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After fire, a young man's life restarts

With help from family and friends, Derek Thomas fights to recover from a devastating crash.

July 19, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Derek Thomas does works with therapist Josephine Custodio in his room at the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital.
Derek Thomas does works with therapist Josephine Custodio in his room at… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

He can piece together only fragments.

A trip, a road, a long drive home. He was asleep, he thinks, when the SUV began to swerve. His trainer's voice was full of panic just before they flipped and began to roll.

"Please," he recalled telling someone. "Please call my dad and tell him we had an accident."

Photos: After fire, a young man's life restarts

Derek Thomas, 19, had been heading home to San Diego from a high-altitude training camp in Mammoth. When he arrived by emergency jet at the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital & Medical Center, he was unconscious. Third-degree burns covered more than 85% of his body.

Doctors gave him a 1% chance to survive.

Among the worst

In 16 years of treating burn patients, Dr. Peter Grossman had seen all kinds of cases: firefighters caught in a backdraft, students ignited in chemistry labs, toddlers scorched with boiling soup.

Derek's case was among the worst. His burns penetrated to the muscle. They threatened to shut down his kidneys, his liver and his lungs. He could bleed to death.

Grossman told Derek's family not to expect much in the days ahead.

"Just get him to where he's awake," Derek's father, Randy Thomas, told the doctor. "And I know he'll take care of the rest."

For the next four months, the young man was in an induced coma to spare him excruciating pain. Every inch of his burned skin had to be scraped off to protect him from infection. He swelled to more than twice his normal size.

"He looked like the Michelin man," his father said. "All we could see were his eyes, his very swollen eyes, and one toe."

He and his wife, Paula, spent endless hours caressing that toe. It was the only part of their son they could touch.

The couple and Derek's sisters, Kayleen, then 21, and Sabrina, 17, settled in a tiny waiting room down the hall from the intensive care unit. They filled their space with blankets, pillows and a coffee maker. They decorated it with one of Derek's shiny rugby trophies and two photos: Derek smiling just before his high school graduation, Derek flying down the football field to score a touchdown.

From that windowless waiting room, they weathered every surgery. Dr. Grossman and his team had to peel skin from the few areas where Derek wasn't burned: his inner thighs and lower abdomen. They then stretched the skin with a machine and grafted it, piece by piece, onto Derek's wounded body.

Every few days, they repeated the process, racing the clock against infection. His fevers topped 105. He consumed about 7,000 calories a day through a tube to stay alive. But the once muscular kid — 6 feet tall and 190 pounds before the accident — eventually shed more than 60 pounds.

Back home, friends organized blood drives, pizza fundraisers and a 5-K run. One family offered Paula and Randy an apartment near the hospital, rent free.

On the Internet, his Aunt Trudi documented the roller coaster ride. She began Aug. 13, 2010, four days after the accident:

Aug. 25: Derek's vitals are not stable.

Aug. 25: Derek made a remarkable turnaround!!!

Sept. 15: His blood pressure has slipped again to a level of high concern.

Sept. 17: Again, he has rallied!

Wishes poured in from California, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Mississippi, from as far away as Kosovo. Some were from complete strangers who stumbled onto Derek's story in cyberspace and couldn't let go.

In November, Derek began to emerge from the coma. He learned to swallow again and to tighten his left hand; his right arm was still lifeless. He also learned to speak using a special tube. He surprised everyone on Dec. 11 with his first three words: "Happy Birthday, Mom."

Then, nearly five months after the accident, Aunt Trudi shared the news: Derek was no longer in critical condition.

Paula and Randy were overjoyed. They also held their breath. The more clear-headed Derek became, the more questions he asked.

How did I get here? How long have I been here? How many people were in the car?

"He has not asked about other difficult questions," Paula wrote to family. "About the fate of Amanda, Natalie, John or Drew...."

The heartthrob

Derek's buddies used to tease him about his good looks — tall with soft brown eyes and a crooked smile. His senior year at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, he was voted Class Heartthrob.

"When he first showed up on campus," said best friend Danny Orendain, "it was like a free-for-all to see which girl could land him."

In the end, he fell for Amanda Post.

She was goofy and tomboyish with a quirky, high-pitched laugh. Her friends would tease her: Amanda, wear some make-up. Amanda, comb your hair. Amanda, your uniform is on crooked.

Derek liked that she cared as little about her appearance as he did about his. Peach, as he called her because she loved peaches, kept up with him like one of the guys.

Who can sweat the most? Who can run the fastest? Who has more endurance? Their days revolved around their love of sports. For him, football, track and rugby. For her, field hockey and track.

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