Thankful to Return to Ordinary

Expert burn care, determination sets Chris Gifford on road to recovery

Chris Gifford and his familyChris Gifford appreciates the value of ordinary days. When an accident left him with significant burns to his upper body, memories of quiet moments on his Waverly, Kansas, farm, at home with family or driving the backroads of Coffey County in the cab of a road grader, pushed him forward through recovery.

A life-changing moment

A split second can change a life. 

August 23, 2015, began like so many other days. Chris and his son set out to burn a pile of brush – a task they'd done countless times on the 320-acre Gifford farm that once belonged to Chris' grandparents.

A single moment and a miscommunication made this time anything but ordinary. Chris grabbed two cans from his son and tossed them on the fire, not realizing they contained gasoline rather than diesel fuel.

"It took a moment for me to register what was happening," Chris notes. "I just remember being puzzled, wondering why there was fire above my head."

His upper body was engulfed in flames. He was covered in gasoline, making the fire difficult to smother. Chris tried to "stop, drop and roll" without success. Hitting the flames on his face only spread the fire.

"I thought about just giving up at some point, but then told myself, 'I can't do that,' and kept at it," he says.

Chris' son jumped on top of him and eventually smothered the flames, but it was no small feat. By the time the fire was out, Chris' t-shirt had somehow come off despite the fact that he'd worn it under a pair of bib overalls.

In shock, Chris was able to calmly talk with his wife, Elaine. The couple headed to the local emergency room at the urging of an EMT friend. During the ride, Chris' pain began, and Elaine started to realize just how badly injured her husband was.

"She didn't let any grass grow under her feet during that drive, I can tell you that," Chris says. "From that point on, there was a lot of hurry and scurry."

Based on the extent of the burns to Chris' neck, chest and arms, the emergency room physician who examined Chris at the nearest local hospital was concerned Chris could have burns in his throat. He ordered a helicopter transport to The University of Kansas Health System, where Chris could receive specialized care and monitoring in the Gene and Barbara Burnett Burn Center, the area's only adult and pediatric burn care facility accredited by the American Burn Association and American College of Surgeons.

"Burn center verification is a mark of distinction and is an indicator to patients and their families of the highest-quality patient care we provide," says Tracy McDonald, RN, director of the health system's trauma, acute care surgery, burn center and concussion programs. "We form relationships with our patients that continue long after the hospitalization through our outpatient burn and wound treatment center and burn survivor program."

The details of his early care remain foggy, but Chris recalls the helicopter ride with good humor.

"It was pretty tight in there, and I remember asking them if they could put a chain on the door to make sure it stayed shut," he says. "What a thrilling ride, though."

Advanced burn care

Chris suffered burns on 13% of his total body surface area. He received a skin graft procedure under the care of program co-director and burn surgeon Dhaval Bhavsar, MD, and was hospitalized for 12 days.

"We see patients of all ages with burns of all sizes," Dr. Bhavsar says. "These are critical injuries, requiring extensive multidisciplinary care in an ICU for a long period of time."

Because Chris had spent very little time in a hospital setting, it was hard for him to rely on others to take care of him.

"I was kind of a grouch much of the time, I think," he says. "I tried to do as much as I could by myself, and sometimes they had to come in and help me through things. I had to learn how to let them. Everyone who took care of me was just excellent. I became good friends with a number of the nurses."

The burn care team cleaned and dressed the burns, monitoring Chris' skin to see how his wounds were healing. As he began to improve, he started physical therapy to increase mobility in his hands and arms.

It was a team effort that helped put Chris on the road to recovery. The multidisciplinary burn care team includes board-certified plastic surgeons, trauma, critical and acute care surgeons, internal medicine specialists, dermatologists, nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists and other medical professionals.

In pursuit of the ordinary

Once home again, Chris had high hopes for a speedy return to ordinary life. The road was a bit steeper than that. 

"I didn't realize this was going to be such a lengthy deal," he says. "I didn't have my mind wrapped around what all this meant for me."

After four months at home, Chris was able to crawl up into the cab of the Coffey County road grader as his physical therapist and his foreman watched – a test to demonstrate he was fit to resume his job with the county. But it would be another two months before he felt ready to drive the vehicle. In the meantime, the county respectfully parked the grader at the Gifford farm, where it served as a symbol of inspiration for Chris.

"It kept me going and kind of gave me a reason to get back to myself," he says.

Laser treatments and reconstructive surgery to release the scarring on Chris' neck continued the healing process and helped achieve the best functional outcome.

Now, Chris has a newfound appreciation for the everyday things. He has some itching and discomfort occasionally, but no pain. He is home and back to doing and enjoying the things he loves.

"I tell people I'm doing good, and I mean it," he says.