Damon and his mother were separated, and Kimball said she was concerned about sending her son to camp with children who had suffered devastating, disfiguring injuries. She was afraid that he would “see other kids with limitations and feel a part of this.”

But she decided that the potential benefits outweighed the risk that Damon would identify himself as disfigured and disabled. “I knew I had a child who was very distressed about everything in his life. His father died. We moved. He transferred schools. I had a new job.”

In the end, the week at camp was “the greatest thing that ever happened to him,” Kimball said. “For one week, he was a little boy who didn’t have a scar. He didn’t have to worry. . . . That experience has sustained him all year. The nurses, the firemen at camp are all so understanding.”

Firefighters and their wives make up the largest segment of volunteer counselors at the camp; they use their special understanding of the trauma of burn injuries to help children have fun without being self-conscious. Some firefighters return year after year, Kiefer said.

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“The experience really helps rebuild a fragmented person,” Kimball said. “I’m not saying camp solved all his problems, but it gave Damon a chance to depend on other people. They enjoyed him for who he is.”

Damon says he loved his time at camp and wants to return this summer. Kiefer said that although invitations to camp haven’t been issued, each year the number of campers increases as donated camperships rise. Children who could benefit from a return visit do go back, and “Damon will go to camp this summer if I have anything to say about it,” Kiefer said.

The week at camp ends each year with a trip to Disneyland to help the children test the coping skills they learned.

Damon recalls that some people at Disneyland stared at the campers. They wouldn’t have, though, if they hadn’t worn their Champ Camp T-shirts, he said. Damon had forgotten about the scars.

Kiefer said Champ Camp, in its fourth year, expects to have 100 youngsters this summer, giving children “a week without scars,” a “pure camp experience,” a chance to experience new successes, try new things and meet new people.

The severity of the burn injury is not an issue, Kiefer said. “We’re much more interested in the child and what the burn means to them.”

(In the Los Angeles area, the foundation oversees a support group for adult burn survivors and the parents of burn survivors. It meets at Westside Pavilion. The foundation refers residents of the San Fernando Valley to Sherman Oaks Community Hospital’s support group for burn survivors; the foundation doesn’t attempt to duplicate the hospital’s service.)

How to Prevent Burns

The Alisa Ann Ruch California Burn Foundation of Canoga Park gives the following tips during presentations on burn prevention:

* Cool a burn. Put burned skin under cool water for at least 20 minutes. Use a faucet, shower, whatever is handy. Do not use butter, ice or grease. They will only further damage tissue.

* Avoid scalds. Most burns are the result of scalds, and most scalds are suffered by children. Be careful when cooking or drinking hot liquids. Keep pot handles, cups of coffee or tea out of the reach of children.

* Cook with care. Keep children out of the way when cooking. If grease catches fire, place a lid over the pan and turn off the burner. Never use water to try to extinguish a grease fire. Make sure pot handles are turned toward the back of the stove, out of the reach of children.

* Stop, drop and roll. If your clothes catch fire, stop where you are, drop to the ground or floor, and roll over and over until the flames are out.

* Install smoke detectors. Install at least one smoke detector on every level of your home and one outside each sleeping area. Test them once a month. Replace batteries at least once a year, and keep detectors free of dust and cobwebs.

* Plan a home escape route. Find two ways out of each room in the house. Make special provisions for infants, elderly and disabled members of your family. Establish a place outside where everyone will gather. Practice the escape plan with all family members.

* Check electrical cords. Replace cords that are frayed or broken. Do not place extension cords beneath rugs or carpet where they can be stepped on and broken.

* Turn water heater thermostats down. Most water heaters are set at 170 degrees. Hot liquid at 150 degrees can cause a third-degree burn in one second. Water heaters should be set between low and medium (120 to 130 degrees) to prevent scalding.

* Watch out for smokers. If you permit smoking in your home, make sure that cigarettes are extinguished in large, deep ashtrays. Empty ashtrays into the toilet. Never smoke in bed.

* Be careful with flammable liquids. Use only approved gasoline storage cans. Avoid contact with battery acid, hot oil and radiator steam.


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