It was black-tie optional. It was $100 per couple. So how come it looked like a great big family reunion--or a meeting of 180 long-lost friends?
A few words with the hosts and guests of last week's "Birthday Bash" for the Orange County Burn Assn. and the UC Irvine Burn Center provided ample explanation for all that cocktail-hour hugging and kissing and genuine emotion so rare at formal events.
"This is a very close-knit community," said an ebullient Susie Martinez, nursing manager of the eight-bed burn unit, which is at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.
"Patients and members of the recovery team often become extremely close," said Dr. Kenneth Waxman, associate director of the burn unit.
"These people," said Mark Chweh, who suffered burns on 50% of his body in a building fire last summer, "are incredible."
For the record, the dinner and awards party marked the coming of age of the UCI Burn Center (officially 21 years old) and the 10th anniversary of the Orange County Burn Assn., a volunteer group that organizes patient support groups, community education programs and fund raising for research.
In a tumble of words, Martinez explained the facts of life in the burn unit, which treated about 700 patients last year.
"It's difficult to recruit nurses, because burns are such an awful injury, with such devastating disfigurement, that a lot of nurses just don't want that kind of emotional intensity," said Martinez, an 18-year veteran of the unit.
"There's a lot of drama, almost all the time," she said, "but it's so rewarding to take a patient from the critical, intensive-care stage, with all the shock and trauma and guilt and anger . . . and help them and their family get on with their lives.
Helping burn survivors get on with life is the primary function of the association, which organizes a monthly therapy session for current and former patients. Between 15 and 30 people attend, discussing the physical and mental adjustments required by their burns.
Caryl Modrinski, director of the organization, said she got a call recently from a 38-year-old woman who wanted to find out more about the support group. "She said she was burned when she was 3 years old, but she said she still could not deal with her disfigurement."
A regular at the therapy sessions is Tom Handlan, 28, who 8 years ago suffered second- and third-degree burns on 95% of his body.
"They gave me a better-than-100% chance of dying," said Handlan with a mischievous laugh.
Handlan survived, recovered, flourished: He graduated from Cal State Fullerton last year and is enrolled in the master's program in clinical psychology at Chapman College.
After dinner, awards were presented to Dr. Robert Bartlett and Pat Allyn, R.N.; Capt. William Lawler of the Westminster Fire Department; medical researcher Aubrey Woodroof, and burn survivor and activist Barbara Kammerer.
Honored for their valor in rescuing others from flames were Quintin Reich, Robert Walker, Greg Upham, Rubin Vigil, John Floyd and Mark Chweh.