Charles Wilson was badly burned in a garage fire, while
working on his son's '67 Mustang
When the gas fumes seeping through his garage ignited, Charles Wilson’s life inalterably changed.
He had been working on his son’s 1967 Ford Mustang on a cool April day, and forgot to turn off a heater before cutting into the gas line. Seconds later the fire started, and with flames standing between him and the door, Wilson did the only thing he could to escape: He ran through them and into his driveway. Covered in flames from his waist down and his hands burning from trying to put out the fire, he stopped, dropped and rolled to little avail before finally reaching for a tarp and using it to smother the blaze. A nearby neighbor saw the chaos unfold and called 911. By the time emergency crews arrived, Wilson had third degree burns to 60 percent of his body.
From there, Wilson says, things get hazy. There was an ambulance and fire trucks and emergency workers talking to him and asking questions until helicopter arrived to carry him to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Burn Unit, where he was placed in the care of chief burn surgeon Stephen Milner. (Read Dr. Milner’s account) Despite his injuries, Wilson says his biggest worry was for his son, Eddie, a student at Virginia Tech University. Eddie had final exams in less than a month, and Wilson knew the news of his accident would be too alarming, and could potentially ruin a semester of hard work. So he charged his family—including his wife and medical team—with absolute secrecy. His son was not to know until final exams were over.
During the 27 days he spent at Bayview, Wilson underwent six surgeries, first to remove the burned skin and then to perform skin grafts. He remembers little, he says, of his first few days in the burn unit, and, remarkably, doesn’t recall much pain. “When you’re hurt that bad,” he explains, “they have you loaded on narcotics. All you can do is trust the people who are taking care of you because you have no choice—you have to trust someone.”
Because the majority of his skin had burned away, culling skin for grafts proved challenging. Only 20 percent of the healthy skin remaining was suitable for use, far too little to cover his wounds. With so little skin at his disposal, Milner had to temporarily cover Wilson’s burns with cadaver skin while he began the slow and tedious process of grafting skin, waiting for more to grow in its place and then grafting again. Gradually Wilson was able to move and walk again, but was told it could be at least a year before he could resume normal activities, let alone his job as a tree trimmer. “I’ve been climbing trees for 30 years,” Wilson says. “I’ve never been down a day in my life, and to be lying around for four months was the hardest thing for me. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Not long after his father left the hospital, Wilson’s son passed his finals and graduated from Virginia Tech University in spring 2009.
Even when he was finally discharged from care, Wilson was told to continue to take it easy and stay out of trees. To protect his skin and prevent scarring, he was given pressure garments and instructed to wear them for the next year. But within six months, Wilson was back in the branches and the burn garments, which he found too restrictive for climbing, had been all but discarded. Soon, he says, he’d earned enough money to buy a new Harley Davidson—his old one had burned in the fire. He even took a trip to Las Vegas.
Still, there was a price. The scarring, Wilson says, is bad, and it was made worse because he didn’t wear the pressure garments as instructed. But the alternative—staying at home, off his feet and out of the trees—was unacceptable to him.
“Doing tree work and being burned just don’t mix,” he explains. “I had choice. I could be a little bit prettier, or I could get on with my life.”
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