A musician gives thanks: Violist's hands were saved after life-threatening burns
Classical violist George Myers was taking photographs of construction on his family‘s property in Trumansburg, near Ithaca, in October 2014 when a propane tank tipped and fell on him.
The 250-pound cylindrical tank pinned him in a ditch. As the ruptured tank discharged, causing chemical injury, its metal surface, lying across his body, cooled to 40 degrees below zero, causing significant damage. He did not know it then, but he was burning.
Myers struggled to push the freezing tank, his hands becoming increasingly numb at each attempt. Finally, in a burst of adrenaline, he freed his leg and pulled himself from the ditch. He crawled to the house. With frostbitten hands, Myers called 911 and his wife, Jennifer, who was teaching 40 miles away.
Propane is flammable, but it wasn‘t fire that burned Myers. He suffered from severe frostbite, which jeopardizes life and damages the skin in much the same way.
The next thing Myers remembered was being on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. He was shaking uncontrollably. He soon arrived at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca. Doctors there cut off his chemical-covered clothes and made the decision that he needed care available at Upstate‘s Clark Burn Center.
“When a patient is burned on more than 10 percent of his body – particularly if the hands, feet or face are affected — protocol is to transfer to a burn center,” explains Tamara Roberts, program manager of the burn center on the sixth floor of Upstate University Hospital in downtown Syracuse. Myers had burns over 30 percent of his body.
At the burn center, Myers and his wife were met by Joan Dolinak, MD, medical director. “My job is to get you back to where you were,” she reassured them.
In Myers‘ case, that meant repairing his legs and feet so that he could walk, making sure the chemical burns didn‘t damage his vision and that the frozen skin on his torso would heal – and repairing his frostbitten hands and arms so that he could play viola with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra.
Dolinak grafted skin from Myers‘ thigh to his right calf and foot, which had third-degree frostbite burns. The skin graft was painful, as were exercises to ensure the new tissue would heal properly and allow normal movement.
Roberts worked with Myers on the skin-stretching exercises and remembers telling him, “You‘ll hate me now, but you‘ll thank me in a year when you are able to walk through that door.”
After two weeks in the burn center, Myers returned home, unable to walk. Physical therapists came to the house, and his wife and visiting nurses changed the dressings that covered his arms and legs, a painstaking daily process.
Myers was readmitted to the burn center for a second skin graft surgery because his left leg wasn‘t healing.
By Thanksgiving, Myers was home again and recovering. He, his wife and their adult children, Rachel and David, traditionally give thanks by talking about people and experiences for which they are grateful.
Myers was speechless.
Looking back, Myers realizes they were overwhelmed by the gratitude he felt for the burn center staff, and for the fact that he had survived his ordeal. “How does a hospital get everyone to give such compassionate care?” he remarked. “Everyone -- from the doctors and nurses, to the women who cleaned my room or brought me my meals -- was kind, caring and sensitive. No one ever rushed. They took the time to ask how I was feeling and to listen.”
A few months after the accident, Myers was able walk outside, with the support of a cane and a physical therapist. He continued to be seen at the burn center‘s outpatient clinic weekly at first, then less frequently as he improved.
Three years later, Myers, 71, is in excellent health. Scars on his legs and skin that require extra protection from ultraviolet rays are the only remnants of his accident. He is training to become a peer support leader for the burn center‘s survivors‘ support group.
And he‘s able to say what he couldn‘t say at Thanksgiving 2014: “The amount that I was burned,” he says, smiling, “I am so grateful for my care and healing, and that I can continue to be a musician. It‘s pretty miraculous.”
This article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Click here to hear about how to treat both mild and severe burns, as well as the work of the Clark Burn Center, from its program manager, nurse Tamara Roberts.