A Walking Miracle

Every year, Marcus Le and his mother enjoy their family tradition of picking lychee in Wahiawa when it’s in season. Last summer was no different, except this time while picking the sweet white fruit, Marcus was electrocuted by a nearby powerline. The electricity ran through his body and knocked him out. With his ankle locked onto the ladder, he hung from 34 feet above the ground. Marcus regained consciousness and came down the ladder. The 40-year-old was then taken by ambulance to the Burn Center at Straub Medical Center.

It was at Straub that Marcus learned the extent of his injuries.

“The electric current went through both my hands and exited out of seven places on my body, leaving third degree burns on my hands, abdomen and legs,” he explained. “Many doctors and nurses helped monitor me around the clock for 48 hours to make sure I was alright.”

The road to recovery would be a long one for Marcus. He spent the next six weeks in the Straub Intensive Care Unit and underwent four surgeries. “When I first arrived in the emergency room, the Straub team was super amazing. They took such great care of me and kept everything under control, which made me feel at ease and confident that I was in good hands. I can assure the community that the staff will always treat them well.”

This year, the Straub Burn Center celebrates 35 years of providing specialized care for burn patients. As the only burn center in Hawaii and the Pacific Region, it plays a critical role in serving patients close to home. The team provides advanced burn and wound care for victims of thermal, electrical and chemical burns, as well as severe skin diseases and any condition that requires skin grafting.

Since its inception in 1983, the Burn Center has treated more than 1,000 patients.

“Burn injuries are unique in so many ways,” Dr. Robert Schulz, co-founder and director of the Burn Center, explained. “Within 24 hours, the physiologic changes brought on by the burned skin become potentially lethal. The bacterial barrier and thermoregulation is lost, toxic products from the burn lead to vascular changes that require very large amounts of IV fluid. If not provided, the blood pressure will drop to shock levels and kidney function will be lost. At that point, recovery from the burn injury becomes much more difficult. Before the Straub Burn Center was established, critical burn patients were transferred to the mainland further delaying urgent treatment.”

Burn injuries also require a highly coordinated, integrated, multidisciplinary team approach. "After initial resuscitation, the burns have to be washed daily by nurses specifically trained with pain management and burn dressing changes,” Dr. Schulz said. “Physical and occupational therapists work to protect patients from loss of motion and strength. Social workers have to deal with everything from loss of family members to rehabilitation after discharge. Dietary consultation becomes extremely important since patients have specific calorie demands. Chaplains and psychologists are also needed to provide emotional support for possible disfigurement and pain.” Every member of the team plays a vital role in the care, recovery and outcome of each patient.

Burns can come in many forms, and the burn spectrum ranges from the easily treatable to the severe. Many people never expect to visit the Burn Center, including Richard Malmgren. Upon returning home one day after work, Richard decided to make stovetop popcorn for him and his wife, Judie. While the oil was heating in the pan, Richard walked away for a moment. When he returned, part of the kitchen was on fire. The oil had sparked and quickly ignited the varnished cabinets above.

“So many things were rushing through my mind. I thought about getting a garden hose and all I knew was I didn’t want the fire to reach the attic, so I grabbed the pan with my hand and threw it outside to remove the fire source.” Richard’s quick thinking saved the house but left him with severe hot oil burns on his right hand and arm. He called 911, and the next thing he remembers is waking up at the Straub Burn Center.

The burn team opted for surgery and grafted skin from Richard’s thigh to his hand. “There are a lot of things I can joke about now because my hand is not painful today,” Richard says. “Hawaii is very fortunate to have this resource. I have a hard time imagining how drastically different my outcome could have been without Straub. Unless I pointed out my scars to someone, they would be unable to tell I was burned. I simply can’t provide enough praise to the folks at Straub.”

Marcus’ and Richard’s experiences haven’t shaken their optimism, if anything, it’s increased their gratitude. “With every day that goes by, I get stronger and better. That’s why I’m a walking miracle!” Marcus said. “It's been 10 months since the accident and it feels like yesterday. I just feel so blessed to be alive and share my life to impact others around me.”