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Call Him a Human Phoenix, and Call His Nurses ‘Sweetie’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Vrzich was flown to UC San Diego Medical Center with severe burns over 95% of his body, doctors gave him 24 hours to live. When the 28-year-old El Cajon businessman survived that first milestone, doctors became more optimistic: they gave him 48 hours.

Soon it was a week. Then two weeks. Then a month.

On Friday, just five months after Vrzich dived through a window at the back of his 35-foot motor home to escape flames hot enough to melt steel, the man known to burn specialists as the “miracle boy” went home.

“The odds were against him,” UCSD burn surgeon John Hansbrough said. “We thought he would almost certainly die by the first week. But he’s a very strong-willed person. That’s really what brought him through.”

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Vrzich is one of only a few burn victims nationwide to survive such extensive burns, and Hansbrough considers Vrzich’s survival his biggest success story in 10 years.

Hansbrough’s aggressive treatment program had Vrzich under a surgeon’s knife four days after the explosion to receive a temporary layer of cadaver skin until doctors could grow enough skin from his scalp to cover his wounds with permanent grafts.

Many burn surgeons shy away from the technique, Hansbrough said, because so many things can go wrong.

Because burn patients are certain to reject cadaver skin, they must be given Cyclosporin, an immuno-suppressant drug used in organ transplants. The drug buys time, postponing the rejection, which normally would occur within two weeks, for as long as six weeks. The problem is that the drug also lowers the body’s own defenses, putting the patient in danger of contracting life-threatening infections or diseases.

Thanks to the morphine and other painkilling drugs doctors prescribed, Vrzich doesn’t remember the first 99 days he spent in the intensive care burn unit at the medical center.

Instead, he remembers in striking detail the day his life was irrevocably changed.

Dressed in blue sweat pants, a T-shirt and a new pair of Reeboks, Vrzich spoke to reporters in a room on the sixth floor of the San Diego Rehabilitation Institute, telling them about the day he almost lost his life. Underneath his clothes, he wore a full-length elastic Jobst Garment to help his fragile new skin grafts adhere to his wounds. Although he still has a layer of peeling skin on his face and some pitting and scars on his left ear, he resembles the man seen sipping a beer and taking in the sun in photographs taken just days before the accident.

July 4 was a hellishly hot day, he recalled, with desert temperatures rising to a searing 117 degrees. He was on his way home from Parker, Ariz., where he owns some lakeside property, trying to keep cool in his $125,000 custom-built Holiday Rambler motor home.

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Driving west on Interstate 8 just past the Ocotillo exit, he was listening to the radio when suddenly he heard a pop and a whistle.

Vrzich, who owns a business repairing motor homes and hitches, knew enough about the construction of motor homes to know he was in trouble.

“I knew it wasn’t the tire. It was the propane,” Vrzich said. “All I had in my mind was stopping and getting out.”

He had barely slammed on the brakes and put his hand on the ignition key when the nearly full 85-gallon propane tank exploded, engulfing the motor home in flames.

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Vrzich believes the explosion was caused by a malfunction in a 2-inch clasp gauge in the propane tank, and he plans to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer.

The recreational vehicle was not equipped with a door on the driver’s side, and the side door he normally used was ablaze. As the heat burned the clothes off his body, he ran screaming through the motor home in search of an escape. An 18-inch window above a bed in the back was his only hope. He dived through.

As the motor home billowed smoke and flames, Vrzich stood nearly naked in the middle of the highway, waving at passing motorists for help. Nearly 10 minutes passed before anyone stopped.

“They just drove by slow and watched,” Vrzich said. “Some people had their windows rolled down. I could almost stick my head inside. I’m sure they were scared. Probably didn’t know what they could do.”

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In 12 minutes, the entire vehicle was a heap of ash and twisted metal. Vrzich later heard from people who said they saw the fire from 25 miles away.

Finally, the driver of another motor home stopped, gave him a jacket and went to call for help. It took awhile for Vrzich to grasp the extent of his injuries.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think it was that serious,” he said. “It just looked like the tar had been burned off me.”

An emergency medical helicopter took him to UCSD’s burn center, where the extent of the injury became immediately obvious. His face and groin were the only parts of his body to escape being burned.

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The first months were “touch and go,” said his stepfather, Charles Adams.

The initial surgery required 50 pints of blood, prompting a friend, Leonard Howell of Lakeside, to start a blood drive. An ad taken out in the Daily Californian urged friends and members of the motor home community to give blood in Vrzich’s name, eventually bringing the hospital blood bank about 1,500 pints.

“People are still calling and donating blood,” said Howell, 55.

Ninety-nine days in intensive care, 15 operations and two months of physical and occupational therapy brought Vrzich’s medical bills to a staggering $1.6 million. Two months before the accident, he had bought a medical insurance plan that increased his coverage from $100,000 to $2 million with no deductible.

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Several other patients recovering in the burn ward with him died, none of them burned as badly. And, midway through his recovery, just when his family believed he was out of danger, Vrzich had a major setback that almost cost his life.

His kidneys, pancreas and gallbladder all stopped functioning and his heart was having palpitations. He also contracted pneumonia twice.

He lost 50 pounds from his 6-foot-2-inch frame, dropping from a strapping 200 pounds. But Vrzich was determined to get well. He cooperated with his doctors and kept a sense of humor throughout his ordeal, never missing a chance to flirt with one of his nurses, each of whom he describes as “one of my sweeties.”

“I was just determined that I wasn’t going to die,” Vrzich said. “I always knew I was going to make it. I’m sure if I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have made it.”

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As his girlfriend, Abby Kelly, 26, helped him pack his belongings Friday, Vrzich could barely suppress his enthusiasm about all the things he planned to do.

“They told me it would be 10 months to a year before I would get out of here,” Vrzich said. “I’m leaving in half the time. Life’s too short. You never know what’s going to happen. Whatever I get the urge to do, I’m going to do.”


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