Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Family sustains burned mom

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mom moved her toes. That might not seem like much. But this Fort Thomas mother, Sharon Everett, was so badly burned two months ago that nobody expected her to live. Household chemicals exploded in her car, deeply burning more than half her skin.

        Now, skin grafts by specialists at University Hospital are bringing back her face. She seems to follow the voices of her five children when they read her dozens of cards, many from strangers. Doctors still can't say she's in the clear — one infection could kill her — but they're more hopeful.

        They will say the credit for Mrs. Everett's progress belongs to her family. They spend hours at her bedside. They talk to her about the people, often people they don't know, who keep bringing home-cooked dinners. They explain how the neighbors are still mowing the grass and taking care of the pool.

        It's that kind of family support that helps patients survive, said Dr. Glenn Warden, one of several physicians who didn't expect Mrs. Everett to make it.

        “They're probably the reason she's alive today,” he said, “not because of us.”

        They hope she doesn't remember what happened because it must have been terrifying.

        Mrs. Everett, 51, an AT&T administrator, was on her way home to Fort Thomas from Meijer in her Nissan Sentra.

        Her bag of groceries included chemicals for the backyard pool. Fumes from those chemicals mixed with gases from a common household product, something officials do not want to identify until their investigation is complete.

        Fire erupted as she pulled into her driveway and rolled up her windows. She was still buckled in — and still on fire — when firefighters arrived.

        She probably panicked, officials said, and couldn't

        think to free herself when her hair caught fire.

        The prolonged exposure to flames gave Mrs. Everett burns deeper than most doctors ever see. She lost her nose, some fingers, her eyelids, ears and upper lip.

        “Now, we think she's going to make it,” Dr. Warden said. “But it's going to take a long time.”

        Skin grafts now cover all but about 8 percent of the burned area, said Dr. Warden, also chief of staff at Shriners Burns Institute. The doctors and her kids have their fingers crossed that the grafts all work and do not need to be redone.

        The grafting process takes weeks for patients whose bod ies are so extensively burned — there's only so much non-burned “good skin” that can be used to replace burned areas. And any area doctors mine for good skin then has to heal before it can be a graft source again.

        About the only parts of Mrs. Everett that haven't been either burned or used for grafting are her feet.

        The other good news is that Mrs. Everett's kidneys and heart are working well, and her wounds are healing. And doctors talk about weaning her from heavy sedation medication and the ventilator that helps her breathe. The extent of damage to her lungs won't be known until she comes off the ventilator.

        “Her life will be different. Her kids' lives will be different,” said Grace Smits, assistant clinical manager of the burns unit. “But if that were my mom, I think I'd take a different life. At least I'd have her.”

        Burn specialists used to use this formula to estimate a patient's mortality: Take the percentage of burned skin and add the patient's age. The resulting number showed the amount of chance the patient had to live. For Mrs. Everett: 107. More than a 100 percent chance that she would die.

        Dr. Warden says it won't be his science that ultimately helps Mrs. Everett survive. Studies have shown, he said, that burned patients recover emotionally when they have healthy support systems.

        “This family's just absolutely unique in that they've been so "up' from the very beginning,” he said. “It's very seldom that you see any of them down.”

        The hardest part is yet to come, he said. The kids will have to change her dressings, and help her through uncontrollable itching and nights of lost sleep.

        Mrs. Everett's children attribute their positive attitude to the mom and dad who raised them and to the support they're finding.

        At a benefit three weeks ago, more than 800 people showed up to raise more than $32,000. Dozens of e-mails go out whenever there's progress to report.

        “We just can't believe the support we've gotten,” said Kate Zembrodt, Mrs. Everett's eldest. “We don't know how to thank everybody enough.”

        The kids try to focus on their mother's tremendous track record of strength. She's the one, after all, who mothered five children under the age of 5 at one time — and who wanted more.


        “You worry about everything,” Mrs. Zembrodt said. “How she'll look, how she'll feel. But as a mother, I would do anything to watch my kids grow up.

        “We just want her back. We know things will be different. But she's our mom.”


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