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January 10, 2019

'I have to torture her': One surgeon's emotional, 276-day battle to heal an 8-year-old burn victim

Daily Briefing

    When an 8-year-old girl came to the Arizona Burn Center for treatment, Kevin Foster, the center's director, instantly thought of his daughter—but Foster quickly had to redirect his attention and remain focused on the patient, who needed extensive, painful skin grafts, Karina Bland reports for the Arizona Republic.

    'To make her better, I have to torture her'

    The patient, Isabella McCune, arrived at the center on St. Patrick's Day with severe burns. There had been a fire at McCune's home after a fire pit her father had built in the driveway exploded. When her father ignited the fire pit with gasoline, flames engulfed both McCune and her father. More than 65% of McCune's body sustained burns. 

    Foster, who was in charge of McCune's ongoing treatment, almost immediately had to put McCune in a drug-induced coma to treat the third-degree burns covering her arms, back, buttocks, front, legs, and one side of her torso. McCune's face had come out of the fire mostly unscathed.

    Over the next 276 days, Foster cared for McCune, but for burn victims, that care can be extremely painful. Foster operated on McCune to cut away her damaged skin, create skin grafts from the unburned skin on her back, and slice open her limbs to alleviate pressure from swelling. Within her first six weeks of treatment, McCune underwent 10 surgeries to cover her hands, arms, and one leg with skin grafts, while her other leg and buttocks remained protected by bandages.

    Foster described the surgeries as "an incredibly horrible invasive thing to do to a human being," adding, "I can't imagine what [it] must feel like." He said, "A single skin graft is difficult, yet [McCune] has to do it over and over."

    Foster noted that McCune would endure pain at all times during her recovery, even though she was given pain medication, Bland reports. Foster said, "To make her better, I have to torture her."

    Redirecting focus on the patient

    Foster said it initially was difficult to treat McCune, because she made him think of his own daughter. However, he said he had to redirect his attention and remain focused on saving the girl's life. As Foster operated on McCune, drapes covering her body helped him and other providers stay focused. "We concentrate on the area we are operating on, then it's not Isabella. It's a back and that makes is easier," he explained.

    Foster also knew pain was a necessary side effect of the treatment McCune needed to make her best recovery. For instance, Foster told McCune she would heal better if she moved more. She trusted Foster and committed to working hard in physical therapy, through pain and tears. She walked with her legs covered in thick bandages, Bland reports.

    Foster said he thought about McCune and how to improve her treatment constantly, and even brought McCune a souvenir from his summer vacation. Foster described McCune as "something of an old soul," saying, "She seems to understand the big picture." Foster continued, "As horrible as her stay [at the burn center] has been, she is graceful and grateful. I don't know where that kind of resilience comes from. I wish we could bottle it."

    McCune said she endured the treatment because she knew Foster had her best interest in mind. She said, "I'm like a daughter to [Foster], so he does for me what he would do for his daughter." She added that she knows she can "believe" Foster when it comes to the treatments that are best for her. "Foster is helping me get better. I couldn't do all of this without him," she said.

    Nine months after McCune first came to center, Foster told her she could go back home. McCune told Foster she would miss him. However, Foster told her, "You're going to forget about me the minute you walk out of here—and that's the way it should be. But I'm never going to forget you" (Bland, Arizona Republic, 12/21/2018).

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