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' . . . A Trip Through Hell' : Survivors: Severely injured victims of deadly brush fire are undergoing a steady but painful recovery at a burn center.

September 09, 1993|LESLIE BERKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALTADENA — Lying in pain in his hospital bed with tubes in his body, firefighter Christopher Barth tells in a whisper how the wind suddenly shifted, how he was covered with flames, how he waited for death.

"I moaned that I thought I was going to die," said Barth, 25, of Seal Beach, who survived the fast-moving wildfire in Altadena Canyon on Aug. 20 that killed two other members of a La Canada Flintridge fire crew and badly burned another.

But survival is one thing. Physical and emotional recovery are another.

So far, he has had three surgeries at the burn unit of Sherman Oaks Hospital and Health Center. More operations will be needed to treat the deep, third-degree burns on about 25% of his body, including his face, knees, elbows, buttocks and backs of his legs, doctors say.

He has trouble talking because smoke inhalation injured his vocal cords.

"It is a trip through hell," said Dr. Clinton Tempereau, the chief of psychiatric services in the burn unit.

For Barth, hell has two forms.

Besides the physical pain, the fire's trauma has triggered frightening memories of his combat experience as an Army artilleryman in Operation Desert Storm.

At least with fire, Barth said, "you can see it coming."

Yet there is a glimmer of optimism.

"Today," Barth said with determination, "I am getting well."

One of his doctors held his wrist and nodded encouragement.

He endures skin grafts and dressing changes. He is continuously fed nutritional supplements through intravenous and nasal-gastro tubes to replace the thousands of calories his body is consuming daily as it eliminates toxins and strives to heal.

Twice each day he is placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber where pressurized oxygen is forced into his bloodstream to fight infection and promote new tissue growth.

He can self-administer morphine by punching a button, but pain is still his constant companion.

Following Barth's release from the hospital in a few weeks, doctors expect many months of physical therapy and possibly more reconstructive surgery.

Barth and 19-year-old Hector (Gabe) Larios of Chino Hills, another fire suppression aide with the County Fire Department who was severely burned in the brush fire, receive moral support from Fire Department volunteers who wait at the bedsides of their injured comrades and maintain a 24-hour vigil at the hospital to answer telephone calls from family, well-wishers and potential blood donors.

Hundreds of people have offered to donate blood, say fire officials.

Barth alone is expected to use 50 to 60 pints of donated blood before he goes home, said his attending surgeon, Dr. Michel Brones. Much of the blood is needed to replace what is lost during surgeries.

Surgeons are removing healthy skin from Barth's scalp to graft to his face, while other burned areas will be covered with skin taken from unharmed parts of his legs.

Families of the two injured firefighters have placed pictures of the handsome men--taken before the fire--on the windows of their hospital rooms. But Dr. A. Richard Grossman, founding director of the burn center, admits that he won't be able to duplicate nature.

"I can't give them their faces back," he said.

If Larios and Barth had come to him 15 years ago, Grossman said, "I wouldn't expect Gabriel to live and I would expect Chris to survive but to have terrible scars."

In those years have come not only the use of cadaver skin, which acts like a biological dressing, but laboratory-grown skin cultivated from the skin cells of the living. Although the laboratory-grown skin is too thin to cover third-degree burns, it can give a much smoother result when it is grafted on faces.

Grossman was dismayed to find infections in Barth's knees and elbows, which had been severely burned when he fell on fiery embers. After that discovery, Barth was put on high doses of intravenous antibiotics.

"He is not out of the woods yet," said Grossman.

Despite what he has suffered, Barth still wants to be a firefighter.

"It is the only thing I have any desire to do," he said. "Some people are just born to it."

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