With each slow, determined step, William Jensen moves farther from death’s door.
Using his scarred right hand to push a metal walker, the burly Glendale firefighter who was overtaken by flames as he battled the Calabasas/Malibu brush fire in the fall shuffles his way down a hospital corridor.
His broad chest is covered in a scarlet dressing that serves as a scab to help healing. His severely burned left hand, still swollen and bruised purple after surgery that saved his fingers from amputation, remains useless.
His daily regimen is as taxing as it is necessary.
But Jensen, at times grimacing and grunting as he builds his strength, prefers the pain to its alternative.
“There’s too many things to live for,” he says, choking back tears. “My wife, kids, grand-kids.”
Jensen is scheduled to return to his Burbank home today, on his 53rd birthday. His gradual recovery since the Oct. 22 fire has been the result of continuous treatment by top-quality medical personnel, devoted support from family, friends and fellow firefighters, and Jensen’s own unflinching desire to live.
“I’d just like to thank everybody. Everybody out there who prayed for me,” Jensen said last week in his only interview since the tragedy. “Everybody’s been so good to me.”
Sitting next to his hospital bed, the 27-year firefighting veteran’s shoulders were covered with bandages. He was wearing pants for the first time since being hospitalized, albeit the loose-fitting green “scrubs” that hospital personnel wear. And he was breaking in a new pair of leather sneakers.
Although he’s much lighter than his normal 250-plus pounds, his healing face looked only slightly different than the mustachioed Jensen pictured on buttons worn round-the-clock by those pulling for him.
Jensen’s wife, Sue, sat nearby. Occasionally, she gave him a sip of water or passed her hand along the wispy gray hair on his balding head.
Signs of support were everywhere in his room at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital. Friends, family and hospital staff members popped in and out. A bulletin board was covered with family pictures. Several stuffed animals recalled his nickname, “Magilla Gorilla,” which he earned for his size, strength and his side job of trimming and caring for trees.
With a slight smile, Jensen said he attributes his survival equally to his supporters, his medical care and his own ability to fight for life.
“You’ve got to have the willingness to live,” he said.
Jensen cannot remember much about the blaze at Corral Canyon, where he and others were trying to protect homes, nor does he care to.
Jensen was manning a fire hose when winds that were pushing the blaze toward the sea turned suddenly.
“I remember being burned,” he said. “I’ve seen fires move fast before. As fast as you can snap your fingers. . . . It happened. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
His mission now--he was about one year away from retirement when he was injured and is on workers’ compensation--is to work hard toward being as self-sufficient as he’s always been.
“I’m just going to play it day by day,” said Jensen, a warmhearted but private man. “I gain a little bit each day. I’ve just got to build the strength back up. I’ll stick with it.”
Jensen arrived by helicopter at the hospital on a frantic Tuesday afternoon.
The most seriously injured of four firefighters who were hospitalized at the center that day, Jensen suffered second- and third-degree burns over more than 70% of his body. Roughly one in 10 people survive such devastating burns.
“We really, really thought he wasn’t going to make it,” said Helena San Marco, Jensen’s primary nurse, who met the helicopter on the burn center roof. “His back was solid third-degree burns. . . . When I looked at his left hand when he came in, I could see his tendon and his bone.”
San Marco said the immediate challenge was saving Jensen while helping his wife and two grown sons handle the fact that he could die at any time.
“You just try to prepare [loved ones] the best you can,” she said.
Besides his wife, Jensen’s family includes sons Scott, 31, and Kirk, 30, Kirk’s wife, Linda, and their children, Kody, 3, and Kalie, 1, and Scott’s daughter, Kristen, 10 months.
Glendale and Los Angeles city firefighters--each department had two firefighters hospitalized--began a 24-hour vigil at the hospital.
Dr. A. Richard Grossman, founder of the burn center, was joined by his son, Dr. Peter H. Grossman, on the emergency medical team.
“We knew Bill was the worst,” the elder Grossman said. “Bill had to run up a hill because the fire engulfed him.”
The treatment included pumping Jensen with liter upon liter of intravenous fluids--as much as 15 liters in 24 hours--examining every inch of his body and easing his pain with medication.
“You’ve got a lot of things going on that are just scarier than hell,” Grossman recalled.
The only areas not burned were the back of Jensen’s scalp, the inside of one thigh and one calf.
His first surgery came on Oct. 25, three days after the fire.
Doctors were most concerned with his acute breathing problems and the early signs of a blood condition that could have led to internal hemorrhaging. They cut dead and burned tissue from his body, and those areas were covered with cadaver skin used as a biological dressing.
More nerve-racking surgeries followed, but perhaps the scariest moments came in early November, shortly after Jensen’s condition had been upgraded from critical to serious. Doctors detected signs of sepsis, a toxic condition resulting from the spread of bacteria in the bloodstream. He was downgraded to critical condition again for several days as he fought the deadly infection.
“It was very scary for all of us,” Scott Jensen said. “It could have gone either way. We thank God that it did go the right way.”
It would be another month before doctors announced that they no longer considered Jensen’s injuries life-threatening.
Grossman and others said Jensen’s ability to concentrate on recovery, rather than feel sorry for himself, was crucial.
San Marco, who became emotionally attached to the Jensen family, said she was impressed with Jensen’s demeanor from the start.
“He just faces things,” she said. “He’s the kind of guy who looks at the problem and says, ‘Let’s do something about it.’
“ ‘If I don’t get there today, I’ll get there tomorrow’ was Bill’s attitude,” she said.
San Marco joyfully recalled Jensen’s thrill at receiving small ice chips in his mouth after weeks of intravenous treatment. And his first lollipop made him feel like a kid.
“He was so overjoyed,” San Marco said with a hearty laugh. “He just loved that lollipop.”
Jensen would undergo a total of 16 surgeries.
For three weeks in December, his left hand was sewn into an abdominal pouch in a rare procedure designed to grow subcutaneous tissue that would then serve as a platform for skin grafting. He still faces continuing surgeries and treatment for years, with doctors hoping he will regain at least 50% use of the hand.
“I can’t tell you he’s going to fight a fire. Maybe hold a book, maybe write with it,” Richard Grossman said. “He’s not going to play the violin, but he’s also not wearing hooks.”
Grossman said Jensen’s recovery otherwise is even more promising. The decision to send him home depended on when Jensen was well enough to take care of himself with minimal assistance.
“I let somebody go home, like Bill, when he can have his dignity back,” he said.
Jensen said he has no memory of his first four to five weeks of hospitalization.
But the days that passed were filled with special events, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, birthdays and the release of other firefighters from the center.
The Malibu fire itself, which began in Calabasas a day before Jensen was injured and at its peak was fought by more than 4,000 men and women, was contained the day after Jensen entered the burn center, thanks in part to a lull in the fierce Santa Ana winds.
As Jensen’s condition remained “grave,” community support poured in by way of phone calls, letters, food and 111 pints of his type of blood.
On Oct. 29, Gov. Pete Wilson visited the burn center and presented Jensen and six other firefighters with the Governor’s Fire Service Award. That same day, William Rolland, a retired Los Angeles firefighter who started the William Rolland Firefighters Foundation in 1988, donated $10,000 to help Jensen and the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Assn.
And on Wednesday, the Glendale Fire Department awarded its medal of valor to Jensen and Scott French, the other Glendale firefighter hospitalized after being burned in October. French, 41, who returned to work Jan. 8, said then that he would not feel his recovery would be complete until Jensen left the burn center too.
Scott Jensen said firefighters and others will surprise his father with a series of improvements they have made to his home.
“Everybody has gone out of their way to do things for us,” he said.
The cost of his treatment, estimated at about $750,000, is covered by the city of Glendale because he was on duty, fire officials said.
At the burn center on Monday, Dave Brandt, who retired from the Glendale Fire Department in November, and his wife, Vicki, arrived to deliver well-wishes.
“Bill has gotten the attention because he is such a great person,” Vicki Brandt said. “He has a heart of gold.”
Dave Brandt said he was sure Jensen will regain strength and mobility.
“Being the hard worker that he is, I’m sure he’ll do everything they say and more,” Brandt said.
Jensen, lying quietly in his bed as his friends spoke, said he will spend the days ahead mostly in private doing the best he can to get better.
“Everybody around here’s been so nice, but I’m ready to go home,” Jensen said. “I’ve still got a long fight ahead of me.”