The Healing Power of Love
By: Bethrenae Tribble
I remember thinking it was hot, hot, hot. My adrenaline was going, and all I could think about was getting out.” Dan Summers, 39, is describing what it feels like to be stuck in a vehicle on fire. He knows because two years ago during an off-road adventure in the Glamis Dunes, he found himself trapped in a burning sand rail.
The day of the fire, Dan was a passenger. Winds were high, so he and his friends stayed in camp most of the day. “When the sand blows across the dunes, it’s hard to see the drops,” Dan explains. Finally the wind lessened, and the group headed out for some fun. They rode for a couple hours, and on the way back, the sand rail’s motor stalled. Dan says, “My friend Kirk was about to get out and check the motor, but when he looked in his rearview mirror all he could see was flames.” Although Dan knew from years of experience that the harness buckle was in the middle, in the panic of the fire he reached down to his side, as if he were in a passenger car. Wisely, the pair had worn helmets that supplied fresh air and were wired for audio communication. Dan yelled to Kirk, who reached over and popped Dan’s belt before exiting. “I tried to get out, but my right foot felt like it was stuck to the floor,” Dan says. When Kirk realized his friend was still trapped in the vehicle, he tried to pull him out. “Kirk’s a big guy,” Dan says, “but he couldn’t get me out on the first try.” Although he burned his hands on the second attempt, Kirk managed to extricate Dan, whose clothing was on fire. He rolled in the sand to extinguish the flames, but he was severely burnt.Meanwhile Dan’s wife Alison, who had stayed in camp to make dinner, was waiting. “Then I saw a helicopter and a bunch of lights about three dunes away,” she says. “I thought, oh this is bad. Never in a million years did I think it was Dan, though.” The other riders in Dan’s group returned soon after and told Alison what happened. She knew he was hurt, but she got the impression he’d be able to make the trip home the following day, so she began packing up their 65-foot rig.
While waiting for help, Dan was aware of two things. “I knew it wasn’t an ambulance thing,” he says, “and I knew I was going into shock—I couldn’t stop shaking.” In response to Kirk’s 911 call, REACH 9 responded from their base in Imperial, sending Pilot Matt McLuckie, Flight Nurse Brad Sparks and Flight Paramedic Mia Norton to pick Dan up and take him to UC San Diego’s Trauma Center.
“Dan is one of those calls I’ll always remember,” Mia says. “Sand dunes are very challenging to land in, and you don’t always have ground support. Every challenge that could have presented itself did.” Thanks to their skills, training and teamwork, the crew was able to handle those challenges. “The communication between the three of us was seamless,” Mia reports.
One hurdle stood between Dan and his flight. “There was no official vehicle to get me to where the helicopter had to land,” he says. Flight Nurse Brad Sparks went to Dan. Mia knew things were serious when Brad was gone longer than usual. “We practice ‘medicine in motion’,” she explains. “We only do things on the ground if it’s imperative.” As soon as she saw the pair, she ran out and gave Dan something for his pain. “That helmet was a lifesaver, but from a clinical standpoint, Dan was a very sick guy. By the time we got to UCSD, we were out of pain medication. But he stayed cool, calm and collected. And when he did cry out from the pain, he would apologize.”
Dan sustained third and fourth degree burns over 50% of his body. His right side was charred from his shoulder to his foot, and his left hand was burnt, as well. After the initial round of medication, he says everything got calmer. “I remember hearing the helicopter, but I don’t have much memory of the flight. I do remember apologizing. And I remember I had Mia take off my wedding band; I didn’t want the hospital to have to cut it off.”
Alison didn’t have an opportunity to speak with the flight crew before they lifted off. “My first contact was a call from Brad telling me Dan was at UCSD Trauma,” she says. The doctor also L to R: Flight Paramedic Mia Norton, Alison & Dan Summers, Pilot Matt McLuckie, Flight Nurse Brad Spark Survivor Dan Summers is happy to be back home with his family. The doctor also contacted Alison to report that her husband was conscious, talking and knew where he was. Before sending Dan to the burn unit, where his scorched and sand-riddled skin would require aggressive cleaning, they wrapped and intubated him—and medically induced a coma.
Forty percent of Dan’s body required skin grafts. He had 15 surgeries total, 10 while in the coma. Alison says, “In the beginning, I went into my own state of shock for about 11 days. I couldn’t even swallow water.”
Dan remained in the hospital for three weeks after the final surgery. “They slowly woke me up,” he says. “My mouth and throat were so dry that all I could think of was that I wanted ice and water. But because of the trach tube, anything I tried to say came out as wind. I remembered the accident, but I didn’t know the extent of my injuries. And I had no idea how long I had been in the hospital.”
When Alison told her husband that he had another surgery coming up, he grew frightened. “I didn’t remember any of the previous surgeries, so as far as I was concerned, I’d never had one,” Dan explains. “Once my wife figured that out, she told the doctors.” Dan appreciated their response. “They gave me some really good drugs and treated me like it was my first surgery.”
Once awake, Dan’s spirits were kept afloat by Alison’s visits. Each day, she made the 180-mile round trip. “I felt so much better when she was there,” Dan says. “Waiting, I would watch the clock and count down the minutes.”
Dan was in the hospital for exactly three months. “I was pretty scared to go home,” he admits. “At the hospital, I had a power bed. From a mobility standpoint, I had everything I needed. I was really afraid of hurting myself. My skin felt so fragile. The idea of being 90 miles away from the people that knew exactly what was going on with me was frightening.”
How’s Dan doing now? He says that on a scale of 1 to 10 he’s an 8 or a 9. “Everybody is blown away. My occupational therapist has never seen anyone come out of surgery so well,” he reports.
Alison believes that their closeness contributed greatly to Dan’s recovery. “We’re incredibly bonded,” she says. “I think that’s really important.”
AirMedCare NETWORK Membership
REACH Air Medical Services & CALSTAR Air Medical Services
Manager Serving in San Diego CountyPhone: 619.772.1187
Become a Member Today by Phone: 619.772.1187
Become a Member Today On-line: https://www.amcnrep.com/sandy-robbins
Local Rep/Track Code: 13943
Membership with Reciprocal Partners in 38 US states, 320+ base locations