TORRANCE — Nine months after the industrial explosion that burned most of his body, Jerry Lorenz is still dealing with his physical and emotional wounds.
"The mental depression is every bit as bad as the pain is," said Lorenz. "You have to look back and see blocks of time to realize that progress has been made, because you can't see it every day."
The things most of us take for granted are milestones to Lorenz. In March, he finally got out of bed, and now he can lift a spoon to his mouth. He drives short distances, although his doctor advises against it. His major problem is the extreme itching that means his skin is growing back.
But Lorenz, who was a welder for the city of Torrance, still needs help coping with his recovery and concerns about resuming a normal life. The loneliness and despair that follow a serious burn can be unbearable. And then there are the withering stares endured by the facially disfigured.
To help deal with these and other concerns, Torrance Memorial Hospital Medical Center started its Burn Support Group in August. It is the only one of its kind in the South Bay, and one of four in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Twenty-five to 30 burn survivors, family members, and hospital staff typically attend each monthly meeting at the hospital.
The psychosocial problems of burn survivors first drew attention in the late 1970s with publication of Massachusetts psychiatrist Norman R. Bernstein's book, "Psychosocial Problems of Facially Disfigured Burn Victims." Advances in medicine were saving more people with serious burns, and doctors realized that a new kind of outpatient rehabilitation was needed.
For Lorenz, the support group offers an opportunity to air frustrations and relate to others who have been burned. "When you have a big burn you worry about where you are going to end up," said Lorenz at his Redondo Beach home. "So you see other people who have been able to recover and resume a normal life. When I came there I felt some sense of relief that I will get better."
Emotional and physical recovery varies with each burn victim, depending on how each copes with adversity, said Janice Miyashiro, burn support group coordinator.
"I think to some degree it depends upon what your life experiences have been," said Miyashiro. "If you had a life where you had to deal (with) multiple problems, you are going to draw upon that experience. You see those who cope very well, and you see those who have a difficult time who take longer."
Nearly two dozen participants in a recent meeting ranged from a 9-year-old Los Angeles boy severely scarred in a house fire in September, to Arthur Savedra, 32, burned in a 1978 motorcycle accident. Typically, the meeting of victims and family members on a recent evening began with explanations of what brought each to the session. Then it moved on.
Steve Tuflija, 31, a blond and bearded bear of a man, who was burned over 75% of his body eight years ago while installing refrigeration equipment, talked about the recovery process. "It is something you just have to stick with," said the San Pedro businessman. "If you want your normal life, it's there. It just takes a lot of work to get there."
A slight Filipino woman, who like many in the group asked that her name not be used, sat silently. Burned over much of her body in a car accident in July, she wore Jobst pressure garments, elastic apparel that reduces scarring by flattening the skin. Bandages covered her face except for her mouth and one eye. Miyashiro asked her how things were going.
"Sometimes I am kind of down," the woman said quietly. "I'm like this and I used to be normal."
Tuflija, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that exposed extensive scarring, turned to her and said, "You are still normal. The question always comes up: 'Why me?' "
"And then you think: Why not?" said Barbara Kammerer, 43, a Huntington Beach teacher who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30% of her body in a 1977 car accident. Kammerer lost the fingers on her right hand. Her left hand was disfigured. Her entire face had to be reconstructed. Five months after her accident, her boyfriend left her.
"He just didn't have the makeup as a person to be there for me," Kammerer said later in an interview. "I would say that if the relationship is not on solid ground (before someone is burned) I can about guarantee that the relationship is in big trouble."
Kammerer said that at first she couldn't imagine resuming a normal life. "I felt for a long time that I wanted to die. I wasn't sure whether a man would ever want to hold me again, kiss me again and dance with me again."
Kammerer said her life improved when she learned to ask for emotional support ."
She said the "down days" are rare now. Five years ago she founded the School Re-Entry Program for Burned Children, which helps youngsters resume their schooling by preparing their teachers and classmates for the burn patient's return.