Burn Survivor Bill Soulsby's Story
I'm Burning.... My Story
The year was 1988, and it was a typical warm day in California when I finished performing my pre-trip inspection on the cab-over I was assigned for deliveries. My name is Bill and I worked for a small Sacramento area trucking company that delivered boxed freight to various supermarkets in northern and central California. My daily run consisted of about 26 stops from Sacramento to Fresno by way of state highway 99.
My first few hours on this particular day, May 23rd, were routine and uneventful. I was feeling frustrated with my boss for refusing to bring my rig up to par. My pre-trip inspection again indicated that this archaic rig needed new tires, among other things, as the tread was almost nonexistent. However, as usual the owner / manager of this small, family-owned business was pinching pennies and refused to spend a nickel unless he was forced to do so. And, as I needed this job real bad, I continued to drive my rig, even though it made me a little uneasy doing it.
As I made my stops in the Sacramento area, I was thinking about my fiancée, Judy, and was anxious for the workday to end so I could get home to her. We shared an apartment together and she usually got home before me because of my long delivery route. Wouldn't it be nice if I could get home before her and surprise her with a romantic dinner, I thought to myself. Sometimes she worked overtime as she was a fraud investigator for the State, and sometimes had a long day. She really enjoyed my little poems and romantic songs and a nice romantic dinner sounded like a great way to unwind and finish off the day.
My next few deliveries took me down highway 99 as far as Fresno. I didn't mind the drive too much except when I would get stalled in traffic. Hopefully, today would be a good day and I would be able to zip right through. Things were going pretty good until I was down the road about 100 miles or so when the right lane slowed down due to a lot of exiting traffic up ahead. I decided to pull over to the left lane. I put on my turn signal, and was crossing into the passing lane, traveling approximately 55 miles per hour and was just about to pass an old Peterbilt hauling a load of chickens. All of a sudden, my left front steering tire exploded like a bomb!
I remember my head being thrown violently against the window frame due to the sudden jolt of the truck, the screeching of the tires, the sound of breaking glass, and the sound of grinding metal, then I lost consciousness. My rig veered off the highway and ran onto the Oleander-lined median, continuing on its destructive path. The fuel tanks grinded unmercifully on the metal guardrail, the searing hot friction causing the two large fuel tanks on the rig to explode. The cab was engulfed in flames and at that point I was still unconscious.
I'm not sure how long I was out, but when I regained consciousness, I found myself inside a burning tomb. I was sprawled across the "doghouse" (that part of the truck that covers the engine in a cab-over). My hazy mind was racing, trying to think what to do. I knew I needed to get out of this burning inferno and I needed to get out now! But it was like I was in limbo .... I thought of my fiancée, Judy, and how it was pretty obvious I wouldn't be getting home early today. It's like all of a sudden I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to make it out of this situation alive and I just gave up! The next thing I knew, I saw a very, very bright, but calming light. I saw a figure coming toward me, and then realized it was my dad who had died in 1985. He was motioning for me to follow him, and seemed to be waving at me with a cast iron frying pan! I hesitated trying to think what I had done wrong, and then finally began to follow him.
All of a sudden, I seemed to be jerked backwards and I awoke and found myself dazed and wandering across highway 99, with only my underwear intact. The rest of my clothing and shoes had been burned off. Vehicles were at a complete stop going both directions on the highway. I remember thinking why were all those cars and trucks stopped and why were they looking at me!
I was walking with my arms outstretched and burned skin hanging off my body like dripping wax. I was in shock at that point and was unaware of my condition.
It was later determined that a trucker heading north on the highway saw the accident as it happened, and turned around at a nearby exit, and returned to the accident scene and pulled me out of the wreck just in the nick of time. Afterwards, numerous other fellow truckers stopped and tried to help. They kept trying to sit me down and keep me out of the hot sun until help could arrive. I still didn't understand what had happened to me and was getting frustrated at them for being so demanding. The trucker that saved my life left without giving any information to anyone as to his identity, so to this day, I have not been able to thank him for his courageous and heroic act. In a matter of seconds, I would have been burned alive. Had this person not turned around when he did and snatched me from the burning cab when he did, I would not be here today to tell you my story.
The fire department and paramedics arrived shortly afterwards. There wasn't much left to save - the cab was completely burned up in the fire. With only a few scraps of metal and rubber left, it was hard to tell a cab once existed. The trailer I was pulling fared much better. There was moderate damage due to both the accident and the fire, but it was not totally destroyed. I, on the other hand, had not been so lucky. My life had been spared, but my body had been severely burned, over 85%.
The paramedics were shocked at my appearance. With all my clothes, except for my underwear, being burned off, melted skin was hanging from my body. My hair and part of one ear had been burned off as well. They couldn't believe I was walking around as if nothing had happened. However, the shock soon wore off and the unbearable pain began to surge through my body as nothing I'd ever felt before. At this point, I was wishing I had died! The pain was indescribable and, to this day, it is something that is very difficult to even think about. The paramedics administered massive doses of morphine to knock me out and, hopefully, ease some of my pain. Once I was stabilized, I was rushed to the nearest hospital in the town of Merced; however, it was not equipped to handle such a severe burn case, so I was eventually transported by way of a Lifeflight helicopter to the Fresno Valley Medical Center's Burn Unit. Then, I began my daily, painful struggle to survive!
Meanwhile, Judy had been waiting at home for me to arrive. It was about 7:00 PM and she hadn't seen or heard from me. She later told me she thought I had to work late or maybe the rig had a flat tire or a mechanical problem, as I had told her numerous times of the many problems with the vehicles at work. However, she said she was also getting worried, because it wasn't like me to be this late and not call her. The hospital finally reached her about 9:00 PM. The staff told my fiancée I had been in an accident, but they did not tell her the seriousness of my injuries. She would have to drive 150 miles, and as she later found out upon her arrival at the hospital, they were afraid she might wind up in an accident herself if she drove to Fresno knowing the whole situation. She later told me how anxious she was that night. Although the hospital had not told her I was seriously hurt, she had a gut wrenching feeling something was terribly wrong and she knew she needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. She packed up her two young sons (ages 9 and 12), and took them to her parents' home in Sacramento and headed off for Fresno. She arrived there in just over 2½ hours.
When she arrived in Fresno, she couldn't find the hospital. It was almost midnight and the streets were empty and the night seemed unusually dark and frightening. She located a pay phone and pulled over to call the hospital for better directions. Just after getting directions and hanging up the phone, she looked up and saw two men coming toward her. She didn't think they wanted to use the phone, but rather had an ugly, suspicious look on their faces. Alarmed, she ran to her car, quickly got in and locked the doors. The key was already in the ignition, so she started the car and sped away. As she looked in her rear view mirror, she could see that the seedy-looking men had stopped and were yelling something at her as she drove off.
When Judy arrived at the hospital, she learned the extent of my injuries. She wasn't able to see me when she arrived, but one of the many doctors who worked on me did take her aside to one of the small family waiting rooms to talk with her. He told her there wasn't much chance of my surviving, as the burns were extensive. So much of my skin had 3rd degree burns, the majority of which was completely burned off. He said he didn't know if there was enough "good donor" sites left for grafting. My lungs had been severely burned and there was a good possibility of pneumonia or infection setting in. There was a possibility of losing one or more of my limbs, as my hands, arms, feet and legs were severely burned with little or no skin intact. The muscles and underlying tissue had also been burned and would, most likely, constrict and be of little or no use, even if I didn't lose the limbs themselves. Some of the minor injuries included a severe concussion, which may have caused permanent brain damage, burned retinas causing partial blindness, and a burned ear which may affect my hearing. The doctor suggested that Judy call the family together, as he felt I didn't have much time left. He commented that I was getting the best medical care possible, but he didn't think that would be enough. He felt only my will to live and God's intervention would make the difference whether I lived or died.
Judy did as the doctors had suggested and called all the family members, but she did more than that! As we were engaged anyway and were planning to get married in a few months, she went into action. She contacted a local clergy person who agreed to marry Judy and me in the hospital. It took some doing on Judy's part, because she had to get some special paperwork signed and filed giving her permission to act on my behalf, getting the marriage license, etc. After a couple of weeks of red tape and many phone calls and trips to the local courthouse, Judy and I were married in my hospital room on June 4, 1988 - 13 days after my accident.
My wedding "tux" was quite unique because I was wrapped in bandages from my head down to my toes. I had one eye unbandaged, a slit for my nose and mouth, and a few toes exposed. Instead of flowers as decorations, I had IV's inserted in numerous locations on my body and other monitoring devices hanging all around me. A breathing machine was our background music. As my hands were completely bandaged up, the wedding ring was placed on my big toe! Our guests included my future wife's two sons (the youngest of which got so nauseated from the hospital smells he had to make an abrupt exit), the clergy's husband, and two wonderful people Judy had met during her many trips to Fresno (a fellow trucker and his wife who lived in the Fresno area had read of my plight, contacted Judy at the hospital and offered their assistance and hospitality to Judy and myself). I don't really remember the wedding, but Judy had some pictures taken and recorded the ceremony on audio tape.
She didn't know then, because I was unable to speak for several weeks, but she was right in thinking this might help me mentally. I remember thinking many times, while conscious and during some of my many strange dreams, that I didn't want to live. I knew I was badly burned and I remember thinking I didn't want to live like this. After all, Judy certainly wouldn't want me now. I knew, if I lived I would be terribly scarred, perhaps missing a limb or two, or maybe worse!
If she hadn't shown me how much she loved me, no matter what I looked like or how bad I was hurt, I probably would have given up my desire to live. She, my family, and friends gave me strength and the courage to fight to live. Also, Judy's dad, Earl, was the Elder of his church, and I was told the whole congregation said many prayers for me!
For the first ten days or so, I was unconscious most of the time due to having a concussion, my other injuries, and the heavy doses of morphine I was being given. It was a blessing in disguise because when I was awake and aware of my surroundings, I was in extreme pain during that time. When you have 3rd degree burns, there is a medical process called "debridement" which is the removal of dead tissue or skin. This was done to me at least twice daily and is the most excruciating pain one can feel. It's like peeling off your skin and exposing your nerve endings to the environment. Then they would re-bandage me, only to do it again later!
After a couple of months at the burn unit in Fresno, I was finally moved to the general area of the hospital. But just when it looked like I was going to survive with all my body parts intact, most of my sight restored and even the ability to walk and use my arms and hands again, the walls came tumbling down on me again. I began to experience severe stomach pains, and for more than three days, the doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. After numerous tests, they ruled out appendicitis, ulcers, etc. The pains continued to get worse, my temperature escalated, they would not give me anything for pain until they could find out what was wrong. The doctors knew something serious was going on, yet they were unable to diagnose the problem. Finally, after about a week, it was determined I had pancreatitis, brought on by the stress of my massive burns. Once again, the doctors called Judy into a small consultation room at the hospital and told her my condition was serious enough that, once again she should call in the family and prepare for my death.
The doctors immediately operated on me again and removed part of my pancreas, my small intestines, and my appendix. They weren't too optimistic about my survival but this would at least give me a chance. However, I was determined to make it! I felt God had given me a second chance after my near-fatal accident and I wasn't going to throw in the towel now. It was touch and go for a while, but I began to recover. Once again, I had cheated the Angel of Death!
Judy had been driving from Orangevale to Fresno every weekend for over three months. She was able to change her work schedule to a 4-day week, so she was able to drive down every weekend. I looked forward to those visits - they kept me going. My mother and one of my brothers from Pennsylvania also would visit me. The operations, the unspeakable pain, the threat of death hanging over me would have been more than I could bear if I hadn't known my beloved wife would be there every weekend to be by my side. She gave me hope and made me believe in myself again. I looked at my broken and burned body and often cried, but when Judy was there, all I saw was love and admiration. She knew I would make it - and she knew we would make it together!
I was finally transferred to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento so I could be closer to my family (with some help from our State Congressman). I had to be driven by ambulance with two attendants all the way from Fresno (which cost the State over $800.00). Soon after I arrived, I had another pancreatitis attack and a second surgery was performed. But I guess the Angel of Death gave up on me because, once again, I survived. ( I was sure using up my "9" lives)! I was still on a feeding tube and it was difficult to talk because of the injuries all these tubes had done to my throat.
However, Judy decided to throw me a party for my 40th birthday on August 9, 1988. I had a disgusting tube hanging out of my nose, various I.V.'s still inserted in my body and patches of freshly harvested skin all over my body. After 16 skin grafting operations and more procedures than I want to think about being performed on me, I was quite a sight! I was still dazed from the large doses of pain killing drugs (Demerol and Morphine). However, my wife decided it was going to be as normal a birthday party as possible. She even arranged for a singing birthday-gram for me complete with a sexy, scantily clad woman, who sang happy birthday, as well as "our" song to me. Two of my four brothers, my mother, and Judy and her two sons were present. All I could do was sit there in a funny looking party hat, and grin! But this was going to be the beginning of a new and trying chapter in my life.
The day finally came when I was able to go home. It wasn't as easy as I thought. The incision bandages from my latest operation had to be changed twice a day, and I needed help with almost every move I made. A visiting nurse had to come in five days a week to help my wife with the wounds. I went through a lot of depression, three additional skin grafts on my hands to improve movement, and two years of physical therapy. I developed severe arthritis in my hands, arms and legs, and disintegrating discs in my neck and back, and various other permanent ailments. But, I had my life, my wife and extended family, and the feeling God had given me another opportunity to do something very different with my life. I didn't know what that was to be at the time, but I knew my life was going to be different.
The California Department of Rehabilitation provided some training in the field of graphic design, but not enough for a degree, which is necessary to really establish a career in that field. Therefore, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I enrolled in a junior college (Sierra, in Rocklin), and began my long journey toward obtaining an A.A. degree in Communications. A course of study that should have taken me two years to complete, took me six-and-a-half (because of a learning disability and the many therapies I had to take), but I felt good about myself knowing I beat the odds and accomplished something that was thought to be impossible for me .... 11 years ago!
Today, I am 52 years old and my life has taken many twists and turns over the past several years. I have been doing many things with my life since my recovery from that fateful day in 1988. Wonderful things. I am very involved with the burn survivors support group at the U.C. Davis hospital, which was established to help burn survivors and their families learn to cope with their injuries, both mentally and physically. My wife and I also become involved with a local non-profit group (Firefighters Pacific Burn Institute) that hosts an annual summer camp for burned children, as well as many fund-raisers that benefit the burn unit and burn research here in town.
Last year, Judy and I volunteered to be counsellors at the week long kids camp for burned children. Children who are often ridiculed, stared at, shunned and ignored are given the opportunity to be themselves. They laugh, they play, they sing - once again they are normal. This is one of the most rewarding, most humbling experiences I've ever encountered. My wife and I hope to have the opportunity to participate as often as possible at these summer camps. We learn so much from the children, and hope we have taught them how to cope with their injuries, it's o.k. to be different, and they are not alone .... they are truly God's blessings!
I also host a weekly online burn survivors chat, have just finished writing a book entitled Burned .... Now what, which you can now buy online. It provides self-help information for first time burn survivors and their families on how to overcome the many obstacles they will encounter during their recovery process and how to become a "survivor". I'm hoping they will learn as I did, that being severely burned doesn't mean your life is over, but that it has just taken a new and different turn. How a person deals with these new changes in their lives is totally up to them. Hopefully, they will look at it as I did, a new adventure and opportunity to help others and restore their hope of a fulfilling and prosperous life!
Bill Soulsby - Burn Survivor
Copyright © Bill Soulsby (August 2000) All Rights Reserved.