Family House Diaries: House fire yields gratitude of life-changing magnitude

Monday, June 15, 2009 — This is the second in a new series from UNC Health Care that focuses on the stories of UNC Hospitals patients and their families who live in the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals while receiving or awaiting treatment.

Family House Diaries: House fire yields gratitude of life-changing magnitude click to enlarge John Baltar, Gina Lindquist, Rebecca Lindquist, Christian Lindquist and Holly Baltar in the living room at the SECU Family House.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

A devastating house fire scarred Holly Baltar’s body and soul in life-changing ways.

In the wee hours of Dec. 20, 2008, Holly, 23, of Greenville, was burned over 65 percent of her body in a house fire. She was taken to East Carolina Medical Center and was airlifted to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals. She had limited identification with her, and ECU personnel tracked down Holly’s mother, Gina Lindquist, through hospital records.

“The call came at 6:30 a.m., telling us how serious Holly’s injuries were and that in many cases they are fatal,” said Lindquist, who lives in Sebastian, Fla., with her two younger children, 16-year-old Rebecca and 12-year-old Christian. “We held a family meeting and decided to come to Chapel Hill to see Holly through this, regardless of how long it takes.”

The trio drove to North Carolina and stayed with Holly’s older sister, June, in Southern Pines over the kids’ holiday break and commuted to Chapel Hill daily to be by Holly’s side.

“She wasn’t aware of our presence because she was in a chemically induced coma for two months,” Gina said. “Otherwise, she could not have withstood the pain and all the other things that go with the burns – infection, lung damage, the tracheotomy, the water retention, removing the dead skin, to name a few.”

While Holly was in good hands, Lindquist and her younger children faced their own dilemma. The benefits of being close to Holly are intangible, but numerous, for body and soul. But the financial cost of being close was very concrete, and, in itself, could have been devastating.

The burn social worker, Monica Atanesian, LCSW, told Gina about SECU Family House and the trio moved there in January once Rebecca and Christian were enrolled in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. Holly’s father, John Baltar of Greenville, had arrived at Family House earlier, just having wrapped up his late mother’s estate in New York.

Built in 2008 with the help of the State Employees’ Credit Union Foundation, the Family House is minutes from UNC Hospitals and provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness or trauma and family members who accompany them to Chapel Hill.

“We were made to feel welcome from the beginning, by everyone at Family House,” John said. “People go out of their way to envelop you. We even met another family with a situation similar to Holly’s and they helped make us aware of what to expect in her recovery. This is a place to be uplifted and to be an uplifter. I would hope we’ve done the latter for the people who’ve come behind us.”

From the beginning, Gina and John appreciated the honesty of Holly’s surgeon, Bruce Cairns, M.D., associate professor of surgery and medical director of the burn center, although the honesty also provoked anger.

“I respected Dr. Cairns before I liked him,” John said, “but I was angry with him for telling me ‘I can’t promise you anything. We have to see what Holly tells us.’ The only encouragement we got was ‘she’s young.’ You can have the patience of Job, but when it’s your child’s life, you don’t want to hear that.”

“Dr. Cairns didn’t guarantee anything,” Gina added, “but he did say he would do everything possible to help her. We’ve really lived one day at a time – and still do – because everybody’s body is different. A lot now depends on the after after-care. For the most part, she’s done really well. And none of us have lost sight of the fact that we all know we could not have come through what we have without our faith and trust in God.”

A 65 percent burn is always a serious injury, Cairns said, and requires three elements of care: resuscitation, removing the burns and doing skin grafts, and rehabilitation to regain function and strength as all the critical care aspects are resolved. In Holly’s case it was even more challenging to remove her burn and get her wounds grafted because her body did not tolerate the anesthesia well and coagulation of her blood was an issue, Cairns said.

“The complexity of the injury itself and the body’s systems made it difficult to determine if these issues were caused by the burns, the medications or a possible infection, or a combination of factors,” Cairns said. “This is why at the outset we sit down and outline the elements of care and the overall philosophies that this will take a long time and involve lots of developments that are unpredicted.

“I always tell them that nothing good is going to happen quickly, but bad things can happen very quickly. It’s a very tough roller coaster for everybody. We can’t predict which problem will affect their loved one, so we describe in general terms and try to prepare patients and families early on. That allows us, the multi-disciplinary team, to focus on the specific issue at hand.”

Holly remained an inpatient until April 9, the Thursday before Easter. She was released to Family House as an outpatient, but still spends the bulk of most days at the hospital receiving physical and occupational therapies as well as massages to continue the healing.

The therapies are designed specifically to help Holly regain range of motion in her joints – particularly on her left side where the burns were most severe – and to keep the scar bands caused by skin grafts supple and pliable. Plus, there are compression garments to help her skin heal more smoothly. “They come on and off daily, and it’s like trying to fit a size 7 foot in a size 4 shoe,” Holly said.

Although a long road lies ahead, “everything has worked out the way it was supposed to,” Holly said, with a raspy voice but a genuine smile. “My experience at UNC and Family House is as good as it could have been considering the situation.”

Media contacts: Clinton Colmenares, (919) 966-8757, ccolmena@unch.unc.edu, or Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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