Through the Fire

We’d been married 5 short months. It was a slow winter day, around February 26, and while Brad was over at the main shop working with his Dad, I was curled up on the couch at home reading a book. The phone rang, and I answered to Brad’s mom, Cheri, telling me to meet them at Shawnee right away. Brad had gotten “a little burned”, and we were headed to the hospital. Immediately, I threw on my Carhartt coat, slipped into my work boots, and headed for Shawnee. The ranch shop and our house are almost equal distance to Shawnee, and I certainly didn’t want them waiting.

In the few short minutes since the phone call, my mind had been whirling. I had no idea what to expect. Cheri was very calm, but serious. “A little burned”- what did that mean? We aren’t the type of people who go to the hospital for “little” stuff. I wasn’t even sure what they were working on that day. In my mind, I pictured maybe he’d burned his arm welding or something.

As I pulled in to Shawnee toward Cheri’s car, I could see that she was in the driver’s seat, and it was Charlie in the passenger seat- no sign of Brad. Hadn’t she said Brad had been burned? Where was he? In the seconds between me parking and hurrying toward their car, my mind was sent reeling even more when Charlie turned back to look at me. My stomach lurched further into my throat when I saw him- faced charred and sooty. Obviously hurt. But Charlie? I thought it was Brad? My heart nearly stopped when, as I reached for the rear door handle, I saw Brad lying in the back seat in the worst shape I could have imagined. His face was completely black. Charred to a crisp. Like a marshmallow that has been completely lit aflame over the campfire. Down his neck to his chest- black. His hair was melted to his head- it looked like plastic. I would later see that his left ear was melted to his head. But in that moment, as the world began to spin, Brad scooted his feet a little so I could slide in beside him. I’m not sure I even spoke. But he did, “I’m burning up.” He said. “Can you get me anything? Is there any snow out there?” There was a small snow drift just outside the car. I jumped out, grabbed a pile of it, and began placing it around Brad’s face and neck as we raced for town. We are 27 miles from town, far enough that you don’t wait for an ambulance unless you have to.

Though he was in the worst shape of all, it was Brad who remained the most calm and sensible. Despite lying down and being unable to see how fast we were going, Brad calmly called out, “Slow down, Momma. We don’t need a wreck on the way to the hospital.” I glanced at our speed- 112 MPH- yeah, probably too fast for the 65 MPH highway. I don’t really remember any other talk in the car. I was confused, scared, definitely in shock- I still had no idea what had even happened. But most of all, I could not imagine how Brad must have felt. I hurt for him. And Charlie, too. He was obviously not in as bad of shape as Brad, his hands being the worst of all- but still plenty bad. I began to do the best thing I knew, and that was to pray.

Cheri slowed down some after Brad’s caution, but was still going fast enough as we exited the interstate for town, to be pulled over by a Highway Patrolman. Cheri pulled over, but immediately jumped out and began waving and hollering, “We need to get to the hospital! Our guys are burned!” Thankfully, he was someone we knew, Les Collins. He didn’t miss a beat, but said, “Follow me!” and jumped back into his car, leading us the rest of the way with lights and sirens blaring. There isn’t much of a “Rush Hour” in Douglas, Wyoming, but it was around 5:00, and he certainly shaved some time off our arrival.

As we hit the ER, they took Charlie to one room, and Brad to another. They began firing questions and cutting off Brad’s melted and charred sweatshirt. Their obvious concern raised mine. I still knew nothing, and Brad continued to remain calm. He asked me to call our neighbor, Joe Bright, and see if he would go check on everything at the shop and make sure nothing was on fire. Not long before this, a hay truck had caught fire in the shop- and everything had burned to the ground- equipment, tools, vehicles, and the beloved Super Cub. I couldn’t even remember Joe’s number, and Brad rattled it off for me with ease.

To my shock, I returned from calling Joe to find them shoving a tube down Brad’s throat. But why? He had just been talking and his throat seemed fine, that did not seem necessary. One nurse told me his throat had been burned and they were afraid it would swell shut. They had recently lost someone because no one in the ER had been able to do a tracheotomy and they weren’t going to risk it now. While I can’t imagine how bad that was for Brad, losing the reassurance of his voice hit me hard.

Pretty quickly they decided that they were not able to handle the severity of Brad’s injuries in Douglas- he was to be life-flighted to Salt Lake as soon as possible. They had enough to make the decision to send him to the Burn Center, that they shifted focus from assessing damage to preparing for the flight. His throat was burned, his eye was badly scratched and would need surgery, his left ear would also likely require surgery, and burns would definitely require skin grafts, but he should live. At least he would live! But we weren’t out of the woods yet. It was a bit stormy and they weren’t sure he’d even be able to make the flight to Salt Lake as the plane was already iced up.

After some checking, it was determined that I would be allowed to go on the flight- but I wasn’t to be any trouble. I had my coat, but hadn’t even stopped to tie my boots, and had nothing else on me. I didn’t even have a cell phone or credit card then, but wished I at least had my wallet. Surely I would need something in Salt Lake- but I wasn’t complaining because at least I was allowed to go. It was about that time that our friend Vernon Poage walked in and handed me an envelope. Full of cash. “You might need this”, he said. Vernon was also a Highway Patrolman, and had heard a call come through on the radio that Reeses had been pulled over and were headed to the ER with burns. We later found out that he had never in his life cashed a paycheck. But earlier that day, before the accident had even occurred, he was headed to the bank to deposit his check, when something told him to cash it. So he did. And when he heard that call on the radio, he knew why. I thanked him, or at least I hope I did- everything was a blur.

Shortly after, we loaded into an ambulance on the way to the small airport in Douglas. Brad is so tall, the main thing I remember is that they had a really hard time fitting him into that little plane. They were very focused on Brad, there were 2 or 3 nurses/EMTs who went along and tended to him the whole flight. I think I remember them trying to keep him awake, and calling out, “Brad! Brad!” much of the time. There was a tiny little seat in the back for me, and I was glad to have it. It was so cold on that plane! And very loud and I really couldn’t get much of what was going on with Brad, so I think I may have slept a little in between prayers for Brad and Charlie, who stayed back in Douglas.

When we arrived in Salt Lake, I was directed to a little room to wait, while they whisked Brad away to the burn unit. There was a pay phone in the room, so I called my parents in California, who until now knew nothing of what had happened. I still didn’t know how it happened, I just knew it was bad. I asked them to spread the word- “Brad and Charlie need prayer”. One of the best things I’ve learned from my parents is that God can do anything, and prayer works. Pray they did! And it was already helping…

After quite awhile of waiting, a doctor came into the little room to let me know they were still assessing Brad, but the strangest thing- there was no scratch on his eye. They had the picture from Douglas, with a bad scratch clearly there, but now the scratch was nowhere to be found and one surgery could be crossed off the list. Thank you, God!

Finally, I was able to go to Brad. They told me where I could enter the burn unit to find him, but they either didn’t tell me exactly where he was, or everything was still spinning too much to hear. I passed one gauze-covered person who was not the right size to be Brad, and another, and then there was that raw, puffy person who looked too terrible to be him, and as I was thinking that couldn’t possibly be him, I knew it was. I stood there looking at my completely unrecognizable husband. Shock set in even more. They had shaved and scraped the melted hair from his head and scraped all of the burned skin from his entire head- face, neck, lips, and ears, and down to his chest. Raw. Swollen. Oozing. I could not and still cannot imagine the pain. They had also started IVs of morphine and fluids, and he was so very swollen. His eyes could not have been open if he’d wanted them to be, and there was that tube coming out of his throat in addition to oxygen tubes in his nose. Monitors, tubes everywhere. Nothing looked like the man I knew and loved so much. A wave of terrible agony hit me- the sight of him, the pain I knew he must be in, the smells of burnt and oozing flesh, and hospital, and before I knew it I was rushing for the bathroom where I lurched out everything in me. I had used the bathroom in Brad’s room, and as I came out, I was gently scolded by the nurse for using his bathroom, but one look at me and I think she knew the alternative would have been the floor. She let me off easy. She was one of the good ones.

I pulled a chair up by Brad’s side and took hold of the only thing that looked vaguely familiar- his hand. I assumed that he was asleep, but over the next few days of staying glued by his side as much as was allowed, I learned it was impossible to tell whether he was awake or asleep until I held that hand. He would squeeze my hand and then motion to me. I figured out he wanted me to talk, but I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what had happened, and most of the time in that hospital, he didn’t either. So, I would tell him where we were, and that something had happened in the shop, that Charlie was hurt, too, but would be okay. At some point, a sweet lady offered us a clipboard with paper and pen, and Brad was able to write his questions to me, “What happened? Where am I? What day is it?” were the most common. Over and over. He would write, I would talk. Those eyes were swollen shut for the first 2-3 days. The realization of how slow time passed for Brad was killer. Every evening and morning from 7-8, all visitors had to leave for an hour during changeover time where the doctors and nurses met and discussed the patients. I would tell Brad I had to leave, but would be back as soon as I could. After that one hour, I would return and let Brad know I was back. One of those times, he wrote on the clipboard, “That was one, LONG night”. My heart broke at the fact that one hour felt like a whole, long night.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people who called, sent cards, flowers, and balloons. One of my favorite things was a care package that our friends, Scott and Angie Denny sent with crossword puzzles, hunting magazines, and some other great stuff that I was able to read to Brad to help pass the long, slow, and painful hours. Most of all, we appreciate the prayers. I was aware of the long, slow healing process ahead, and they began to inform me of the long and painful process of skin grafts. How you get through all of this, to be re-injured by ripping off some of your perfectly good skin to place over the burns. Then, you hope the body accepts this new skin, and have twice the area to heal again. I had seen people who had been badly burned, and I realized Brad would never look the same again, but I didn’t care. I was so glad to have him alive!

One sweet nurse ended up rolling a little bed in for me next to Brad’s. It sure was better than spending all night hunched over in a chair. There was always so much going on, people in and out, machines beeping- it was hard for Brad to ever get any rest. It seemed like he would finally get to sleep when some machine would start screaming, and in would come a nurse. They always came in and hit the same button, then left. I got busted one night for hitting that button before the nurse got there to shut the screaming off. He came in and chewed me out real good.

They say the turnover rate for nurses is highest in the burn unit. It’s so depressing, so many people dying, that it’s really hard on the morale. We learned that some handled it better than others, but it could not have been easy. One walk down that hall was more than anyone should have to take. We met some of the families and heard enough of the stories to know you had it real good if you were ever able to walk out of there. Two of the worst that I remember- A little girl whose pajamas caught on fire as she walked by the heater, and an older man who, in trying to get a fire going, had filled the cap of his gas jug to splash on the fire. It burst into flames that came back on him and burned him completely. He was wrapped in gauze from head to toe and did not make it out of there.

Brad’s brother, Brett, and his wife, Chrisann came. It was nice to have some extra company for Brad- I’m sure I got pretty boring telling the same old thing. I had stayed with Brad the whole time, so Brett said he’d stay with Brad awhile so I could get some sleep, and more importantly a shower. I really didn’t want to leave, but made Brett promise to stay with Brad while I was gone. I thought maybe a quick nap and shower, and I’d get right back over there. There was a place for families to stay just a couple of blocks away. I think I’d gotten a room with Vernon’s cash, but had never even gone over there. I was shocked when I woke to find I had slept all night, and there were both Brett and Chrisann, who I had told could use the room, too. “Who is with Brad?!” I panicked. “No one, they kicked me out and he was asleep anyway.”

I ran back to that hospital as fast as I could, not wanting him to be alone. Poor Brad. During their staff hour, while he was sleeping, he dreamt it was all a dream, and when he woke, he was so relieved that it was “just a dream” that he started pulling tubes out and getting out of bed. Alarms went off and machines started screaming, and in came the grouchiest of nurses- with a big stapler. A stapler! She shoved Brad back into the bed and stapled the tubes into his head. They stapled his head! To this day, that is Brad’s worst memory of the entire experience. I was furious when I returned to find him reeling from the pain and shock of that moment.

My Dad also came and it was while he and Brett and Chrisann were there that Brad really started to get better. They even said he might not need skin grafts after all. The swelling went down enough that his eyes opened and he was able to have the tube taken out of his throat. He was mighty sore, and still looked pretty rough, but it was so great to have him able to talk and eat again!

By the 5th day, he was up walking around asking when he could go home. The doctors and nurses could not believe it. “This doesn’t happen”, they told us, completely shocked. After some consideration, they told us he might be able to go home and come back for checkups. But, they told us we had to be able to prove he was ready. I had to be able to clean him or he would get an infection, it was a very painful process of scrubbing away the skin and puss, and keeping him well-shaven to prevent any buildup and infection. We were very motivated by the idea of going home, so Brad had to tell me to forget about trying not to hurt him and just get it done. Man, that was rough.

We realized we didn’t have any clothes for him, as they had put him in a hospital gown in Douglas. So, my Dad took me shopping for some comfy traveling clothes. I had been in the same clothes the whole time, so I grabbed something else to wear, too. I was prepared to pay with that cash, but my Dad wouldn’t let me. He took care of everything. My Dad had flown from California and rented a car in Salt Lake. Brett and Chrisann had driven over from Greeley in their little Honda Civic. It had no back seat, so we realized there wasn’t really room for the 4 of us to go back to the ranch in that. Brad was still very delicate, and needed plenty of room, so Brett and Chrisann rented a car for us to get him home.

They decided to let us go home, which was truly a miracle! We were so thankful, but at the same time it was hard to be too joyful when we knew so many in that place would never leave, and others would be there for a lot longer. We said goodbye to my Dad, and began the drive home. Brad had used up a lot of energy proving he was ready to go home, so he was pretty tired. Brett, Chrisann, and I traded around driving the two cars, and were so happy to be getting home we drove straight through. It was great to be back home, and to see Charlie, who was healing right up as well.

There were so many things we had to do to help the healing process and prevent infection. Brad had to avoid the sun at all cost. Bacitracin would become our new best friend, and we had to apply that ointment like crazy. Most of all, he had to heal. There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed, and Brad did well at home. Shortly after, I told Brad that it was hard to know if he was awake or asleep, because his eyes were never completely closed. We did not realize at the time- that was not a good sign!

At Brad’s follow-up appointment the doctor told him things were looking good, but he really needed to make sure his skin wasn’t tightening too much. He even told Brad to ask his wife to watch him sleep and make sure his eyes were closed! Brad told him that we had just had that conversation- and it meant that although Brad was healing well, and we thought we were pretty much through this- if his skin didn’t stretch out, he would have to have skin grafts. Well, there’s nothing like being told that some of the skin from your rear is going to be ripped off and stuck on your face, leaving you with permanent half circles under your eyes to motivate a guy to stretch their skin like crazy! Brad was not going for that! It was at this appointment that Brad learned the gauze wrapped man with the gas can had died. The realization and severity of what Brad had experienced and avoided was not lost on any of us. That could have been Brad.

Fortunately, Brad was able to stretch and protect everything enough that following his second post op, he was released for good- and no skin grafts! It is only by the grace of God that Brad was able to not only get through this alive, but to have so little permanent damage. He has a small scar on his neck, a tattoo on his cheekbone where the soot blasted into him, his singing voice will never be the same as it used to be, the eye that needed surgery is flawless, what I knew would forever be a melted face is just as handsome as ever, and the ear that I knew would never again hear or look normal still rings and does not hear as well as before, but you would never know it. I cannot believe that the unrecognizable man I saw completely charred was returned in such great shape.

We have no pictures. Being before the days when everyone carried around cell phones and took pictures of everything, in addition to being just plain horrific, we didn’t even think of it.

I eventually found out how it all happened. There was a propane tank with a little pinhole leak in it. If you know the history of this family, and the ways of a rancher, you’ll understand that on a ranch you learn to get by, make things work, and often do risky things to get the job done. So, being the tank was empty, and braising that hole would take less than 2 minutes, the guys decided to just fix the tank while it was still loaded up and in the shop. The tank was in the back of a farm truck with big side walls on it. Well, just before they had the job done, the valve on that tank blew- there’s still a hole in roof of the shop- and the residual propane from that tank blasted a beastly flame at Brad and Charlie. Brad took the brunt of it, the flame centered on his left hand, blasting up to his chest, neck, and face, then deflecting over to Charlie. We were amazed how his burns stopped at his Carhartt bibs and coat. It was a miracle in itself that Brad’s hands were protected. Being recently married, we had talked about whether Brad would wear his wedding ring all the time, or take it off while he worked to prevent getting it caught up on something. He decided to keep it on until he felt like it was dangerous. He also was not one to wear gloves, even when welding, as they were so bulky he couldn’t feel what he was doing. He has no idea why he put gloves on that day- but we are certain that if he hadn’t worn them, that hand would be gone and the ring likely would have melted.

The blast was so strong, it blew Brad up over the sidewalls and out of the truck. It took quite awhile to figure out why his shoulder was so sore for so long, but as his memory came back, he remembers flying out of the truck and though not in his own body, seeing himself and thinking “So, this is what it’s like to die” He recalled waking up on the floor of the shop and finding his way through the smoke to the door and outside. He got out and his Dad was nowhere to be found. Brad rushed back in to find Charlie, casually shutting things off and cleaning things up. He did not want to lose another shop to fire.

Brad asked him what he was doing and told him they needed to get to the hospital. “Oh, are you hurt? Do you need to go to the house?” Charlie asked. In the smoke and shock, he had no idea that his hands were badly burned and Brad was severely injured. Brad let him know it was the hospital they needed, so they headed to the house to get Brad’s mom, and have her call me.

I have no idea why God saves some and not others, why he heals some people without skin grafts and surgeries, and others must suffer through a much longer process, but I do know that God is good. He loves us beyond our comprehension. He does not promise to remove all of our trouble, but He loves us and walks beside us no matter how hot the fire gets. I don’t know why he saved Brad, or why He healed him. There are so many things we know are only because of Him. Whatever the reason, we are so thankful! I am forever thankful for the return of my husband when God could so easily have allowed him to die that day in February 2001.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Isaiah 43:2

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

One Reply to “Through the Fire”

  1. Debi Bergstrom says: Reply

    Such a hard time, but so glad God brought you both through the trial by fire. You both do shine like purified gold❣️

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