Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for the UNC Medical Center News Office
“He is our oldest and most seriously burned patient to survive,” said Bruce A. Cairns, M.D., medical director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals. “That fact, plus his strong will to live and his unending kindness re-energized the burn unit and inspires us to take the next situation and do even better. You can’t get that feeling any other way.”
“If I were to begin telling you all of the blessings we have received, I would never, ever finish,” said Amalia Leffer, 35. “My faith in the goodness of people has been restored.”
“The kindnesses of so many people – most of them complete strangers – come to us every day,” said Robert Leffer, in a strong, clear voice of gratitude that belies the trauma he’s endured the past nine months.
The accident occurred on Jan. 26 when Leffer of Sanford swerved in his garbage truck to avoid a multi-car crash on I-40 in Wake County. His rig overturned in the woods and its gas tanks ruptured, catching Leffer on fire. Strangers stopped to help extinguish the fire, but Leffer sustained second and third degree burns over 80 percent of his body.
He was admitted to the Burn Center where he spent the first three months in a medically-induced coma. No one in the Burn Center will soon forget the challenges of the situation, Cairns said.
“It was an enormous combined, collaborative effort, and just trying to figure out what to treat first was difficult,” Cairns said. “With limited donor sites for skin grafts, we had to make sure each graft went to where it would do the most good, and sometimes it was unclear if we were making the right decision. But with good wound care, proper nutrition and patience, Robert’s wounds began maturing, he came out of the coma and rehabilitation began.”
As sick as Robert was, Cairns also noted a pervasive resilience.
“His mortality rate was high – age, 48, plus percentage of body burned, 80 – but he has many reasons to get through this, the most important being his wife and son,” Cairns said. “He’s a person of strong will and faith and literally had to pick himself up and rebuild. We are not in control here, but our job is to provide service and support. Ultimately, it’s things greater than us that allow patients to recover.”
Robert was released from the hospital Nov. 2 – on the eve of his 49th birthday – to the SECU Family House so that he could be near the hospital for continuing physical and occupational therapies.
SECU Family House is a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caregivers. Amalia and the Leffer’s son, Robert Jr., 2, have lived there since the accident in January.
“I wanted to stay in the hospital by Robert’s side the whole time, but with our little one, that wasn’t an option,” said Amalia. “We are so thankful to have such a beautiful and safe place as SECU Family House. The people are all so compassionate, even fellow residents who have their own problems.”
Robert Jr. attends day-care so Amalia can spend the days at her husband’s side. A nurse’s aide arrives by 8 a.m. to clean and dress Robert’s wounds. By 10 a.m. a van takes him to the hospital for a morning of physical therapy – lots of stretching in preparation for walking a little farther each day. Some massage also is involved to keep the scar bands supple as he regains flexibility.
The afternoons are devoted to occupational therapy to strengthen his hands, fingers and neck. The van returns him to SECU Family House where a nurse’s aide helps him bathe and dresses his wounds – a nearly two-hour process.
“It’s a schedule, just like going to work, and I guess I am going to work, in a way,” Robert said. “There is no pity, but all push. The therapists know how far we can go without doing damage. And if I have a bad day, they understand.”
Robert and Amalia eat lunch in the hospital cafeteria, talking adoringly and exchanging loving glances not unlike those love-at-first-sight gazes when they first met in 1997 across a sewing room at a Sanford textile plant. Passersby interrupt to say hello and to check his progress. Think rock-star status.
“He’s such a miracle, it touches my heart,” said Terri Moses, a nurse at UNC Hospitals, a long-time friend and fellow church member at Crossroads Church in Sanford. “He’s touched so many lives and made lasting impressions.”
And not just at UNC Hospitals. The owner of a sick kitten Robert rescued at the dump a few years back heard about his accident and sent get well wishes and a picture of the happy, healthy cat – all the way from Pennsylvania. “That really touched me,” Robert said.
And the family’s veterinarian performed hip surgery on Robert’s dog, Charlie, free of charge, “because he said he wanted to do something to help me heal,” Robert said. “And Charlie’s been to visit me. He remembered my smell and my voice and laid at my feet. That was good.”
Robert believes the hardest part of his life this year was the time he missed with his son.
“He wasn’t allowed to see me for six months, but when he heard my voice, he came right to me,” Robert said, acknowledging it will be sometime before he has the strength to give Robert Jr. bear hugs and hoist him to his shoulders. But it’s a goal and one he intends to meet.
Most immediately, the Leffers plan to attend a Thanksgiving Day dinner at SECU Family House. They will be easy to spot. Just look for the grateful trio sporting the biggest smiles.