One of the first signs of trouble was an ominous “whoosh” sounding throughout the apartment, then the smell of smoke, then eye-searing heat.
This is nearly all Prince Amponsah remembers about his survival of a devastating November 2012 apartment fire – one that scorched 68 per cent of his body, damaged his lungs and led to the amputation of his lower arms.
Prince focuses now on the support of family and friends, and his connection to the Sunnybrook team that saved his life, shepherding him through a three-week-long coma, more than 40 surgeries, two years of intensive rehabilitation and finally reintegration into a society built for people with four working limbs.
He is among the more than 250 people admitted each year to the Ross Tilley Burn Centre, and the many who continue their care at St. John’s Rehab – home to Ontario’s only burn rehab program – to rebuild their lives. Surgeons, nurses, physiatrists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, speech language pathologists, dietitians, pharmacists and social workers form a dedicated team that guides patients through a recovery that can seem elusive to those who have lost most of their skin.
“The people around me are so strong. It gives me no excuse to give up,” Prince says. “Sunnybrook is very uplifting. It’s an interesting combination of seriousness and fun.”
Prince’s family moved from Ghana to Canada when he was a baby. Following the death of his father, when Prince was 12, his mother remarried. His mother and sister always joked with him as a child that he was too cheery.
They lived in Mississauga, Ont., where Prince became friends with Pawel Tosiek, who, years later, would be the roommate to drag him from the fire at their four-bedroom walk-up in Toronto’s west end.
In the months leading up to the blaze, he and Tosiek were enjoying living with two other friends close to downtown restaurants and the theatres where Prince dreamed of one day performing. He had already acted at the Shaw Festival and was looking for film roles.
The month before the fire, there was another blaze a few blocks away; it seemed like something that happened to other people. “It was close enough, but not close enough to be harmful,” Prince says. “When you see a fire truck, you don’t think who’s in harm’s way. Now when I see one, I want to high-five the firefighters: ‘Keep going, thank you for your work.’”
Then came that awful night in November.
Prince had lost consciousness by the time he arrived at Sunnybrook. His sister took charge, waiting for a prognosis before alerting their mother and siblings who were in Ghana at the time. She gave consent to amputate – first to the wrist on the left arm, and next above the elbow, toward the shoulder on the right arm.
Tosiek, who had run back into the engulfed apartment to save Prince when he realized he was still inside, remembers his friend’s injuries in horrifying detail. Choking through the darkness and intense heat, he encountered Prince – alive, but trapped. “Prince had dragged himself to the top of the stairs,” he says. “His legs were on fire. He was stuck on a beam.”
He carried Prince’s limp body down several flights of stairs. The early morning light illuminated a gory sight: “His fingers were grey, like boiled sausages. It was like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from.”
Sunnybrook doctors placed Prince in an induced coma. “Noticeably absent from the doctor’s prognosis was an assurance that Prince would live,” Tosiek says.
When he regained consciousness three weeks later, they had to break the news of what the fire had done to his body.
“I kept asking for a pen and paper. I never really took in what they were saying [about his injuries]. I was trying to maintain a cloud of positivity,” Prince says. “One day, I was strong enough to lift my head. A shiver went through my body. I wondered where my hands had gone. Where did they go? They took part of me. There was definitely some grieving.”
Grieving limb loss and experiencing “phantom limb” sensations are some of the early and unique challenges amputees face, says Dr. Amanda Mayo, physiatrist and amputee specialist at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab and a member of Prince’s care team.
Prince’s injuries were especially complex, she says. In addition to the double amputation, much of the skin from his thighs was grafted to reconstruct his arms, torso, cheeks and lips. The part of his scalp where his hair had once been was reconstructed with skin from his back.
The depth of the burns and subsequent grafting made the range of motion in his shoulders particularly difficult. Good range of motion is essential for prosthetic use so patients can function independently.
Prince spent nine months in hospital, with the latter six months spent participating in therapy seven days per week as an inpatient at St. John’s Rehab. He would then need an additional 18 months of rehabilitation as an outpatient, two to three times each week. Rehab was a slow but steady road to regaining many of the basic abilities he had lost through his injuries. His strength training consisted of squats and lunges, as well as muscle work on the leg press, treadmill and stationary bike. Regaining balance meant many hours on the Bosu (a rubber balance ball) lifting his leg to the side and front in ballet-like positions to maximize core strength. His skin and scar tissue also required continued treatment.
This rehabilitative work at St. John’s Rehab helped to make him as independent as possible. “I figured out how to hold my toothbrush between the end of my stumps when I finally achieved enough range of motion,” Prince says. “I place the toothpaste between my knees and twist the lid off again with my stumps and squeeze it out. I fortunately have enough control, strength and range to do this thanks to all of the exercises I learned from therapy.”
Prince was also outfitted with a left arm prosthesis; his right arm being too short to make him a candidate for two. The prosthesis is myoelectric – using muscle signals to operate a battery powered hand. It’s heavy and as expensive as a luxury car. His friends, including Tosiek, helped raise over $30,000 to buy it, and although he’s grateful to have it, Prince is keen to use something lighter and more agile. He is now being fitted with another prosthesis that uses a simpler harness and hook design and is adaptable for different tools in hopes of optimizing function.
“Prince is a very adaptable individual,” Dr. Mayo says. “He has been phenomenal with his spirit. Many patients would give up and isolate themselves. Prince has been the opposite of that. This could have gone in a totally different direction if he had a different attitude.”
Prince smiles a lot. He encourages people to ask him about his injuries, and when people instinctively reach to shake his hand, Prince chuckles: “I can only hug now.”
To the man on the street who once cried at his appearance, Prince says he is grateful and was comforted by the man’s empathy. He says losing so much of his skin gave him an unexpected sort of freedom. “I don’t worry about the small things,” he says. “Sometimes I hear people complaining about work or whatever, and I wish they wouldn’t let things get to them so easily.”
He recalls the days when he worried about how he looked in shorts. Today he says he is delighted to be able to walk.
Now 30, Prince is excited to be acting again. “I didn’t think I would act again. It’s a very superficial industry. Are there roles for me? But I’m getting back into it. Well, why not?”
Prince has just finished a run in a play called Contempt at Toronto’s Storefront Theatre and is preparing for a new production this summer. He also wants to pursue a degree in social work. Meanwhile, surgeries and exercise will continue indefinitely. He’s regaining muscle mass and his sense of purpose.
“Sharing my story helps me. That’s why I do it. If you hide it, it gives power to what happened. It gives people pause when I’m positive,” says Prince. “I would just hope that whatever others are going through, that they see me and know that they can get through it. Or maybe they can’t, but it’s worth a try.”